March 08, 2023

By Alaina Uricheck ’23

This is the sixth and final story in our series on Women in STEM.

When Samya Zain was furthering her education in physics, most women in her native Pakistan did not pursue higher education, especially after they were married. However, Zain was married and had a 3-month-old child, something some of her male classmates took issue with.

“One of my male classmates even told me that I had wasted a seat that should have been a boy’s seat at the physics department in the university,” Zain remembered, “and that I should stay at home and take care of my child.”

Zain grew up in Lahore, Pakistan, the youngest of four and the only girl. When she married at 18, her father had one request for Zain’s new husband: “Make sure she gets all of the education she wants.” It was an unusual attitude for the time, Zain admits, but her father insisted she have every opportunity available to her brothers.

Zain pictured with her father in Pakistan Zain pictured with her father in Pakistan.Zain’s father sent her to the best school for girls in Pakistan. Her father, both grandfathers and great-grandfather were all medical doctors, and it was important to her father that Zain also earn a doctorate.

“My father was okay if I did not earn a medical degree, but he did want me to get ‘Dr.’ in my name,” Zain said.

After completing her undergraduate work at the University of the Punjab in Lahore, Pakistan, Zain, along with her husband and then 4-year-old son, came to the United States and received her master’s degree in physics from the University at Albany-State University of New York in 2001. She earned the coveted credential, a doctorate in experimental particle physics, in 2006.

“I was always interested in how the universe works. In middle school, I discovered the atom and that was it — I knew then I wanted to study physics,” she explained. “Everything since then was intentionally chosen to lead me to study more and more of the universe.”

Zain said her father’s support “absolutely” contributed to where she is now, but she appreciates that not all students are as lucky. When it comes to first-generation college students, Zain hypothesized some parents may lack the knowledge of how to best support their child. For those students, she suggests they find advisors and professors who will help them and show them how to succeed in their chosen field.

Zain knows being a woman in STEM is not always an easy career, but she also acknowledges that there are people who can make any career a challenge.

“One of the best things for anyone pursuing STEM to do in the face of such challenges is to continue to work and ignore what goes on around you. There will always be people that bring you down. Our job is to find people around us who will support us and help us achieve our goals in life,” she said. “Please continue to work hard. Your goals are your own personal goals. All we can do is live up to our own expectations.”