Seven exceptionally talented Iranian math students lost their lives in a bus crash on March 17, 1998. One of them was enrolled at Tehran University, while the others were studying at Sharif University of Technology. They had all won awards in national and international Olympiads and were returning from the 22nd Mathematics Competition for Students at Shahid Chamran University of Ahvaz, in southwestern Iran.
The bus that crashed into a ravine 20 years ago was carrying other passengers who survived. One of them was Maryam Mirzakhani, the Iranian-American winner of the 2014 Fields Medal (equivalent to the Nobel Prize in mathematics). Mirzakhani, who emigrated to the United States to continue her education at Harvard University a few years after the crash, died from cancer on July 14.
Reactions to the news of Mirzakhani’s passing on Persian-language social media networks brought back memories of the 1998 tragedy, which claimed the lives of her fellow mathematicians. There was also debate about the exceptionally talented Iranian students who emigrate from Iran, the possibilities and limitations that exist in Iran’s education system, as well as the role this system plays in cultivating talents.
Iranian universities were shut down for nearly three years in the aftermath of the 1979 overthrow of the shah and the subsequent “cultural revolution” (1980-83). The endeavor, which aimed to purge Iranian universities from “Westernized” students and professors, had many consequences. One of them was the exodus of a large number of university elites and experts from Iran.
The issue of “brain drain” was discussed as a serious problem within Iran. The leader of the revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, addressed this issue during a speech in October 1979 in which he said, “Who cares if these brains leave Iran? They are not scientific brains, they are traitors! Who would leave their own country and run away to the United States?”
The idea of establishing a center for the development of exceptional talents in Iran initially emerged in 1977, when two schools were set up: Farzanegan High School for girls and Allameh Helli High School for boys. Over the years, however, both of these centers received their share of criticism, including from those who believed that their mere existence was a sign of discrimination and thus against social justice.
In 1988, the statute of the National Organization for Development of Exceptional Talents (SAMPAD) was approved so that the organization could continue its activities under the Ministry of Education. According to the latest official statistics, by 2013, there were 150,000 students enrolled in 660 SAMPAD schools.
Mirzakhani was one of the students who was educated in these special schools. In 1994, when she was still a student at the Farzanegan High School in Tehran, she won the gold medal in the International Mathematical Olympiad in Hong Kong. A year later, she once again won the gold medal, this time in Canada.
According to a 2010 report published by Shargh Daily, Mirzakhani was one of the 225 Iranian students who participated in 53 international Olympiads between 1993 and 2007. Of these 225 students, more than 140 left Iran to pursue their studies abroad.
Mirzakhani received her bachelor’s degree from Sharif University of Technology, which is known as a center for exceptional talent. According to Shargh Daily, more than 94% of exceptionally talented Iranians who are either studying or working at various universities around the world received their bachelor’s degrees from Sharif University.
In an interview with Al-Monitor, Omid Kokabee, an exceptionally talented student of nuclear physics, agreed that the role played by Sharif University in cultivating Mirzakhani’s talents is undeniable. Yet, he added, “Such conditions only exist in a limited number of Iranian universities.”
Kokabee was one of those exceptionally talented students and was ranked first in the 1999 Students Chemistry Olympiad. One year later, he was admitted to Sharif University for a joint doctoral degree in physics and mechanical engineering.
In 2007, Kokabee emigrated to Spain to pursue a master's degree in nuclear physics with a focus on lasers. He subsequently entered a doctoral program in the same field at the University of Texas. Kokabee spoke with Al-Monitor about his reasons for leaving Iran as well as his desire to study and do research in the field of nuclear physics. He said, “[In Iran] I had to manage with the limited equipment that was available. Neither at university nor when I was in high school were there any equipped laboratories — even with basic equipment. Therefore, we could not experiment with what we had learned.”
According to Kokabee, Iranians have the opportunity to achieve an advanced level of learning in terms of theory and established pedagogy in Iran, but when it comes to actual research, there are no prospects. “Applied research requires modern and well-equipped laboratories, raw materials and international collaboration, which are not possible in Iran. Unfortunately, in Iran, applied physics is very weak, both in terms of resources and understanding its importance for industry and society,” he said.
The case of Kokabee, similar to that of Mirzakhani, has been widely discussed on social media. In 2011, while about to return to the United States after a trip to Iran, Kokabee was arrested at Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport. Later he was charged with “having relations with a hostile country and receiving illegitimate funds” and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. On Aug. 29, 2016, after being diagnosed with kidney cancer and due to increased domestic and international pressure for his release, he was conditionally freed from prison.
Under the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-13), there was an increase in the number of elites leaving the country due to his policy of purging the universities from Western liberal and secular influences. Indeed, data shows that in the academic year 2009-10, the number of Iranian students at American universities increased by 33% compared to the year before.
It appears that the trend of talented students emigrating from Iran has continued under the presidency of Hassan Rouhani, too. On July 11, 2016, the head of the exceptional talent group of the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution in an interview with Tasnim news agency noted a 16% increase in the number of talented students emigrating from Iran in the academic year 2014-15.
Kokabee believes that considering the current situation in Iran, the public education system can only play a supportive role in cultivating and educating exceptionally talented students. He noted, “A weaker education system can even waste these talents. These exceptional talents are naturally curious and thus need a suitable and nurturing environment to reach their goals. In the case of professor Mirzakhani, it is obvious that being a student at Sharif University provided her with such an environment.”