Recent Visit to Bangladesh Universities and Physics Prizes

Sultana N. Nahar

Bangladesh has very poor representation in physics research, although some well-known physicists originated from there. Meghnad Saha of the Saha equation, used to describe chemical and physical conditions in stars, and Jagadish Chandra Bose, a father of radio science and inventor of wireless telecommunication, were from Bangladesh. Satyen Bose of Bose-Einstein statistics was the head of the Physics Department of Dhaka University, the top most university in Bangladesh, for 25 years before moving to India in 1945. The best students used to be fascinated and would enroll in physics while the current  interest is rather in medicine or in engineering. I myself am a graduate with B.Sc.Hons. and M.Sc. degrees from Dhaka University. 

Bangladesh, a neighbor and surrounded mostly by India, is a country of about 150 million people, but has only about 15 state or public universities that offer masters degrees in physics and other subjects. A number of them, such as Dhaka, Jahangirnagar, Chittagong, and Rajshahi universities, offer a Ph.D. in physics. Jagannath University carries out Ph.D. research in collaboration with Dhaka University. Research is carried out at atomic energy centers and science laboratories as well. However, except by selected individuals, the research publication rate is low. Due to a lack of resources and an unfavorable environment, most physicists, even the most talented ones who did very well in their research in developed countries, are not involved in any cutting-edge or advanced research. Physicists in general in the western world  are not familiar with the universities and physics activities in Bangladesh.

I have been involved in promoting physics research and education in Bangladesh to bring it to a par with other advanced countries for a long time. To motivate enhanced excellence in physics research and education I have introduced a sponsored STEM based program which presents awards to teachers in five research universities located at different places in Bangladesh. This article describes my experiences at them and highlights the physics prizes and awards which I founded and which motivate and enhance the physics community in Bangladesh.

The program is geared toward more efficient in-class teaching skills and more interactions between teachers and students on research projects. Bangladeshi students receive very little help outside class lectures and libraries do not have large collections. The internet is accessible to a very limited number of students and browsing on it is costly. Many students suffer frustration at not grasping basic concepts and how to solve problems. Hence efficient in-class teaching can greatly benefit a large number of students. To encourage development of more effective and helpful teaching skills, I have created the Best Teacher Award. For this award the students, largely the undergraduates, nominate the faculty member from whom they had learned the most. They cast votes during a class near the end of the academic year and nominations are made based on the votes.

The other award is a Distinguished Teacher Award where the teacher has research students. There is not much interaction between the advisor and the research students as they work on their projects. There is need for books, journal access, laboratory equipment and intellectual interaction. The interest of students often decreases and they take a long time to complete a project. So it is of crucial importance to have enthusiastic input from the advisor. The purpose of the award is to encourage more interaction between the students and the advisor and aims at publications that include the students. Here also the students make the nomination for the award based on their interactive research experience and learning. The other criterion for the award is publication with students.

My sponsored program at three of these universities also includes one scholarship for a meritorious student with financial need. The Best Student Awards benefit the students, not the general body of the students who come to the university after a lot of effort, at the expense of the hard savings of their parents, and with great hope.

On January 6th of 2013 there was the wonderful news that Rajshahi University, after one and a half years of waiting, had approved physics awards, one for the best teacher and the other for the distinguished teacher. Rajshahi University is one of the oldest state universities in the country and is located in northwest Bangladesh. This university has an active group of researchers who publish in international journals. The idea of my program, which I adapted from the U.S. educational system, is new in Bangladesh and hence considerable effort is required to convince people of its positive impact. While Chittagong, Jagannath, and Rajshahi Universities have now accepted the program, two universities, Dhaka and Jahangirnagar are not able to implement the program even after 5 years of negotiation and establishment of trust. Their objections come from groups within their physics departments. They do not support the idea that students make the nominations. Teachers are held in high regard in society and enjoy this esteem. They argue that students are biased towards good treatment from a teacher rather than learning. They are also concerned about the negative prestige impact on the teachers who lose.

However, I am the founder and sponsor of similar STEM programs for education in six other educational institutions in Bangladesh: Kabi Nazrul Government College, Central Women's College, Maniza Rahman Girls High School, Panchdona Madrasa and Orphanage, Gandaria Government Primary School, Domdoma Primary School. Here also students vote, not to evaluate, but to nominate teachers based on their learning. All of them except one continue to implement the program and improve in educational excellence. Central Women's College has suspended the awards as it considers awards should be determined by other committees, not by students.

I am the initiator and sponsor of the promotional  education and research  program in Bangladesh., In negotiation with the institution I determine the policies and run the program through a month-long visit every 2 or 3 years and communicate the  rest of the time by email, letters, and phone. I have a few helpers to carry out the work. I travel with a box of collected physics and astronomy books to donate to the institutions. The month long stay is tightly scheduled with visits to the institutions, meetings with the Physics Chair, and with university officials to make financial arrangements for the programs.. During each visit to a university I present a seminar, meet with physics faculty members, as well as physics students, and made a contribution of books to the library. There is great interest in advanced and current research. Most of the physics students know my email address and seek my advice on applying to Ph.D. Programs.

There are also Razzaq-Shamsun Physics Prizes open to any Bangladeshi for research  publications in accredited physics journals in the previous year. This was my first effort which I initiated 18 years ago, in February 1995, to provide an incentive for research publications and presentations and to make Bangladeshi physicists visible. The prize is named after my father Abdur Razzaq, a prominent lawyer of the Dhaka Supreme Court,  and my mother Shamsun Nahar. It is administered by Dhaka University. One Razzaq-Shamsun prize is annual and recognizes one or two physicists for new research publications and the other one, introduced in 2008, is for lifetime contributions in physics. Although initiated in 1995,  it was six years before the first Razzaq-Shamsun prize was awarded in 2000. This prize was the first of its kind and required much explanation and many approvals. The awards have inspired increased research publications in Bangladesh and more papers are submitted in the award applications each year. However, due to various system backlogs, awards for 2008-2011 are still in process. The call for 2012 applications will be advertised in newspapers and university circulars soon.

In 2012, Professor Rashid, Vice Chancellor of Dhaka University, conducted the prize ceremony on prime time TV and media coverage. This honored and motivated the Bangladesh physics community. Three prominent physicists of Bangladesh, Professor Haurn-ur-Rashid of high energy and nuclear physics, Professor Jamal Nazrul Islam of astrophysics and cosmology, and Professor Lalit Mohan Nath of particle physics were awarded lifetime achievement awards. Two past winners for the annual prizes of 2006 and 2007, Dr. Saleh H. Naqib of Rajshahi University and Dr. A.K.M.M.H. Meaze of Chittagong University also received their certificates and honoraria at the event.

Visit to Rajshahi University in July 2011

Dr. Sultana N. Nahar, a Bangladeshi American physicist is a research scientist in the Department of Astronomy at Ohio State University and an elected member of the FIP Executive Committee. She has published extensively on radiative and collisional atomic processes in astrophysical and laboratory plasmas, and also worked on dielectronic satellite lines, theoretical spectroscopy, and computational nanospectroscopy for biomedical applications. Email: Sultana Nahar is the winner of the APS 2013 John Wheatley Award.

Disclaimer - The articles and opinion pieces found in this issue of the APS Forum on International Physics Newsletter are not peer refereed and represent solely the views of the authors and not necessarily the views of the APS.