Azadeh Tabazadeh: The Sky Detective

02/22/2017 10:34 am ET Updated May 06, 2017

With the goal of harnessing the untapped potential of Iranian-Americans, and to build the capacity of the Iranian diaspora in effecting positive change in the U.S. and around the world, the Iranian Americans’ Contributions Project (IACP) has launched a series of interviews that explore the personal and professional backgrounds of prominent Iranian-Americans who have made seminal contributions to their fields of endeavour. We examine lives and journeys that have led to significant achievements in the worlds of science, technology, finance, medicine, law, the arts and numerous other endeavors. Our latest interviewee is Azadeh Tabazadeh.

Azadeh Tabazadeh is a noted scientist, environmental consultant and author. She received her Ph.D. in physical chemistry from UCLA in 1994. Since then, she has worked as a Senior Research Scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center and a Professor of Geophysics at Stanford University. She has published over sixty scientific articles and has received numerous awards and medals from major scientific and government organizations, including the American Geophysical Union, the American Meteorological Society, the American Institute of Physics, NASA, and the White House Office of Science and Technology. Among her many accolades are a Presidential White House Science Award, a feature article in Time that details her personal life and scientific discoveries, and being named by Popular Science as one of the “Brilliant 10” young scientists in the United States. Azadeh is also the author of The Sky Detective, a debut memoir about her childhood and adolescent years in Iran.

Who is Azadeh Tabazadeh? Can you tell us about your background, both personal and professional?

I grew up in Tehran and was raised by a loving family. My childhood years were carefree and inspiring. When I was eight years old my uncle Mahmood, who was studying Geology in Germany, visited us for Nowruz, the Persian New Year. The year was 1973. My New Year’s gift from my uncle was an amazing child’s chemistry set that got me hooked on science early on. My uncle was obligated to spend much of his 10-day vacation translating the German manual into Persian and helping me conduct salt crystallization experiments.

When I was fourteen years old my world suddenly turned upside down as the Shah of Iran fell and Ayatollah Khomeini resumed control of Iran. As the Sharia law slowly but surely took hold of the country, life changed dramatically. As a teenager I had a difficult time understanding the enforcement of mandatory veiling and segregation of schools in Iran, and how all that would affect my aspirations of becoming a scientist. Shortly after the war broke out between Iran and Iraq, my brother and I fled Iran, and went through many hurdles to find our way to the United States.

In 1994, I received my Ph.D in Physical Chemistry from UCLA. I did very well in graduate school and published four seminal papers related to the Antarctic Ozone Hole—the best-known global environmental problem of the 20th century. Even though the human-released chemicals that were causing depletion in the stratospheric ozone layer were primarily emitted in the Northern Hemisphere, the massive hole that appeared every springtime, formed at the bottom of the world over the Antarctica. The stratospheric ozone layer protects life on Earth from harmful ultraviolet radiation, and therefore, it is essential to carefully monitor how human activities may affect the health of this layer. One of NASA’s important mandates is to closely measure and monitor any changes in the concentration of ozone within the stratospheric ozone layer.

NASA took an early interest in my research and granted me a fellowship while I was still in graduate school. Later, NASA hired me as a senior research scientist, and I stayed with the agency for twelve years.

What has been your personal key to success? Who and what were the biggest inspirations for your career?

Passion for scientific discovery has been the key to my success. It is such an amazing feeling when you discover something that no one else knows. You also know that when your discovery is published it will shake things up in a big way.

My uncle, Mahmood, has been my biggest inspiration. He not only gave me a chemistry set when I was eight years old, but he also told me about Marie Curie. Before that, I had assumed all “important” scientists and inventors were men. I was literally shocked to hear that Marie Curie was a brilliant scientist who had won two Nobel prizes—one in chemistry and the other in physics. Reading Marie Curie’s memoir and learning about her significant discoveries gave me hope that I, too, could perhaps work as hard as she did and aspire to become a scientist.

You have received the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE). What are your most significant accomplishments that led to this recognition?

The inscription of the award that I received from President Clinton reads, “The PECASE is presented with the gratitude of your fellow citizens by the President of the United States of America to Azadeh Tabazadeh for her pioneering development of theoretical techniques to simulate the formation of chemically and climatically important aerosol particles in the Earth’s atmosphere.”

In addition to attending a White House ceremony, the award also included $500,000 of no-strings-attached grant money that I desperately needed to pursue a risky hypothesis, as conventional grants often do not provide support for delving into uncharted territories.

What led to the shift in your career from chemistry to geology/climatology?

