Q&A with Sahar Sharifzadeh

BU physicist and engineering prof named one of 11 Rising Stars of Science in prestigious Scientific American ranking

Five hundred scientists from around the globe were assessed, based on their curiosity, their initiative, their flexibility, their published research, and their links to industry, and when the top names surfaced, Boston University’s Sahar Sharifzadeh was named one of 11 Rising Stars of Science.

The rankings, as determined by the Nature Index and the League of Scholars Whole-of-Web (WoW) rankings, was published this week on Scientific American. The list includes a system engineer from South Korea, an organic chemist from Italy, a physical geographer from Sweden, and a physicist and assistant professor of engineering from Boston, whose family moved to the US from Iran when she was eight, and who juggles her research today with a one-year-old daughter at home.

BU Research asked Sharifzadeh about how she became interested in physics, her research focus, and juggling her research with life as the mother of a young child.

BU Research Can you explain briefly how you first became interested in physics? Was it as a child?

Sharifzadeh: I did become interested in physics as a child. From a very young age, I liked to read my older sister’s science books and at around age eight decided I [would] be a physicist (although I did not really understand what that meant). Through school, I continued to read and be interested in the physical sciences, focusing first on astronomy, then electromagnetics, then finally electrical engineering when I went to university.

Can you talk about your arrival in Boston and to BU, and what you wanted your research to focus on? And why?

I came to BU fall 2014 as an assistant professor. I was hired through the materials science program where the focus of the faculty search was digital design of materials. When I came to BU, my goal was to be able to understand how certain classes of materials (excitonic materials) interact with light and to use that understanding to design new materials. I think the physics of excitonic materials is very interesting and there are still many open questions. Also, there are a variety of applications in optoelectronics, such as solar cells and sensors, and even the area of quantum computing.

In addition to being a scientist, you are the mother of a one-year-old. Can you talk about juggling your research with your life at home? What are the keys to managing it all?

I think home life and research are very difficult to balance for anyone with or without kids because of the nature of research, but with a young child, it is much harder because they need their parents so much. I think I have been lucky to have dependable childcare where I feel that my baby is well taken care of when I am at work. Additionally, having a supportive partner who takes an equal role in childcare is key, in my opinion. Sometimes it is necessary for me to take weekends to work or travel to conferences and my husband takes on more responsibility at those times to allow me to do that, even though he also has a demanding job. Flexible parental leave policies, for both parents, are also invaluable.

I also think rigorous time management is extremely important — I try to schedule every minute of my working time so that I can be as productive as possible; but it is also important to give myself the flexibility to rearrange my schedule when necessary. It’s definitely a challenge!

What advice would you give to a young physicist today? What advice would you give to your younger self?

I think that to be successful as a researcher, it is necessary to be creative as well as a good student. By that I mean one should be knowledgeable, but to think creatively about how to address challenging questions. I would suggest to young people to explore creative ways of solving physics or engineering problems and build that confidence and vision that will allow them to be good researchers.

Originally published at bu.edu on September 26, 2018

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