Robust and not fragile
Together with the seven colleagues in his group Interacting Photons, Said Rahimzadeh-Kalaleh Rodriguez does research into the noise in optical systems. He has published many articles about this research as S.R.K. Rodriguez. Why is “Rahimzadeh-Kalaleh” only indicated by his initials? ‘Ethnic diversity is a sensitive issue’, says Said cautiously during the Zoom conversation. ‘I even doubted about giving this interview.’ The next question that the interviewer uses to get the conversation going enquires into the subject of Said’s research. That works. Said launches into a lecture about his research into stochastic resonance. Eighteen months ago, he made an important discovery about that: ‘The amplification of a signal through noise is known as stochastic resonance. This resonance is very fragile and disappears if you slightly change the conditions, such as the signal frequency. In our experiments, we discovered that the memory of an optical system ensures robustness, as a result of which stochastic resonance continues to manifest itself at many different frequencies. That is new. Four years ago, I had no idea that we would discover this.’
Said’s enthusiasm is clear from everything he says. He has lost his initial hesitancy in talking about a subject like diversity and expresses his opinion on this equally fervently. He holds strong views on the subject, but where do these come from? Said: ‘Due to several personal experiences, I have an antenna for exclusion due to ethnic reasons.’ Some experiences are not appropriate for publication in this newsletter, he says. But a few others are. Said: ‘As a master’s student, I talked with a fellow master’s student who had a slightly darker skin colour than mine. At a certain point, we happily started imagining our future. I said that one day I would like to lead my own group. He answered that I might be hired as a PhD student, but never as a group leader, because only white people were appointed as group leaders. He did not say this out of frustration, but as the result of factual observations.’
Research has shown that Africans with Muslim names experience discrimination more often during job applications than people who are called John Smith. That is especially the case for leadership positions, states Said. The choice Said made to use Rodriguez also partly arose from the anti-Muslim sentiments that strongly emerged in Dutch society in the years following 9/11. Said: ‘I am not a Muslim, but the name suggests otherwise. Fellow researchers also told him that Rodriguez would be better for his citations than Rahimzadeh-Kalaleh. Now, with more experience, I do not think that my father’s surname would have led to fewer citations. But at that time, I thought my colleagues were right and I had the feeling that Rahimzadeh-Kalaleh would work against me in Europe. Regrettably, I made a pragmatic decision back then because I wanted to be a researcher. In Mexico, where I was born, it is just as common to use your mother’s surname as your father’s, so I chose Rodriguez. My proud father still feels that is a pity.’
‘In the Netherlands, it is forbidden by law to discriminate on the basis of ethnicity and I understand that, but it is naive to assume that this means there is no longer any discrimination on the basis of skin colour or ethnic origin’, says Said. ‘There is a general recognition of the fact that women in academic environments are treated unfairly and constitute a minority. Organisations like NWO do a lot to put this right. That is great, and I also support that because it is clearly having an effect. But, at the same time, I believe that organisations like NWO should adopt a broader approach to diversity. For example, there is less attention for ethnic diversity and inclusion than there is for gender diversity. Until recently, that was the case within AMOLF as well. The communications department sought a female PhD for a photo as an example of diversity. I nominated a Chinese PhD student, a man, from my group. He was chosen for the photo after I had explained that diversity is not just about gender.’ Said emphasises that it is not a competition and equally not an issue of either gender, or ethnic diversity: ‘An and/and approach is needed.’ He talks about the criticism he received during an application for an investment grant. Said: ‘People felt that my team was not diverse enough. We were five researchers with five different nationalities from three different ethnic groups and one of the five was a woman. Of course, we would like to have had more women in the team, but twenty percent women is already far more than the unfortunate average in my discipline. From that perspective, my team was diverse.’
Make sure that everyone can dance at the party
Said accuses nobody at NWO of unwillingness and definitely not of racism. He assumes that many people have implicit bias due to their upbringing, culture and the role models they emulate. Awareness about this should lead to more appreciation for the different qualities of people in relation to their gender, ethnic and religious backgrounds and other distinctive characteristics. Said: ‘My mother recently read me a quote: diversity is about inviting everybody to a party and inclusion about creating the conditions to ensure that everybody can dance at that party.’ AMOLF recently appointed a permanent team that is working on a plan to ensure that the institute is a pleasant workplace for everybody irrespective of gender, sexual orientation, skin colour, cultural background and religion. The team focuses on awareness, recruitment and empowerment. By doing this, AMOLF is taking a step in the right direction, thinks Said.
Who is Said Rahimzadeh-Kalaleh Rodriguez?
Said (38) is in the last year of his tenure track appointment at AMOLF. An extension of this depends on the evaluation of his work. Said’s link with AMOLF started with his PhD in the Surface Photonics group, which was led by Jaime Gómez Rivas and housed at Philips. He also worked in the United States, Sweden, Belgium and France. During the recent formulation of AMOLF research themes, Said and his group opted for the new theme Information in Matter. Said: ‘Researchers in this team are all fascinated by material systems, which process information that can be coded in optical, biological or mechanical interactions.’
NWO and diversity and inclusion
NWO wants to be an organisation in which everybody feels welcome, can be themselves and can get the best out of themselves and teams. Therefore NWO strives to be a diverse organisation with an inclusive culture where everybody is needed, irrespective of cultural, ethnic or religious background, gender, sexual orientation, health and age. NWO does this by focusing on both its employer’s policy and its granting policy. Angeniet Gillissen (NSCR) and Astrid Zuurbier (NWO-D) are the coordinators diversity and inclusion. Read their interview here: Striving for an organisation where everybody can be themselves.
Just how seriously NWO takes the subjects of diversity and inclusion is apparent from many initiatives in this area. NWO recently signed the Declaration of Amsterdam and by doing this, committed the organisation to developing an inclusive company culture and the integration of LGBTI+ employees. With the concrete actions that have resulted from this, NWO wants to ensure that everyone feels welcome, can be themselves and can bring out the best in themselves and in teams. The declaration was produced by Workplace Pride, a foundation that for the past ten years has worked for inclusive company cultures by means of awareness, monitoring, research, training and the building of networks. Read more.
Text: Anita van Stel
Credits photo: Mark Knight
Newsletter Inside NWO-I, March 2022
You can find the archive of the newsletter Inside NWO-I on the NWO-I website.