An Interview with Dr. Samar Mubarakmand

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Born on September 17th, 1942 at Rawalpindi, Dr. Samar Mubarakmand did his Master in Physics from the prestigious Government College Lahore in 1962 with Academic Roll of Honor. To fulfill his ambition to become an experimental Nuclear Physicist he chose the world renowned Oxford University under the supervision of a very well known Nuclear Physicist Professor D. H. Wilkinson. After joining P.A.E.C in 1962, he proceeded to Oxford University where he performed as Member of the Team of Scientists which installed and commissioned the 22 millions volt Atomic Accelerator and was awarded D.Phil Degree in Experimental Nuclear Physics in 1966. As a pioneer, he used fiber optic technology in Pakistan and introduced the technique of interference free data transmission through optical fibers. In 1998, as Member (Technical) P.A.E.C & Team Leader of Scientists/Engineers, he conducted Nuclear Tests for Pakistan. All the six tests were successfully conducted on 28th & 30th May, 1998. He also performed as Team Leader and played a key role in the conception, design and execution of the indigenous program of surface to surface, solid fuel, SHAHEEN Missile system. The first successful flight-test of Shaheen-I was carried out in 1999. He was the founding Chairman of National Engineering and Scientific Commission (NESCOM) from 2001 to 2007. He also served as Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Science & Technology from December 2007 to April 2008.  He joined Planning Commission, Govt. of Pakistan as Member (Science & Technology), Islamabad in December 2008.

In recognition of valuable contributions in the field of Nuclear Physics, and Strategic Defence Program, the President of Islamic Republic of Pakistan awarded him the prestigious civil award of Sitara-i-Imtiaz (1992), Hilal-i-Imtiaz (1998) and the highest civil award of Nishan-i-Imtiaz in 2003.

Dr. Samar Mubarakmand was also awarded Fellow of Pakistan Nuclear Society, Dr. Nazir Ahmed Award, Fellow of Pakistan Academy of Sciences, and International Scientist of the Year 2007.

Dr. Samar Mubarakmand

Dr. Samar Mubarakmand

Positions Held:

1962- 1966      Scientific Officer, PAEC.

1966-1973       Senior Scientific Officer, PAEC.

1973-1979       Principal Scientific Officer, PAEC.

1979-1985       Chief Scientific Officer, PAEC.

1985-1994       Director, PAEC.

1994-1995       Director General, PAEC.

1995-2000       Member Technical, PAEC.

2001-2007       Chairman, NESCOM

2007-2008       Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Science & Technology

2008- to date  Member (Science & Technology), Planning Commission of Pakistan

Interview:

What are the earliest memories of your life? What were the scenarios prevailing in those times?

Fortunately, Allah the Almighty has blessed me with a sharp memory. It is His blessing that somehow I remember my childhood memories even back to the age of 2 years. My earliest memories are dominated by the scenarios of World War II. Newspapers, which were the only medium of information in those times, were much occupied with the military episodes of bombing and similar practices. The discussions between my parents gave me vague hints of the situation of those times. I distinctly remember the day when Atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. After the end of the world war, the situation changed and warfare equipments were put to put up for sale in public markets. I still remember that military lunch boxes and parachutes were being sold on the streets of Lahore. These are all the vivid memories which date back to childhood, before the partition of sub-continent.

Sir, how do you recall the partition times back into your memories?

In March 1946, I was admitted to kindergarten at the age of about three and a half; may be I was too nasty to be kept at home. My class mates were Hindus, Christians and some Chinese refugees who came to subcontinent after the Communist revolution in People’s Republic. Next year in 1947, when we came back from the summer vacations, we were surprised to see that all the Hindu and Sikh classmates had disappeared.

You are such a renowned scientist; people might think as you might be a very serious man but we are sure that you have got some mischievous childhood memories with you. Please share.

I remember that in my early school days, the summers were in full swing in Lahore.  After lunch, I was forced to pass my afternoon while sleeping. I used to play pranks at the time, and kept my one eye open to make sure that my mother has gone to sleep and then I used to skip out of the room. There was a small garden in our home, where there was a large tree. I use to climb the tree and sit in its shade and enjoy the people passing by and their activities whole afternoon. Let me tell you that I often used to pass some humorous comments, as the children of that age normally does.

How do you compare the kids of our time with those at yours? Of course our activities are quite different from those at your time…

In our times, we were very outdoor. I told you how I used to spend my afternoons. We had adopted various outdoor activities in our leisure time. This is something, which I feel is lacking in younger generation these days. Today, children have their PC games, TV etc; they don’t explore the activities outside home. Let me call this younger generation a Laptop Generation.

