By Techstaff

Aug 15, 2019

How Dr Salehi is bringing science back to Afghanistan


At Techstaff, we love hearing inspiring stories about scientists. So when our Director, Melanie Wilson, met Dr Nouria Salehi, a recently inducted Member of the Order of Australia (AM), we wanted to share her story with you.

Dr Salehi’s extraordinary contribution encompasses her outstanding work as a nuclear physicist, her tireless advocacy of refugees in Australia, and her continuing efforts to bring science back to Afghan schools.

Techstaff has spent many years working with universities and employers in Australia to help STEM students transition into the workforce and develop their careers in scientific and technical professions. But what happens in a country like Afghanistan when science isn’t taught in schools and girls aren’t allowed to attend school at all?

Dr Salehi travelled to Afghanistan in 2002, 32 years after leaving the country, and identified the extent of this issue.  “I visited schools to understand the level of education. I knew that many schools had been closed for more than eight years at that time, especially girl’s schools, and realised that the level of maths was very low. So I decided then to train teachers,” says Dr Salehi. 

While it is difficult to imagine a more daunting task for any scientist, when considering Dr Salehi’s life and work, it is clear she has never been deterred by the extent of a challenge.


From schooling in Afghanistan to a career as a nuclear physicist

Dr Salehi grew up studying science in a more open Afghanistan. As an exceptional student, she completed an undergraduate degree at the University of Kabul.

It wasn’t common for girls at the time to undertake a degree in science, but Dr Salehi’s father was encouraging. Rather than conforming to the limitations regularly presented to her, a young Nouria who had always wanted to be a doctor, developed an interest in the application of nuclear physics in medicine.

Her grandfather and uncle were political prisoners in Afghanistan in the 1920s and despite winning a place at Kabul University, it was withdrawn. So she went to France to study medicine and the application of nuclear physics in medicine, completing her PhD in 1970 at the University of Claude Bernard in Lyon, thanks to a scholarship. A noteworthy achievement in itself, Dr Salehi learnt French in nine months in order to study in France. 

On her return to Kabul in 1971 seven years later, Dr Salehi worked as a tutor in the Faculty of Science. Unfortunately like many students, she was disillusioned by Afghan standards and the systemic issues that prevented improvements. In fact, student discontent was so great that class attendance was low. She found herself writing a booklet on laboratory procedures to pass the time.

After a year, she left the country on the pretence of visiting Moscow (this was the era of Russian influence in Afghanistan), instead returning to Lyon where she was welcomed back by the scientific community.

Following family members to Australia in 1981, Dr Salehi approached the Royal Melbourne Hospital’s Department of Nuclear Medicine in a timely moment - her skills fitted perfectly with a project they were interested in pursuing but didn’t have the funding for. So Dr Salehi signed up as a volunteer Senior Scientist, working without pay. It took three years and representation to the funding bodies by other senior scientific professionals before she was employed in a fully funded role. For many refugees and immigrants to Australia, securing their first local job within their profession remains a significant challenge.

She took on the difficult task of developing a method of platelet labelling using Indium-111 oxine for the detection of myocardial infarction – a visible method for tracing clot formation in blood. 

Dr Salehi went on to work at the Royal Melbourne Hospital until she was 74 years old, becoming a Senior Physicist and writing articles for 75 publications. This prolific body of work is indicative of her talent and work ethic.


Advocacy of Afghan Refugees in Australia

Interestingly, it is for her refugee advocacy and significant service to the Afghan community rather than her scientific contribution that resulted in Dr Salehi’s OAM and more recently AM, two of the highest honours awarded in Australia.

Dr Salehi would leave home at 6.00am, work at the hospital until 4.00pm and then work with her Afghan Support Group volunteers to help settle refugee new arrivals before going to meetings for her advocacy work with refugees, returning home after 10.00pm. At one point, she was a member of eight advocacy organisations, including Amnesty International, the Red Cross and the Refugee Council of Australia.

“It was important to me to get the voice of the Afghan people across to different agencies. My late mother said at one point, you brought us to Australia and we don’t see you,” Dr Salehi reflects with a smile.

Most nights and weekends, Dr Salehi was working to help refugees in Australia. In fact, she became so well known for her work that when Afghan refugees were found wandering the city wearing summer clothes on a cold winter night, Dr Salehi was called by the authorities to help find them accommodation, which she did.

“In the 1980s, Australia didn’t recognise Afghan refugees as ‘refugees’ because there was no policy.”  Her family restaurant became a place for Afghan refugees to start their employment, and continues today as the longest running Afghan restaurant in Melbourne. This tireless advocacy for refugees has continued to this day.

Supporting Afghans is a life-long practice for Dr Salehi, who is driven by compassion and a belief that with education and determination, anything is possible.


Educating STEM Teachers in Afghanistan

After her visit to Afghanistan in 2002, Dr Salehi founded the Afghan Australian Development Organisation (AADO) with the primary purpose of implementing projects that assist in the reconstruction and sustainable development of communities within Afghanistan.

In Afghanistan, education deteriorated exponentially during and following the civil war (1992 -2001) under the Taliban regime.  “Women weren’t allowed to teach, and around 60% of all teachers in schools including science teachers, were women. Without teachers in schools, everything dropped,” explains Dr Salehi.

It was a far cry from Dr Salehi’s experience and devastating for the country.  “In 2001 when we started, 140,000 science teachers were required. It’s less now but there is still a demand for science teachers in Afghanistan,” Dr Salehi explains.

So she raised funds and established a course to educate teachers on how to teach STEM subjects. It started in her family home, which was a challenge in itself given it had squatters living there and required significant repairs.

Initially, a course ran from 80 – 100 hours, however it became clear that teacher capabilities were lower than anticipated. As a result, pre-program testing was implemented and the course was divided into the Australian equivalent of year 7 – 9 and 10 – 12. Furthermore, courses were extended and now run for 176 hours, with theory in the mornings and practical work in the afternoons.

The logistics of bringing supplies into the landlocked Afghanistan has continued to be a challenge, and DFAT proved very helpful over the years, often sending supplies with the army or government training programs.

Since 2007, 4420 teachers have been trained in Kabul and in regional areas of Afghanistan. The course structure has now been converted into a train-the-trainer model for sustainability. As a result, a team of four teachers per school is trained to teach and implement STEM programs and to train and resource their colleagues. AADO also provide Literacy and Livelihoods for Village Women with no schooling and a Carpentry program for street boys in Kabul.


What’s next for Dr Salehi and AADO

Retirement has never been on the cards for Dr Salehi, as there is so much more that can be done with more funding. Continuing the work of AADO is a key priority.

In describing her next idea, Dr Salehi explains that in the villages and smaller towns of Afghanistan, secondary colleges exist but aren’t really an option for girls.  And even if girls learn chemistry or physics, it isn’t practical because their life is the life of a farmer.

“I would like to start a program for village girls, where they can learn natural science and accounting. It is important to provide skills that are of use throughout their life in the village.”


If you are interested in supporting the work of the Afghan Australian Development Organisation, click here to donate or learn more. We encourage you to hold a fundraising event in your workplace, whether it be a morning tea, lunch or other event!

As Australians, a range of scientific career paths are available to us, and we hope that this can one day be said for people living and working in Afghanistan.

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