Inspiring EDI stories: A female math researcher and one-time refugee’s path

Posted on Wednesday, March 10, 2021

A picture of Masoomeh Akbari and Professor Mateja Šajna


If being a woman in science is a challenge, being an international student and one-time war refugee on top of that requires exceptional determination and support. This has been the case for Masoomeh Akbari. The Afghan PhD student in mathematics and statistics, supervised by Professor Mateja Šajna, studies graph theory and its applications. Getting to this point has been a complicated process, one in which her supervisor’s role modelling and mentorship have been critical.

In Afghanistan, Akbari says, “going to school is a dream for many girls.” She fled from war with her family to Iran and became a refugee in 1998, a status that she maintained for 16 years. After several years of being banned from receiving an education, a political reform allowed her to enrol in elementary school and later in university as an international student. There, Akbari discovered her passion for math: “I was good at that and I liked it.”

Abkari’s passion, the lack of opportunities for graduate refugees in Iran and the freedom and stability Canada represented motivated her to contact Šajna in 2017 to examine the possibility of becoming her master’s student. Šajna says, “I liked her sincerity and determination, and I felt I could help somebody have a better life through math.”

Funds were the main obstacle to Akbari’s enrolment as an international master’s student. After more than a year of student and professor searching for options and writing grant proposals, Šajna’s commitment allowed Akbari to become the first math and graduate student to work as an intern at Shopify as part of the Mitacs Accelerate Program.

This industrial partnership has paid off. “Masoomeh has brought inspiration, resilience and perseverance to our department,” says Šajna, who sees supervision as a “transformative relationship that includes many subtle things,” such as working on the confidence of students and their families, especially when they have experienced war.

Šajna believes extra resources, such as additional partnerships, scholarships and research funds, are needed to encourage more women from different backgrounds to choose science. For her part, Akbari is grateful and believes female researchers must trust themselves and be creative in searching for opportunities to advance in their careers.

Research Management Services is looking for more initiatives that strengthen an EDI (equality, diversity and inclusion) culture in research. Email us your inspiring EDI story.

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