The seeds of science for Nassim Rahimi were planted in her home in the arid, sunny climate of Tehran, Iran.
Her father was an electrical engineer and an all-around fix-it guy.
“I grew up watching him fix everything that broke in the house,” Rahimi said. “I was very, very young and I remember he was opening his cd player, and then the vacuum cleaner broke and he was opening it, fixing that. Then there was the dryer and washing machine. He was very hands-on.”
Rahimi watched in the process. It interested her.
During her later childhood school days, her parents gave her a book on physics and chemistry with experiments. She experimented with detergent and pepper. The idea was to add a drop of detergent to the peppered water surface. The initial effect is to draw the pepper back to the edges rapidly because of the difference in surface tension. Then she accidentally fell on the pepper solution and developed a skin rash.
Rahimi is a long way from Iran and those days of simple experiments, as an Applications Engineer for HORIBA Scientific’s Optical Spectroscopy Division in Piscataway, New Jersey. The group’s objective is to address new markets where standard instruments do not yet exist. Her department not only sells components, but is mainly focused on creating turnkey customized solutions for unique applications.
Rahimi’s education varied from U.S. standards. Her school wasn’t one of our well-outfitted cities of students. She attended a small private school, which had some sports equipment and few labs with very limited equipment. But the schools in Tehran were more progressive than United States, she said, and demanded more of its students academically. That would become apparent when she moved on to higher education.
“Before university, we are more advanced, the courses were really more difficult,” she said. “When I came to university, the material I already knew was on a higher level than the level of the matter that was taught here.”
She found physics interesting, but not the materials that required rote learning.
“I was not good at memorizing things, but I was very good in analyzing things,” she said. “So if I wanted to memorize something, I would make a formula for memorizing it. I would use the letters and make it into another word or some type of formula to remember something I couldn't.”
Like many youngsters, she dreamed of becoming an astronaut. Those dreams were quashed when she realized her fear of acceleration. Astronomy was another option, but in her country, you had to choose a profession that had a market, and astronomy wasn’t one of them.
Physics was a subject she could find work in with so many branches open to her. First, she was interested in the application of physics in health care, like cancer treatment. But she couldn’t stand the experimentation on animals, so she steered away from that.
Rahimi entered the Shahid Beheshti University in Tehran and earned her Master’s in Photonics, a branch of technology concerned with generating and harvesting light and other forms of radiant energy whose unit is the photon. It involves cutting edge lasers, optics, fiber optics and electro-optical devices. As a female scientist, she wasn’t an anomaly. There were plenty of other women studying alongside her.
“Here, you can get a job in almost anything,” she said. “In my country, jobs in engineering were more in demand. And you had to choose a profession where there was a market.”
Her next step was the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, where she earned another master’s degree and her Ph.D. in optical sciences and engineering, with a minor in optoelectronics. The lack of women in the program didn’t faze her – she had grown up playing with boys, and it was second nature to Rahimi.
There was something else different about New Mexico. In Tehran, you were not exposed to the experimental part of science, the hands-on part. That was because of a lack of equipment and lab supplies, since the country was under so many international sanctions.
For her initial master’s thesis at Shahid Beheshti University, Rahimi needed materials that weren’t readily available to her. She had to go to the black market and pay four times the amount for the supplies.
“It was seriously hard to find some of those,” she said. “So when you want to do hands-on work, it can be really hard and it can be very expensive.”
Rahimi is a key player in HORIBA Scientific’s Optical Spectroscopy Division. She interfaces with the customer and the product team, first talking to the customer and understanding their needs, or what experiment they want to perform.
“We think about different ways that you can do that, and if that experiment is possible to do, and then what's the best way to do it,” she said. “How do we put this equipment together to achieve what customer is looking for? We make custom systems. So a lot of times we have to sit together and design components for a system that is not on the shelf.”
The division’s products are used in research labs and in industrial applications. OSD has many innovations, from making compact Raman instruments like MacroRAM to developing innovative microscope-based systems like MicOS. These types of developments have led to new products for the company’s main product line.
“We are very flexible,” she said. “We build up our systems based on what the customer is asking for. We can change the shape, we can design housings, we can twist and tweak here and there.”
Rahimi has great respect for those she works with.
“Our customers are very smart,” she said. “They have an application that is a little bit irregular or not common or they want to explore something new. Something without a standard solution. So they come to us. So we are dealing with very smart people who have new ideas which is very exciting.”
At times a customer will tell her they are following her explanation, but want to send some samples to see if Rahimi can do the analysis.
“You have to prove it with the results,” she said. “So they send samples. Part of my job is to analyze those samples and find some results that make sense to them.”
As a scientist, Rahimi is all for the push for STEM education. But she doesn’t believe it’s the end-all for everyone.
“If you grow up liking humanities, what's wrong with it,” she asked. “I think we should not push. We should expose our children to everything. To art, to science, to engineering, to everything. And then let them choose.”
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