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The Google Quantum Scientist Was Banned from Attending University in Iran

October 29, 2019
Kian Sabeti
9 min read
Roushan spent his early childhood in Sari in Mazandaran province. Soon after the revolution, his parents lost their jobs because they were Baha'is
Roushan spent his early childhood in Sari in Mazandaran province. Soon after the revolution, his parents lost their jobs because they were Baha'is
Roushan's family faced discrimination because they were Baha'is — and his father spent time in jail, charged with "propaganda against the regime"
Roushan's family faced discrimination because they were Baha'is — and his father spent time in jail, charged with "propaganda against the regime"
The Baha'i Institute of Higher Education was set up in 1987 in response to the ban on Baha'is pursuing further education
The Baha'i Institute of Higher Education was set up in 1987 in response to the ban on Baha'is pursuing further education
Pedram Roushan, second from left, is part of the Google AI Quantum team that created the world's first quantum computer
Pedram Roushan, second from left, is part of the Google AI Quantum team that created the world's first quantum computer

An Iranian Baha’i is part of the team behind Google’s newly-announced “discovery of the millennium” — the world's first quantum computer.

On 22 October, Google researchers announced that a computation that currently takes 10,000 years to accomplish with the most advanced computers in the world will take its newly-created quantum computer about 200 seconds to accomplish. Dr Pedram Roushan, originally from the northern city of Sari in Mazandaran province, is part of the team behind it. 

Prior to his arrival in the United States in 2001, Roushan he had been denied a university education because of his Baha'i faith. He studied at the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education, an underground university the Baha’is established in 1989 to ensure their community received the education the state had denied them. 

Roushan was born in Sari a year and a half before the Islamic revolution. His father was an employee of the province's Natural Resources Department, and his mother worked at the Shahi (now Qaemshahr) Agricultural Department, about 30 miles from Sari, so he spent his early childhood with the families of other people working there. With the establishment of the Islamic state in Iran, Baha'is were fired from government jobs. After Roushan’s parents were fired, the family moved back to Sari. Roushan was three years old at the time. 

In the early 1980s, the arrest and execution of Baha'i citizens significantly increased. Hundreds of Baha'i citizens were arrested in Iranian cities and villages and revolutionary courts handed down prison sentences —some of them lengthy — to many of them. At that time, Roushan's father, Fayzollah Roushan, was a member of the governing council of the Sari Baha'i community, and security forces were looking to arrest him.

"In those days, we would hear about the arrest of a Baha'i friends or relative every day," Pedram Roushan says. "The agents wanted to arrest my father. I still hadn’t started school when my dad had to leave our home and go into hiding. My father lived in hiding for several years in villages and towns in Mazandaran province, and we would occasionally visit him at a friend's house. Being away from our father was very difficult for all of us, especially for me as a young child; so we decided to bring the whole family together. After finishing my first year in school, we went to a village in Mazandaran to live with my father. There was no school in that village and I had to go to a school in Salman Shahr (previously known as Motel Qu) every morning. After a year, we returned to Sari again. The [number of] arrests of Baha'is had decreased, and the form of pressure and persecution had changed. However, my father still did not want to worry us and spent some years farming around Sari until he returned to Sari in 1991."


Baha’i Institute for Higher Education

In 1995, Roushan finished high school in Sari, where he had been a distinguished student of mathematics. In that year, like other young Baha'i graduates, he was denied admission to Iranian universities, but that did not prevent him from continuing his studies. He enrolled at the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education (BIHE), which was founded in 1987 by expelled Baha'i teachers and lecturers who were committed to teaching university courses to Baha’i students, and began studying civil engineering.

He says he never felt hopeless or that he was losing out because he couldn't take the university entrance exam as his classmates could. His father played an important role in this area of his life and was his main motivation for studying at the BIHE — Fayzollah Roushan had always encouraged his son to study science. His mother and grandmother had also been studying there for several years, and this was yet another incentive for him. At the time, however, the institute could not provide any official university degrees to its graduates. It was years later before it was internationally recognized as a university with high educational standards and results. 

"We had a class in Tehran for three days once every three weeks, and during the rest of the semester we [learned via] correspondence with our teachers," he says. "Classes were held at the homes of Baha'is in Tehran. Students who did not have a place to live in Tehran stayed at the homes of Baha’is for a few days. Everyone worked voluntarily without being paid so that the students could study in a relaxed and comfortable environment. There were also two privately-licensed institutions whose managers were Baha'is. BIHE students were allowed to use their equipment during free hours."

