Research groups across Canada are reeling in the wake of a disaster that has claimed the lives of scores of fellow students and colleagues, leaving a gaping hole in the fabric of the country’s academic community.
In addition to the sheer scale of the human tragedy, the crash of Flight 752 is having an oversized impact on Canadian universities, where Iranian-born students and faculty form a key component of a growing population of international scholars, particularly in science and engineering-related fields.
“It’s a huge loss of talent for the scientific community,” said Mehrdad Hariri, director of the Canadian Science Policy Centre, based in Richmond Hill, Ont.
Hundreds attended a pair of vigils Thursday night in Toronto to mark the lives lost in the crash of a Ukrainian airliner in Iran. The vigils at Mel Lastman Square and the North York Civic Centre saw candles and flowers placed beside photographs of those killed in the disaster.
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All 176 people aboard the plane were killed when the Ukraine International Airlines flight went down shortly after takeoff on Wednesday. According to the centre’s tracking, of the 138 passengers that were destined for Canada, more than half had a direct connection to a Canadian university. The list includes a large cohort of graduate students, many of whom had already garnered significant awards and achievements.
“They were our future innovators and prize-winners,” said Mr. Hariri, who is himself of Iranian decent and whose organization annually mounts a national science conference that brings together researchers and policy makers.
He said that among those who were killed was a past conference panelist, Mohammad Asadi Lari – one of six students from the University of Toronto whose names appear on the flight manifest.
A researcher and MD/PhD candidate, Mr. Lari was also co-founder and managing director of STEM Fellowship, a student-run organization that promotes mentorship and experiential learning in the sciences.
Neda Maghbouleh, a sociologist and faculty member who specializes in immigration at the university said she felt “utterly destroyed” by news of the disaster, in part because so many details about the lives of those who were lost are recognizable to an entire population of Iranians working on Canadian campuses.
“We’ve been on these flights, we’ve held these visas, we know these jobs,” she said.
Because of the interconnected nature of academic research, the loss of those on Flight 752 will likely be felt for years within the community. Canada’s Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, which oversees federal research grants, was still assessing the full impact on its projects, said Martin Leroux, a senior communications adviser for the council.
The high proportion of academics on the flight was partly a matter of timing. This week marks the end of the winter break, when many international scholars are returning from visits with family abroad to resume their work in Canada.
Yet it also illustrates the impact and growing profile of an ethnic community that is well-represented in technical fields across Canada, spanning many disciplines.
According to figures from the Canadian Bureau for International Education, an Ottawa-based non-profit organization, there are more than 11,400 Iranian students studying in Canada and, as of 2018, Iranians comprise the second-fastest-growing group among all international students.
That recent growth owes much to the travel ban that the U.S. administration placed on Iranian passport holders in 2017, Dr. Maghbouleh said. And with U.S. schools largely off limits, it means that Iranian students now face tougher competition than ever in their efforts to win coveted spots in Canada’s academic research labs. Those who manage to win a position “are the best of the best,” she said, with Canadian universities reaping the benefits.
Experience suggests that those benefits often carry through for years. Because of a lack of opportunity at home and Iran’s political climate, many students remain in Canada, building successful careers and businesses.
Reza Moridi, an Iranian-Canadian who has served both as Ontario’s minister of research, innovation and science and minister of colleges and universities in the previous government, said that an emphasis on education is integral to Iranian culture. He added that the freedoms and possibility afforded by a life in Canada have made it especially attractive to talented and ambitious young people, not just from Iran but the world over.
“We are a unique society and we should be grateful, every moment, for our country," he said.
Dr. Moridi was among the organizers of a vigil held in North York on Thursday night in memory of those lost.
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