A Dream Coming True
Hadil Kassab at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics in Garching. | © Image: Thorsten Naeser

A Dream Coming True

8. August 2019 | by Steffi Bucher

Hadil Kassab, who is from Syria, joined the Laboratory of Attosecond Physics at the Max Planck Institute for Quantum Optics as a doctoral student in June. Her immediate reaction is an overriding feeling of liberation.

For Hadil it’s a dream come true. She is now directly involved in the development of a new optical amplifier, which will generate pulses of laser light with higher energies than have been attainable up to now. But her path to a PhD project at the Max Planck Institute for Quantum Optics was anything but straightforward. Hadil is a thoughtful and reflective person, who has succeeded against all the odds in retaining her optimism. Hadil was born and raised in the Syrian city of Aleppo, and studied electronic engineering there. “I had long dreamt of doing a Master’s thesis abroad, because opportunities to carry out research in Syria are very limited,” she says. But she also understood that her wish to study abroad would be difficult to realize. She was reminded again and again that just obtaining a visa would be almost impossible. “During my BSc studies I had become fascinated with photonics, but there are no specialist courses in photonics available in Syria,” she explains. Despite of these obstacles, photonics always remained at the back of her mind.

Her decision to focus on natural science in her last years in high school was already linked to the intention to learn skills that would be useful to society. And her subsequent choice of electronic engineering at university was also largely the outcome of rational consideration. For a Bachelor’s degree in Electronic Engineering would open up a range of options for a Master’s thesis and provide access to many professional careers. Her boyfriend, whom she had met at university, had by this time obtained a job as an electronic engineer in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi-Arabia. When war broke out in Syria in 2011, and life in Aleppo became more and more hazardous, Hadil moved to Riyadh to join him in the end of 2012. Once she arrived in Saudi Arabia, they married “I wanted to work in science,” she says. But owing to the segregation of the sexes, the restricted role of women in the public sphere and the preferential allocation of university places to Saudis, she was unable to find anything suitable. She ended up teaching children in mathematics and physics. Indeed, apart from the odd trip to a shopping centre, the taxi rides to the homes of her pupils were the only times she was able to leave her apartment. “I was not at all happy with this situation,” she recalls.

Under these circumstances, it’s no wonder that her still unrealized dream was revived. The vague notion of ‘abroad’ became more concrete, and she decided she would try to go to Germany. “The Master’s programs here are very good, and the focus on photonics and laser sciences means that the prospects of getting an interesting job in the field are very promising,” she says. In recent years, it has become particularly difficult for Syrians to obtain a visa. To demonstrate her personal commitment, Hadil learned German for a year, but she applied for admission to Master’s programs at universities in Canada and Germany. She ultimately chose to enroll in the Master’s Program in Advanced Optical Technologies at the Friedrich-Alexander University (FAU) in Erlangen-Nürnberg and obtained the vital visa. Once settled in, she began to explore the foothills of the Allgäu and the foothills of the Alps. In the meantime, Hadil wants to expand the radius. I want to see all of the Alps! I love the Alpine landscape.

In the course of her Master’s project on optical amplifiers, she worked for Dausinger + Giesen in Stuttgart on a system that is based on thin-disk laser technology, and her subsequent application for a doctoral fellowship in the Thin-Disk Laser Technology Group led by Professor Ferenc Krausz was successful. Hadil has now been at the MPQ since June, and is now working on an amplifier that will further enhance the energy of pulsed laser light without compromising pulse duration, repetition rate or beam quality.

Hadil’s parents have always supported her, not only in her wish to study science and her decision to go abroad to further her career. Above all they are in agreement with her desire to choose her own way of life. Her mother was a schoolteacher and continued to do so after the births of her children. Hadil herself rejects the notion of the subservient role of women that remains dominant in Syrian society. “It is still the case that most female graduates marry and start families as soon as they have their Bachelor’s degree.” But she emphatically rejects this view: “I find it much easier to identify with the high degree of equality accorded to women in Germany,” she says. During her own university career, about one-fifth of her fellow-students were women, both in Aleppo and at the FAU. – And she never experienced any discrimination at either university. The differences that stuck her most lay in the superior standard of laboratory facilities in Germany. She very much appreciates the opportunities she has here, and she does not want to go into detail concerning the instances of discrimination she has experienced as an Arab in Germany. After all, there is discrimination everywhere, including Syria, she remarks.

Hadil finds it much more important to improve her knowledge of German. In addition, she greatly enjoys cooking and is interested in classical music. If ever she finds the time, she would love to learn to play the cello. She hasn’t had time to think of what will come after her PhD, and is content to wait and see what will turn up. But she would very much like to stay in Bavaria, where there are lots of opportunities in laser physics and in the business sector. Apart from such considerations, after her experiences in war-torn Aleppo and her unhappy time in Saudi Arabia, she has found a huge sense of freedom in her new home: “Bavaria will always be in my heart,” she says.