The BIHE has gone through three phases over three decades. First there was a decade of growth as the institute was newly established, and Iran’s Baha'i community strived to raise the academic level of the institute, improving over time with increasing knowledge and experience. Initially, a few professors taught a few disciplines at the institute, but with the collaboration of more professors, new disciplines and courses were added and the academic level of the courses improved. During this period, education was mainly via correspondence, with limited classes taking place in Tehran.

Then there was a period of consolidation. Baha'i families and communities began to recognize and respect the BIHE and the students who learned there, as well as the qualifications they gained. More Baha'i youths sought to enter the BIHE after graduating from high school. Education took place both by correspondence and in person. During this period, the period during which Pedram Roushan studied, pressure on the Baha'i community was less apparent.

In the third decade, the BIHE moved into a solid and established phase. Courses were mainly taught online and, due to a more efficient and more reliable internet accessible to a larger number of people, professors from a wider range of disciplines were able to take part in teaching and governance of the institute. The engagement of both these professors and professors from the institute’s alumni substantially advanced its educational standards. 


Move to the United States

Pedram Roushan graduated from the BIHE with a degree in civil engineering. A few months later, he decided to continue his studies outside Iran. However, when he arrived at the airport to fly to Austria, he was notified that he was not allowed to leave the country. His father made a series of enquiries with the Sari Intelligence Department, and after two weeks, his travel ban was lifted and he was able to leave for Vienna. After six months in Austria, he moves to the United States after applying for asylum.

After arriving in 2001, Roushan wanted to pursue his studies of mathematics and physics at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, and presented his diplomas to them. "The university authorities did not accept my degrees and did not recognize the BIHE, but when they saw my interest, I was offered a chance to go to college so that I could get to university ... Not having any money, the only option I had was a two-year college course. I enrolled. At the same time, I was free to attend a university class. After a few sessions, the professor noticed my level of knowledge and asked the university authorities to find a faster way for me to go to university ... I was scheduled to take the TOEFL [Test of English as a Foreign Language] exam. That was interesting! After two months, I took the exam and after graduation, I enrolled at university."

Roushan received an undergraduate degree in physics and mathematics from the University of Pittsburg in April 2005. He worked as a pizza delivery driver, in a restaurant and at a photocopying shop to help pay the costs of his education. After his professor observed his perseverance and talent, he hired Roushan to work in the physics laboratory.

Five months later, in September 2005, he enrolled at Princeton University, from whcih he graduated in June 2011 with a PhD in physics. During this time, his family endured harsh pressure in Iran, and his father spent a year and a half in prison on charges of “propaganda against the regime” because of his Baha’i faith; he was summoned by the authorities on several other occasions. Although Roushan was heavily engaged in his studies and research during those years, he remained in close contact with his family and gave regular lectures and interviews highlighting what they and other Bahai’s were going through and the injustices they faced. 

He then went on to work at the University of California, Santa Barbara in July 2011, where he conducted research and also studied for a postdoctoral degree in physics. In September 2014, a number of researchers and physicists from Santa Barbara University were hired by Google, and Pedram Roushan was one of them. Since then he has been part of a team conducting research into quantum processors. Five years later, the team announced the creation of the first quantum processor computer in the world.

Pedram Roushan applauds the unique education he received at the BIHE, which he says is directly linked to the success he has experienced in his career. "Suppose a person is abandoned on an island and is asked what his five needs are. He might say food, water, clothing, fire, and chess. The first four requirements are ordinary, and everyone would list them, but because this person mentions chess, it shows that he cares about scientific thinking as much as his first four needs. The Baha'i community of Iran has been subject to various economic and social pressures and deprivations for many years, including detention, execution, dismissal [from jobs], having their cemeteries and religious sites demolished, and being deprived of university education. Despite all of these problems, the Baha'is of Iran, like the person on the island, are attentive to their children's education. Although they are under severe economic pressures, with no money and capital, they set up the BIHE to help Baha'i youth to continue their education. It shows the place of science and knowledge in the Baha'i faith — a human need. Human beings need knowledge, just like food and water."

Now, 20 years later, Roushan has played a role in “quantum supremacy” — a milestone that could possibly be the groundwork for future technology. Certainly, it is generating huge amounts of interest, including financial investments. For Roushan, it’s the culmination of years of hard work and determination. "My main asset during my years of studying in the United States has been the untiring spirit and a fearless attitude toward failure and not retreating from difficulties,” he says. “I have achieved this asset because of my studies at the BIHE."





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