As an immigrant, Ashkan Salamat, assistant professor in the department of physics and astronomy, says he knows how important the value of education is to ensure a brighter future. Passionate about teaching, he has found that remote teaching presents a steep learning curve. One positive is that he is eating fewer donuts.
I grew up in the happy suburbs of North London, UK.
I stayed in London for my undergraduate studies in chemistry at Imperial College and then got my Ph.D. in chemistry at University College London. I then did the unthinkable and left my hometown and completed my first postdoc in France, at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility, working on high energy X-ray techniques. I then went further afield and came to the United States to take a second postdoc position at Harvard University, where I joined professor Isaac Silvera’s group and worked on the discovery of metallic hydrogen. It is here that I underwent the transformation into a physicist.
I arrived on campus in the fall of 2015. UNLV had one of the only dedicated centers (High Pressure Science and Engineering Center) in the world for my field of research. Although funding to the center was discontinued recently, I was fortunate to benefit from the center and establish the research program I have today. Also, I am super-proud of the diverse tapestry of students we have here at UNLV. As a first-generation immigrant myself, I know how important the value of education is to ensure a brighter future, and I have always wanted to help others gain similar opportunities that have helped me get to where I am professionally.
Inspiration to get into your field
Believe it or not, I stumbled into this field! I thoroughly disliked my undergraduate studies and was left with no desire to continue down the academic path. I then realized that a Ph.D. paid the same as a job in a store and thought I’d give it try. Thankfully, I joined a research group doing high-pressure science and fell in love with scientific research. I haven’t looked back since.
I am a condensed matter experimental physicist. In our laboratory we are able to generate the pressure and temperature conditions experienced in the center of planets. Under these extreme conditions, matter can behave in strange ways and we utilize this to make materials that nature herself cannot access.
Most interesting aspect of your field
We work in the extreme pressure-temperature regime that is very challenging to probe and as a consequence, the community is heavily technique driven. My research group thoroughly enjoys building new instrumentation and I believe this is one of the major aspects that draws us all toward this type of science. At these extreme conditions, the types of scientific questions that can be investigated can be relevant to fundamental states of matter, quantum behavior, or even planet formation. This has led me on the endless road of discovery that makes my research and work very exciting.
Biggest challenge in your field
As a scientific community, we are on the cusp of room-temperature superconductivity. This is a quantum phenomenon that until now has only been observed at low temperatures. This is one of the holy grails of physics.
What’s your day typically like right now?
Not much has changed for me and I’m just as busy as usual. We are trying to stay positive as a research group and have been utilizing this time away from campus to focus on data analysis and writing. Before the shutdown, my usual day was 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Outside of teaching, I spend all my time focused on research. I have a research team of 15 people and spend most of my day making sure our various experiments are working and everyone is on track with their research goals.
What’s different from your normal day on campus?
Less donuts. We eat a lot of donuts at work!
I’m very passionate about teaching and really enjoy it. Unfortunately, I’m not very technologically savvy and it (remote teaching) has been a steep learning curve.
People would be surprised to know
I used to be fun.
Outside of work
Football (the real one!), chess, cooking, and all things music.
Give us your recommendation for a TV show to binge-watch, book to read, or musical performer or podcast to listen to.
I recently binged-watched Peaky Blinders and thoroughly enjoyed watching it. Some of the themes covered are crime, the first world war, nationalism, and politics. It is British TV at its best, and there is a good dose of nostalgia in there for me with all the different regional accents. As for something to read, I’ve just finished two Emile Zola novels, Nana and Thérèse Raquin. Both stories are based in 19th-century Paris and focus on the plight of their female lead character. I recommend all works by Zola, especially one of the 20 novels from the Les Rougon-Macquart series. Germinal from that series had a huge influence on me as a young adult and is still one of my faves.
Ideal summer vacation
Chilling on an exotic beach somewhere far away.
What is the thing you most look forward to being able to do once things open up again?
I genuinely miss my group members. We are a very close unit that spends a lot of time together since our lives revolve around the research laboratory. I also miss little things like our daily group lunches, which will be warmly welcomed again.
What’s the silver lining in all of this for you?
The silver lining from all this has been to remind us the importance of face-to-face learning and the strength of campus life. Even with all the technology readily available to us, the pulse of university life can’t be captured digitally.