My actual scientific research is very much chemistry-based as my specialty is in atmospheric chemistry. In short, I discovered a number of important chemical mysteries occurring in the Earth’s atmosphere, which I hope to write about in my second book. I would not have been able to make the discoveries that I did if I had not majored in physical chemistry. Nowadays, scientific disciplines are not as exclusive as they were in the past. In fact, the most important discoveries are made when scientists and engineers from different backgrounds work together—at least that is the case with NASA where large teams are often assembled to achieve common goals that lead to major scientific breakthroughs across various technical and scientific disciplines.

Your book The Sky Detective has received a high rating from Booklist and has been named as one of the Best Books of 2015 by Kirkus Reviews. You have also won several prestigious writing contests, including the East of Eden Award in 1998 and the San Francisco Writers Conference Grand Prize in 2012. What is your book about and what prompted you to write this book given that you are a scientist by training?

The Sky Detective is a memoir about my childhood and adolescent years in Iran. In 2005, Time published an article about my scientific research as a part of an Innovator Series and titled the article: “The Sky Detective”. The reporter, Madeleine Nash, also included a few quotes about my personal life in the article--soon after I started receiving “fan” mail and emails. In particular, an official letter from Richard Delay, the Mayor of Chicago in 2005, really touched my heart. I was surprised to learn that people such as Mayor Daley were also genuinely curious to know more about my journey to and in America. I began writing short stories at nights and during weekends for five years before signing up for a memoir class to polish my stories and turn them into a book. Although the letter from the Mayor and a subsequent congratulatory postcard from my uncle Mahmood regarding the Time article prompted me to begin writing my stories, it was the interrupted friendships in Iran and the lack of closure that sustained me throughout the writing process.

What source material did you use while writing (memories, journals, family, etc.)?

I read a lot of books and articles about the Iranian revolution and watched many YouTube videos to piece together my memories to the best of my ability. For example, I was able to find a YouTube video regarding the protest on International Women’s Day (March 8, 1979) against veiling, which my mother Azar and I attended, and is described in mu memoir. The video helped me a great deal in writing the details and dynamics for that scene. I also interviewed many people who lived in Iran during that period, including my family and friends. In particular, my mother has a very good memory and T was able to assist me in constructing past events, especially regarding our escape from Iran, as my parents and sister Afshan fled Iran five months after my brother Afshin and I did, traveling along the same harsh landscapes.

What was the most difficult aspect of writing your memoir?

Recalling tragic events that happened in my life and revealing truths about myself that I felt ashamed of. However, I tried to balance that out with joyous and/or curious events that often involved some type of scientific learning and/or experimentation or internal struggles with my own faith.

Do you have any plans for a second book chronicling the time between landing in America and becoming a respected scientist?

I have in fact written many chapters about my experiences in America. However, after careful consideration, I decided not to include that time period in this book because that part of the story would have taken away from the story of the many people who lived during that tumultuous time in Iran. My struggles and triumphs in America as a woman succeeding in a male-dominated field is a different story, which I would like to write with that “story arc” in mind.

What do you want readers to take away from your story? Do you see any parallels between what happened in Iran during the early 1980s and what is unfolding in Syria now?

I hope readers feel more connected with people from Iran and the Middle East after reading my book—as I strongly believe stories are what connect people, not the policies of their respective governments. The picture of Iran and Iranian people that are often portrayed in the media is not at all what I have experienced in my life while living in Iran or the United States.

“The Sky Detective” is highly relevant to what is currently happening in Syria. Iran was the target of hate back in the early 1980s (still is to some extent), and Iranians weren’t able to get visas to enter almost any Western country after fleeing Iran. Among European countries, only Spain allowed Iranian escapees to enter without a visa because of the good relations that the King of Spain, Juan Carlos, had with the fallen Shah of Iran during his reign.

With the passage of time, it has become more evident that most Iranian-Americans have contributed and are contributing tremendously to this country in different ways. For example, my father and brother now own a construction company, Best Contracting Services Inc., which employs over 500 people. The White House and many major national organizations have awarded me for my scientific contributions to this country. Although I truly appreciate all the opportunities that America has granted me, I am deeply saddened by recent political directives that seem to treat law-abiding Iranian-Americans as second-class citizens.

How do your friends and family feel about the book?

I believe they are mostly pleased with it, as I haven’t heard anything negative yet. Before the book was published my father, Moji, would tell our story to any “unsuspecting” individual who was willing to lend his ears to him for a few hours or more. Now, he just gives a copy of my book to “seemingly” interested parties and says, “My daughter wrote this book about our life in Iran. I am very proud of her. She even took me to the White House.”

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