I had played club cricket at Oxford during my initial years of PhD program. Prior to this, I was a member of Punjab University swimming team. I have played squash a lot in my times. Apart from this, I am very fond of athletics, which unfortunately I could never do. The prime reason of this interest was Pakistan’s performance in World Olympics those days. Our athletes won various awards internationally. Moreover, Olympics were also conducted regularly in those days.

Where did you start your studies? How were your teachers? We have heard stories about sticks and stuff in their hands.

In 1948, when I was in second kindergarten at Convent of Sacred Heart School, Lahore, I went with my father to watch the Independence Day parade at Iqbal Park on 14th of August, which was not a close holiday in those times. So I missed the school that day. When I went to school the next day, my teacher asked me where I was the day before; I told her that I had gone to see the Independence Day parade. This answer made her so furious that she canned me in front of the whole class and she ridiculed at me by telling over the class that look at him he went to see the Pakistan’s Independence Day Parade; now Pakistan is independent. My father didn’t take it lightly by considering it not only an insult to a child but also to a nation at large. He stormed into school’s principal office next day and put his mind across to him and the incident was assured never to happen again.

Beside this one event, the teachers in those days were very diligent and good at their work and used to practice tremendous discipline in whatever they used to do. Discipline was implied to the students through the stick, no doubt. But fortunately I was one of good students of class so it never happened to me, though many of my friends tasted it too. Discipline is something which is now unfortunately lacking in our institutions. I remember very well that we never talked in class; either to each other or to teacher. We only used to talk when we were talked to. The classes used to have pin drop silence. But these days, students are busy gossiping when the teacher is giving a lecture.

So, you studied in Government College Lahore for quite a few years – what reminds you of the college; the studies, the fun, the life as a whole?

Times at Government College Lahore were wonderful and remind me of the tough competition among the students. There was a comprehensive system of study in those times, which appreciated this competitioned. When I went to GC, I was a fourteen year old boy and Professor Siraj-ud-din was the principal. We go admission in GC through a written test and an interview. The interview panel that interviewed me had many eminent personalities like Sufi Ghulam Mustafa Tabbassum (HoD Urdu), Dr. Rafi Chaudry, (HoD Physics) etc headed by Professor Siraj-ud-din himself. U can imagine the situation of a fourteen year old child sitting in front of such an eminent panel. My legs were not even touching the floor while sitting on the chair. I must have impressed them somehow that they gave me admission.

Any interesting incident about your stay at GC?

Well, yes! I never like chemistry as a subject. Our Chemistry lectures used to take place after lunch at about 1:30 or 2 o’ clock. On day we decided how we should cancel the lecture, so we bought one of these big crackers, which costed us about four ‘anaas’. We lighted it with a match and placed it outside the lecture room in a hedge which was just close to the main entrance of the college. When the teacher came and attendance was calling out, the cracker went out with a huge bang and all the students who already had a consensus to runaway from the class whenever it happens, escaped immediately and didn’t come back for the class. So this way we missed our class.

Did you choose this field or did it choose you…did you always want to go into nuclear science?

I think it was by process of elimination. In FSc., when the results came out I had very good marks in Mathematics and Physics. So when I went to BSc. I took up these subjects as my majors. When the BSc results came out, I had very good marks in Physics again. Then I decided to take up Physics for my Master. Always back in my mind was the desire to become a nuclear scientist, I told you before that I had nourished the desire since I heard of the explosion at Hiroshima as a three or four year child. You can say that my love for physics prevailed throughout my student life.

And you got into Oxford successfully, what was it like? I mean did you feel exhilaration, was it your own choice; it must have been a fantastic moment…

When I was in Government College Lahore, the Head of Nuclear Physics Department from Oxford University Professor D.H Wilson (check name) came to Government College Lahore and he visited my apparatus which I had built for my MSc thesis for my research work and he appreciated it a lot and when I finished my Masters I joined Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission. Next year, I applied for admission to Oxford. Professor D. H. Wilkinson remembered my research work and I was admitted to Oxford within a week of applying.

So enlighten us about your experience there – that’s the best we can ask because we don’t know anything about it.

Oxford is a place where student activities dominate academic activities. Specially at the undergraduate level, all the students are very busy doing their academic work but their more busy with their extracurricular activities like debating, essay writing, sports etc. Though I was a postgraduate student, which has fewer elements of such activities but I also influenced to some extent. I have love for English literature and at Oxford I took part in Shakespeare’s play like Othello, Hamlet etc. I also used to play for the Oxford Cricket Team. I used to play squash because it used to be too cold and squash is a good shield against cold.

