Muhammad Shaheer Niazi, the youngest Pakistani to get a paper published with the Royal Society Open Science journal, has been making heads turn with his ground-breaking research on the electric honeycomb phenomenon. Although physicists have been aware of the electric honeycomb phenomenon for decades, Niazi not only successfully replicated the phenomenon but also produced photographic evidence of the charged honeycomb ions.
Niazi grew up in an ordinary Pakistani household with an extraordinary curiosity towards scientific research. He remembers fondly the unquestioning support he received from his family and teachers in pursuing his interests. His mother, Ayesha Ahmed, has been a powerful icon in his success who encouraged him to pursue non-traditional career paths and write a life story that is uniquely his own. He recalls that it was a dream of hers to see the work of both her children, Niazi and his sister Khadija Niazi, published in international journals and for them to develop careers in research. The twins are well on the path to realise this dream.
After presenting his work at the International Young Physicists’ Tournament in Russia in 2016, Niazi spent a year developing his research paper, getting it peer reviewed and then finally published with the Royal Society – no mean feat considering that Newton was 17 when he first got his research published with the same journal. He is full of dreams about pursuing his research further in university and one day, eventually, winning a Nobel Prize for Pakistan. Niazi’s instrumental success at such a young age shows how incredibly talented Pakistani children are and how they can forge a much brighter future for Pakistan given the requisite support from parents, teachers and the government.
In this interview, Niazi talks to Narratives about how he went from being just another child who likes to play with explosives to a recognised name in scientific circles.
Growing up, at what point did you discover your proclivity towards scientific research?
My father used to show me a lot of documentaries on physics and science. At that point, I was very new to the field. Then I developed an interest in experimenting with electronics, chemicals and other materials. It all started off as a very benign inclination towards scientific experimentation. This led me further into the field of physics and eventually culminated in my paper, which is also based on experimentation. So I guess in the long run, it helped to have grown with the freedom to burn things on the terrace.
How did your parents help you cultivate your interest in science? What kind of an environment did you grow up in which you feel majorly contributed towards your aptitude in research?
My parents were very open and accepting of my choices and encouraged me to pursue my heart. They didn’t restrict me to stereotypical fields such as medicine and engineering. When I began experimenting with different substances, they would support me by buying different materials and equipment, even if that meant ordering these items from abroad. I was never told that my hobbies were expensive or a waste of time or energy.
Coming to your research, what is the ‘electric honeycomb phenomenon’ exactly?
The electric honeycomb is an electrostatic phenomena in which we used high voltages of 10,000 to 20,000 volts and we apply it on a layer of oil. When the voltage is applied on the oil, the structural integrity of the oil changes and a pattern appears on the oil. My research was based on finding out on what parameters affect that structure and how it comes to being formed.
What are the long term implications of your research?
At present, the implications aren’t many. It could possibly have a few applications for biomedicine and printing but right now, it’s a futuristic science. It is something which hasn’t been discovered or explored exhaustively. For instance, we have gravitational waves, which have been discovered recently. These do not have any practical advantages at present but it is still a breakthrough. Most likely, there will be a lot of advantages of this phenomena, once we expand research into this field.
After you and your team presented your work at the International Young Physicists’ Tournament held in Russia last year, it took you another year before you were able to get your work published. What was that journey like?
It’s been a very interesting journey. Doing the research for six months and then getting to present it at the international arena has been exhilarating. We didn’t win in the Russia competition. Our main objective was to get our foot in the door and introduce Pakistan on that platform. But after that, handling issues like how a paper’s syntax is formed and how a paper is put together that is acceptable to the international scientific community at such a young age as a single author was a very intense experience. Going through the process of submission, paper review and then answering the questions that arose gave me exposure which you normally get at the doctorate level.
Do you feel that Pakistan’s education system is well equipped to keep you fully occupied intellectually?
No education system can provide you the right level of intellectual exposure. Everyone who does something great or does pioneering activities, struggles and finds their own path outside the system. I too had to search for opportunities and find them and got sponsors from LUMS. This is not something which is already given to you by the system. We have to find it around us.
What is the road ahead?
My objective is to keep on doing more and more research. I am still very young and I have a lot to do. I plan on delving further into research and physics and hopefully, win the Nobel prize for Pakistan one day.