The Muslim community has seen steady growth since the first recorded arrival of Muslims in what eventually became Canada in 1851. Though the early records are not exhaustive, Muslim communities have played an active role in scientific fields over the years. Today, members of the faith continue to follow the legacy of early Muslims, who made significant contributions to the Canadian scientific community.
Figures in history
Famous scientists and researchers have been a notable aspect of Canadian history for centuries. From Frederick Banting, the co-discoverer of insulin, to Donna Strickland, a pioneer in the field of pulsed lasers who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2018, Canadian scientists have contributed significantly to various areas of science.
Among the early cohort of Muslim students at the University of Toronto was engineering student Mirza Shams ul Huda, who graduated in 1949. Working in collaboration with the Hydro Electric Commission of Ontario, his research in soil mechanics took him all across Canada. As co-founder of the Canada Pakistan Association, he was advocating for a stage to elevate like-minded students to pursue opportunities in STEM in Canada.
The records of Muslim history in Canada also contain notable figures such as activist and educational psychologist Lila Fahlman, the first Muslim woman to receive the Order of Canada for her multitude of interfaith contributions and works. In 1982, she founded the Canadian Council for Muslim Women as a means to pursue research and public policy, and also became an avenue for interfaith dialogue in her community. She went on to establish the World Council for Muslim Women Foundation and worked to preserve religious and cultural heritage across Canada.
The grounds of U of T also house an important legacy. In 1946, students at the University of Toronto created the first association for Muslims in Canada, the American Muslim Students Association, with the aim to create a platform for Muslim voices in Canada.
The history of Muslims in STEM is not found in archives alone. It lives on in the experiences of those Muslims and Muslim communities who have spent decades trying to overcome barriers of prejudice and limited representation and pave the path for others to follow. The fruits of past Muslim visionaries in STEM can be felt today, as their message is carried on by various organizations. Initiatives like the Muslims in Canada Archives aim to shine a spotlight on the past Muslim researchers lest their work be forgotten.
Among the available resources is the MAX scholarship fund, which works to make more opportunities accessible for Muslim students by providing financial support for their future endeavours. Past scholarship winners Rehona Zamani and Aliaa Gouda offered The Varsity insight into their experiences as Muslim women in STEM and the future of Muslim representation in scientific pursuits in Canada.
As a PhD candidate in biomedical engineering, Gouda conducts research on the application of wearable technology to enhance the rehabilitation experience for lower-limb amputees. Her initial gravitation toward science occurred at a young age, and this childhood fascination evolved into a mature pursuit of mathematical and scientific studies. Within engineering, she was able to explore different fields through the resources available at U of T, and now integrates her engineering experience in clinical applications.
Through her exposure to MAX, Gouda was also able to find other volunteer opportunities and resources, including BridgeTO, a volunteer organization that uplifts students throughout their learning. Given how her introduction to MAX scholarship was through a colleague who mentioned it in passing, her experience shows how difficult it was to find these minority-targeted resources.
“Promoting these resources through these [clubs and associations]… can also be carried over to other students that may find it useful,” she explained in an interview with The Varsity.
Zamani, on the other hand, is currently pursuing both an MD at the University of Toronto and an MSc at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health. Her numerous degrees and scholarships testify to her unyielding spirit in the face of adversity to pursue a career as a physician.
Throughout her schooling in Toronto, Zamani’s passion for science was the main driving force that propelled her to this path, along with mentors and peers who inspired her along the way. “It was hard for me to find people who looked like me — with my similar experiences — who wanted to go into STEM,” she recalled in an interview with The Varsity.
In hindsight, Zamani highlights how, throughout her undergraduate career and continuing into her graduate studies, there has been a steady progression in the number of roles being taken up by Muslim physicians and researchers, which has not always been the case.
Looking even one generation back, the Muslims who worked tirelessly for careers in STEM seldom found others from their community within these fields. “When I speak to more established staff in medicine, they always tell me how lucky I am for my current community in medicine,” Zamani said. These professionals had described to her how the pursuit of STEM was a lonely undertaking, and they often faced difficulties in voicing their needs in a space that was not tailored to fit the needs of diverse groups. The community and support that exist now marks a huge progression to address and improve upon these concerns.
“We’re all capable of [excelling in] all those fields and all those roles, but [only] once we are given those opportunities,” Zamani noted, emphasizing the importance of a holistic approach to inclusivity to ensure that minority groups in Canada receive necessary accommodations to continue to succeed in these fields.
Both Gouda and Zamani continue to move the machine of scientific learning forward through their research, as well as by mentoring the next generation of aspiring scientists in their communities.
As we learn from past and present Muslim contributions in Canada, it is imperative that, along with honouring those who struggled to achieve success in the past, Canada as a whole should continue working toward ensuring that the barriers they had to overcome are removed for future generations of innovative scientists. Given the diverse nature of the population in Toronto, and Canada as a whole, reflecting this diversity in the workforce will accelerate growth and innovation in scientific fields and allow them to flourish.