In academics, I pursued Experimental Physics because I loved to do things and creating things with my hands. I loved my subject and felt great pleasure in practicing it.

We have heard that you are very much interested in Chemical Engineering. Kindly reflect.

After doing my PhD, when I was working with Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission, I was given an assignment in one of the chemical engineering facilities of PAEC. So I visited the facility and found the job very challenging. We at Physics are trained to do things very precisely. I found this lacking there. I tried to do in my own way and surprisingly it worked. The top management of PAEC was very surprised that how a nuclear physicist was so successful when chemical engineers were not. I was therefore given more assignments regarding such assignments. I enjoyed working over those problems with chemical engineers.

How do you feel about NUST-SCME?

SCME is a new department and I’m sure that the equipment, faculty and research environment that they have managed school authorities have managed is comparable to best universities in the world. A top class chemical engineering facility which I only found at MTU at Ankara, was also present at your school. This inspired me a lot during my visit to the school in mid February this year and assured me of the smooth progress the school will make in coming years.

You have studied at Oxford. What element you feel was there at Oxford and is lacking in our institutions?

When you speak of Oxford, I would proudly say that Oxfords builds into you tremendous confidence. When I came back from Oxford, I was not scared of anything. I was not afraid of meeting any people, speaking to any people of the highest level, not afraid of any technical problem no matter how difficult it seems in the first attempt. This self confidence comes into a person from the way, the university treats you. For instance, universities like Oxford counsel the students for pursuing their fields practically. When they launch such practical projects, they assure students that their failure won’t make any charge against them. That is the reason that student pursue their work fearlessly. This is a key for confidence building. If this confidence comes in a person, he never fails in life. He might fail in few attempts but he will be successful most of the time. And this success rate increases with time and experience. The more you go ahead in your field; the things become easier because you learn from experience.

It is all the matter of trust, which we put into students. For example, I was given a six month course for workshop practices when I went to the university. I was taught how to do welding and glass blowing etc; in electronics circuit building and similar things. Then I was given my research project and was supported to pursue it. When I started to work, if something breakdown, I used to go to the workshop even at 2 o’ clock in the morning and build that part of my equipment. I was given the keys of huge multimillion dollar atomic accelerator, which was the equipment I was using for my research work.

This shows that after giving me an initial training, the university put her trust in me by giving me the access to such facilities, so I could use them for my work.

In Pakistan, since we are a poor country, universities cannot afford expensive facilities. If they do afford expensive equipments, they would not like students to break them up because of lack of money to repair them. So Pakistani universities are very conservative and this is the reason that our students do not develop that kind of confidence which students of Oxford and Harvard do.

When did you become associated with the nuclear program?

The nuclear program was rather thrusted on us due to the Indian nuclear tests in 1974. At that time a team of physicists at PAEC was pursuing a program in research in physics and peaceful application of nuclear physics like electricity generations, agricultural advancement, cancer curing etc. Some of this man force was directed to work for the nuclear program. This was how the nuclear program started.

What were the major activities of PAEC before the launch of Nuclear Program?

Those were the days when infrastructure was being laid down for the projects; infrastructure in terms of research centers and manpower. By 1974, the first nuclear power plant was operational at Kannup (Karachi). PAEC also developed 8 medical and 4 agricultural nuclear research centers, out of which 2 were in Faisalabad, 1 in Tandojam and 1 in Peshawar. These centers also gave courses which helped in peaceful application of nuclear science. Even in 1967-68, PAEC helped Karachi harbor with the problem of choking of harbor by slit.

In early 70s, PAEC recommended to government of Pakistan to build 20 nuclear power stations by the year 2000. But at the same time, in 1967-68 Mangla Dam project was completed and in early 1973-74, Tarbela Dam was completed. These two hydroelectric projects were performing so well that government at that time turn down the proposal for nuclear power plants. PAEC had well projected the rise in electricity needs with industrial and population growth. Later somehow, the governments realized the need of the hour and sanctioned the projects like Chashma 1, Chashma 2, Chasma 3 and so on. Chasmna 2 will be inaugurated shortly and will have a positive impact on power generation.

What are your responsibilities at Planning Commission?

