It is a very long trip from Yazd, Iran, to Kalamazoo. But in 2010 Mojtaba Akhavan-Tafti ’15 was able to negotiate its many twists and turns, as well as making the cultural adjustments associated with the journey. Now, five years later, he’s graduated from Kalamazoo College with majors in physics and chemistry.
Next he will turn his full-time attention to an even longer odyssey—the 93 million miles traveled by the sun’s solar winds. When those winds arrive at Earth, our atmosphere and magnetic field usually deflect them. They re-converge, however, on the night side of our planet, where some interesting things take place, including the creation of what are called flux ropes.
Those are the phenomena and that is the field (magnetospheric physics, to be exact) that Mojtaba is studying at the University of Michigan this fall as he starts work on his Ph.D.
According to him, such a rarified area of inquiry would never have been possible had he not come halfway around the world to Kalamazoo College.
Yazd, a city of more than a million people, is situated in central Iran, about 300 miles south of Tehran. Mojtaba graduated from high school there, and even started college. But then he had conversations with his uncle, Hashem Akhavan-Tafti, who had come to the states after the fall of the Shah, then graduated from K in 1982 (and is now a member of College’s board of trustees).
His uncle encouraged Mojtaba to make the same migration, even though both men knew the journey involved a great many steps. The first was to obtain a visa to enter the United States. Because the U.S. doesn’t have an embassy in Iran, Mojtaba had to travel to Turkey to file his application. He couldn’t leave Iran, however, until its government permitted him to do so.
Once he obtained his visa Mojtaba relocated to Howell, Michigan. There he spent three months on a farm with his uncle and Aunt SuzAnne. She is the person he most credits for helping with his acclimation to the West. “She is my best friend and the best mentor I could have asked for.”
A precondition for Mojtaba enrolling at K was improving his ability to speak and write English. To do so, he took an English class at Western Michigan University, then took what is called the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language), a standardized proficiency test for non-native speakers wishing to enroll in an American university or college.
Once he received word that he’d passed, he was set to begin his studies at K in the fall of 2011. By that time he’d been in America for more a year and was, well, more than ready.
Before classes started, however, he embarked upon his LandSea adventure. “That was a big learning experience for me,” he recalls. “I made some of my best friends during that time.”
Although naturally outgoing, Mojtaba says that his biggest challenge has been to become more social. “Just to become comfortable and act normal, to be likeable. I’ve learned the value of a smile.”
When told that his smile and the twinkle of his eye bear a resemblance to those of tennis great Roger Federer, Mojtaba nods and says, “Yeah, I’m told that from time to time, especially by the guys on the tennis team.”
From the beginning, his studies at K have focused on the sciences. He spent the summer after his first year at Wayne State University working in a neuroscience lab. His foreign study—in Lancaster, England—involved particle physics.
Jan Tobochnik, the Dow Distinguished Professor in the Natural Sciences, has been impressed with Mojtaba. “He is a very outgoing young man, very personable. He loves to organize things. For example, he was part of an effort to get the College to put solar panels on the golf carts we use on campus.”
Mojtaba also helped organize K’s first Complex Science Society. “It’s to help bridge the gap between social sciences and empirical sciences,” he explains. “During our first year we focused on renewable energy. During the second we dealt with vaccination practices in the U.S.”
He also was involved in establishing a local chapter of the National Society of Physics Students. That work led to him and others into local elementary schools to encourage young children to pursue science.
For his Senior Individualized Project (SIP) Mojtaba studied the atmospheres of Earth and Mercury, two of the planets in our solar system with magnetic poles. His SIP received departmental honors.
He spent his SIP summer of 2014 at the University of Michigan with his advisor, Professor J.A. Slavin, and studied physical phenomena such as ‘magnetic reconnection’ and ‘coronal mass ejections.’
As a result of that experience he was invited to attend the March, 2015, launch of a NASA mission at Cape Canaveral. The Magnetospheric MultiScale mission carried four identical satellites that, once deployed, gather information about the Earth’s magnetosphere. Mojtaba had worked with data from a similar spacecraft for his SIP.
The original plan was to view the launch, with others, from a favored site on NASA grounds. That hope was scuttled, however, when officials realized that Mojtaba was an Iranian national.
“They told me I’d have to watch from across the harbor instead. But at least Professor Slavin went with me. Even from there, it was still stunning to watch.”
When he’s needed a break from school work, Mojtaba has sometimes retreated to nature. “I really enjoy going to the Lillian Anderson Arboretum. It is a good place to heal.”
Mojtaba’s post-graduate studies will focus on the data coming from those four spacecraft. “Solar winds have the potential to overwhelm our technological civilization. If we could predict when that was going to happen we could take preventive measures to reduce the likelihood of a problem. I also hope to get involved in designing instruments for future missions.”
On a different note, pun intended, he has begun taking violin lessons.
Mojtaba soon hopes to achieve another goal—becoming an American citizen. He intends to make America his permanent home.
“While two decades of living in and facing the challenges of growing up in a developing country prepared me for working hard,” he says, “coming to the U.S. and obtaining a liberal arts education enabled me to broaden the scope of my understanding as well as the impact I can have as an individual and as a citizen. Today, more than five years after my first time entering the U.S., I have come to believe that even the sky is no longer a limit!”
Mojtaba also hopes to help other students the way he was helped. “My aunt and uncle have established a scholarship institute called ‘The 1for2 Education Foundation.’ It means that a recipient of the scholarship commits to pay for the education of two others. My aunt and uncle helped me, so I want to help others someday.”