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An Intriguing Nobel Prize
Physics first sparked Shahida’s interest while she was growing up in Pakistan. In grade school, one of her textbooks mentioned Grand Unification Theory in a description of a Nobel Prize won by Pakistani physicist Mohammed Abdus Salam. Shahida was fascinated by the particle physics and cosmology involved in Salam’s work.
Shahida went on to earn her physics bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Pakistan. After graduation, she received a postgraduate scholarship to study theoretical high energy physics in Trieste, Italy for a year at the International Center for Theoretical Physics. Eager to learn more after her experience in Italy, Shahida decided to apply to PhD programs. She accepted an offer from the University of Delaware to study theoretical particle physics and cosmology. As a graduate student, she enjoyed her research, but she especially loved working as a teaching assistant. This experience fueled Shahida’s decision to become an educator.
Teaching in New York
After earning her PhD, Shahida began working at Mohawk Valley Community College in Utica, New York as a professor, and she has remained there ever since. She loves seeing her students’ curiosity piqued by physics, receiving their feedback, and witnessing their progression and success.
Shahida’s background has helped her to develop successful teaching strategies in her classroom. Because she received her education on three different continents, she has been exposed to a wide range of effective teaching styles and methods. For instance, she learned from a professor in Italy to have students address her by her first name to make them feel a more personal connection and to create a safe environment in which students feel comfortable. Shahida also recognizes the importance of pedagogy and active learning; students need to understand the material they are being taught and actively participate in the learning process. She keeps her classroom engaged through group problems, discussions, activities, and use of technology.
In addition to teaching physics, she also coordinates physics programs at the college. The department provides mainly service-based courses because few students at the school major in physics; however, Shahida is working on a new strategy to increase enrollment in the program. She also coordinates engineering courses for the various engineering pathways and performs administrative work such as reviewing programs and developing curricula.
Shahida was inspired to participate in women’s outreach by her personal experience as a woman in a male-dominated field. “When I was an undergraduate in Pakistan, I think in a class of 60 or so, we were five girls; the rest were all men,” she says. “During the entire course of my PhD, I was the only female in my supervisor’s PhD group, and for five or six years, there were no other female students.”
To encourage more women to enter STEM fields, Shahida volunteers much of her time to the Women in Science and Engineering group made up of faculty and staff at the college. The group focuses on exposing young girls to STEM careers by hosting summer camps, holding conferences involving hands-on experiences, and bringing outreach events to other schools. “One of the best ways [to encourage women to enter the field] is to be a role model and to tell them, ‘I did it, and you can do it, too,’” Shahida says.
Shahida has experienced the challenge of balancing work and family, and she stresses the importance of setting priorities but remaining flexible. “I take every day one day at a time and see how things are going,” she says. Her situation is constantly changing, especially because she has three young children. Her work may take priority on some days, while her family may take priority on others.
Maintain Work-Life Balance
Shahida advises new faculty to focus on teaching at first rather than overwhelming themselves with involvement in the community. “[Oftentimes,] female physics educators feel pressured to do so much outside the classroom, but then they also feel [guilty] that they are not taking care of their families, so it’s okay to say no to people,” she says.
Shahida encourages physicists to invite and inspire others to pursue physics. She especially stresses the need for more physics educators. Physics is the foundation of a range of STEM fields; therefore, more physics educators are required to train youth to enter other STEM fields in addition to physics.