Planning Commission is presently working on electricity production from Thar coal deposits, which are the second largest world deposits of coal. Unfortunately, this coal could not be mine because above the coal, there’s a huge amount of water sitting. Mining is one of my responsibilities here. I work on the research work regarding the proposals and their practicalities. This coal in Thar could be put to use by underground gasification. It could be converted into coal gas and used for power generation. If we succeed, this coal can generate 50 MW of electricity; that is three times of electricity production Pakistan is presently capable of.

How would you recall the Chaghi episode of your life?

When we went to meet the Prime Minister about conduction of  nuclear tests at Chaghi, I was asked by him one simple question “Will we succeed or will we fail?” And before I replied he said that if we fail, the world will laugh at us and will make fool of us and even we can be destroyed by our enemies or at least our nuclear facilities could be put at a stake. I replied him that we will do our best and as a Muslim we believe that result lies in hand of Almighty.

Then I lead a team of 140 people to Chaghi; which was bearing the responsibility of 140 million Pakistanis. You could imagine the level of stress with one million people being dependent to one person during those times. We worked very hard; with some members being ultra-stressed with the sense of responsibility. And by the God’s grace, we succeeded Alhamd-ul-lil-allah!

Sir, this might seem a little personal, but your family must always have been depressed at the prospect of never finding you at home, while you were on the verge of the nuclear breakthrough.

During all the time when I was busy dealing with our nuclear program, my wife managed the family really well. She’s a physicist herself and an educationist too. She’s also a principal of one of the biggest postgraduate colleges in Punjab. She spent her nights awake teaching the children and preparing them for the exams.

Sir, you remained associated with prestigious institutions of the country and won several meritorious awards including three of the highest civil awards. After such an eventful past, what’s life like?

Life’s still Life. Once I’m finished here, I go home and my grand children bring their homework. So, I teach them from time to time, and they have grown from graders to topper level. Especially with chemistry, I always fail. They want me to balance the equation which I could never do. I still love to have vegetables in meals. I’m always looking for the vegetables and the salad on the dining table. I’m such a vegetable lover that if I’m driving on a road and see a vegetable shop with some nice vegetables, I put the brakes to my car and buy some nice vegetables.

Interview took place at Dr. Samar's office in Planning Commission

What do you do in your leisure time?

I study a lot about what I have to do. I am sitting here at a job. I know that Pakistan has Thar Coal; so I produce a concept paper and then a project. And then get it approved, and then we are now Inshallah going to implement it .We are going to get this coal converted into gas and produce 100% electricity for u generation and your next generations. .This is what I read about.

I also read about second largest copper and gold deposits in Baluchistan in Saindak exploited, but there are very large deposits 40 km away from Saindak. I have produced a concept paper and we are going to get it approved inshallah this year and start our project in 2010 and Balochistan government will have revenue of 700-800 billion dollars. The stacks of files on my desk shown to you all, is what I read about.

What do you think is the key to success in academics?

When students start doing things with your own hands, and start learning things, it is then that they realize the principles of physics or chemistry that they have studied, by realizing them experimentally. And that is a time when students start acquiring real knowledge. Before this, they just acquire education. But knowledge they acquire while doing research. Research institutions are very less. Once institutions starts building research facilities, starts making students do research, it is then only do the students acquire knowledge, and mind u people that knowledge they need in life is not the degree, not the education. I got positions but the point is that I am an experimentalist; that is what matters in your work.

You spent such a busy life, serving the nation day and night. Did you prepare some one to take your seat after you?

Yes! I created NESCOM. And it is running very well because of the second string of people behind whom I trained for 2-3 years and they then took over from me. I have done in department where I worked. In my household, my children are doing the same job for PAEC which once I used to do. He designed the Shaheen I and Shaheen II followed by the Baber Cruise Missile and so on.

I’m proud that we as a family are able to contribute; my institutions are able to contribute. I believe that we should always produce a second string of people behind us to work after we have done our part.

Thankyou Sir!

Thankyou!

Courtesy:

Chimaera – SCME Student Magazine

Photocredits:

Ghulam Rasool Khan (Photographer NUST)

Osama is a junior ChemE at School of Chemical and Materials Engineering (SCME), NUST. He finds enthusiasm, dedication and hard work as his friends in his journey as a life-long learner. Aimed for a change in his surroundings, his interests lies in research, education, management, literature and blogging. He could be reached at osama_hasan@hotmail.com

3 Comments to An Interview with Dr. Samar Mubarakmand

  1. A very very nice post. Of course we should learn from the experiences of our elders!!!

    I hope to see more such posts from IR Nustian. Keep it up!!

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