Haider Ali Bhatti

Haider Ali Bhatti is a PhD student studying science education at UC Berkeley. He works in both the Integrative Biology department and the Graduate School of Education, searching for ways to improve how STEM is taught to college students.

Name: Haider Ali Bhatti

Age: 26

Hometown: Englewood, New Jersey

Department: Science and Mathematics Education at UC Berkeley (SESAME)

Research topic: Measuring creativity and diversity in higher-education classrooms to determine how teaching can become more interdisciplinary and inclusive.

Haider Ali Bhatti goes by Ali. He was born in Pakistan but grew up in New Jersey, in the suburbs. He was raised in an immigrant household, along with his older sister. And he’s a practicing Muslim.

These are the first things I learn about Ali, spelled out in precisely this order — in Ali’s words, “it’s good to be a little chronological” when it comes to introductions.

The next thing I learn about him is his scientific background. He started as a biologist, working in an exercise science lab and an immunology lab when he was an undergraduate at Rutgers. Then, he got a job in the university’s Office for Diversity and Academic Success in the Sciences, tutoring students from traditionally non-dominant backgrounds. And that’s roughly when he decided he wanted to be a teacher. He added on a fifth year at Rutgers, got his master’s degree in biology education, and left to teach at a high school.

Another year later, in his words, he decided he wanted to “take it a step further.” So he started applying to PhD programs in discipline-based education research (basically, the intersection of practicing a discipline and teaching it) and eventually he ended up here, in Berkeley. Now he’s part of a graduate group focused on science and mathematics education, or SESAME, which even Ali says isn’t a great acronym. The program, though, is great — the word “cool” comes up regularly (over 27 times in total).

That’s something you should know up front: Ali is enthusiastic. He’s exceptionally friendly and emphatic and chatty. And boy, does he talk fast. By the time I’ve learned everything you’ve just read, barely 10 minutes have passed. Also in this time, he’s walked me through his research (how can we make undergraduate STEM education more inclusive, more interpersonal, and more interdisciplinary?), discussed his views on undergraduate “weed-out” courses (they’re not good), and summarized one of his favorite papers about science and religion (“Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution” by Theodosius Dobzhansky).

This brings us, predictably, to talking about evolution.

“I’ve personally found through my own experience that my religiosity has actually increased the more I learned the science, the more I learned about evolution and biology,” Ali says. “That’s been a big deal in my life — the fact that the more and more I learn about this, the more and more my religion actually ends up being reinforced. I don’t see that same opposition that so often comes when you start looking into things like evolution and religion.”

Ali clarifies that this doesn’t mean he believes in creationism. Or intelligent design, for that matter. He firmly believes in evolution by natural selection as the mechanism that drives biology. He just believes that it is enacted and carried out by God, something called theistic evolution.

“Evolution by natural selection … [is] a way for our human minds to understand how you could possibly go from a single-celled organism to the diversity that we have today. … [But] why can’t this just be a process that very much occurs as it normatively does [but] is supported by God?” Ali asks. “I don’t see any contradiction by stating that the process itself that led to the great complexity that we see is a process that’s driven by evolution, but ultimately, a product of God’s work. That works for me, and I’m very prompt to always explain that and talk about that. And, you know, if you disagree with me, that’s fine; that’s awesome.”

Surprisingly, or not, this is where the scientist in Ali seems the most apparent to me. As I ask increasingly specific questions about how he reconciles what many people probably see as two very different worldviews, he actually encourages our discussion along. I think we both understand that religious spaces do not usually foster this kind of openness, and that’s okay — each person’s beliefs are their own and do not need to be justified to me or anyone else. But Ali wants to explain his beliefs, and he wants to know what I think, too.

This is a very teacherly trait, which of course makes sense because Ali is also a teacher. Currently, he’s a graduate student instructor for “Bioinspired Design,” a course within the Integrative Biology department that essentially asks groups of students from different years, majors and backgrounds to work together to create a science-based invention that will perform some social good.

“Bioinspired design is this really cool, burgeoning field of very much integrative research that’s focused on taking engineering principles, taking design principles, taking biological principles … all of these awesome things, and putting them together,” Ali says. “I think the best way to approach undergraduate STEM education is to approach it in a way that [includes] as many people as possible. So what you want to avoid is this idea of ‘Oh, I’m not a math person,’ ‘Oh, I’m not a biology person,’ ‘Oh, I’m not a physics person.’ Well, sure, okay, that’s fine. But what I want to show is that you shouldn’t think of the sciences or STEM as a whole, with this sort of categorized notion of physicists [are] only physicists [and] biologists [are] only biologists.”

Ali engages with virtual campers in the Girls in Engineering program during a live tour of the Valley Life Sciences Building on the UC Berkeley campus. Courtesy: Haider Ali Bhatti.

Ali is only in his second year as a PhD student, but he’s already thinking about his dissertation (“that impending doom”) and he’s pretty sure of what he wants to focus on: using the Bioinspired Design class to measure the effects of diversity on creativity. To do this, Ali needs to measure creativity — which he acknowledges can never be completely objective — using a series of metrics which he refers to as “the creativity matrix.”

Ali points out that creativity is not easy to measure, which might be a reason why, historically, this kind of research isn’t something that science communities have ever really focused on. So, in a sense, what he’s working on has the potential to pretty dramatically change the way science is taught in higher education.

“The concept of institutional change is one of great interest to me. And it’s one that I recognize involves a lot of systemic power structures that are very intertwined and a part of, you know, the old boys’ club or whatever you want to call it. This is an obvious problem within STEM. And part of the reason you see it just recapitulate the same type of students over and over again, is because of that systemic power structure that’s there. Okay, so can you tackle it? Can you do something about it? I think you can,” Ali says. “I like to think that we’re very much at a juncture with the climate of today, with the current events of today, in which if you are not in a department that is explicitly making sure that you are trying to change the traditional structures that have very much left out certain populations, that’s not going to be what’s going to work today. It’s not going to work anymore.”

Ali echoes what I’ve heard a lot of people say about the coronavirus pandemic: It’s awful, of course, but if there’s any sort of silver lining, it’s that it has fast-tracked a lot of changes that we were already working slowly toward, like the re-evaluation of some standardized tests, such as the GRE, which has been shown over and over again to be notoriously biased and exclusionary. There’s also the changes with regard to a broader push for diversity, equity and inclusion at the university level.

Here, Ali says, “I think we’re at — I’d like to believe we’re at a turning point. And we’ll see how that goes.”

Ali tells me he’s been watching departments opening up to new conversations, having town halls, and responding to calls for better pay, for stronger work-life boundaries, for racial and social justice — and this has been partly what has made his experience in graduate school positive so far.

The pandemic has also eliminated one of Ali’s least favorite grad school activities: happy hours. Like most Muslims, Ali doesn’t drink. And like a lot of grad students, his peers love to drink.

“For almost every graduate [student] organization … the social thing is to meet at a bar and go to a happy hour or something,” Ali says. “And for me, when I see that, it’s like, ’Yeah I’m probably not going to do that.’ Because then it’s going to be like:
– ‘Oh what are you drinking?’
– ‘Oh, I don’t drink.’
– ‘Oh, you don’t drink? Like what do you mean you don’t drink?’
That ends up being a whole thing that I just don’t want to get into. Especially within an environment in which, you know, everyone is drinking.”

This makes me think back to the beginning of our conversation, when Ali introduced himself to me. I wonder out loud if he goes by Ali because it avoids another conversation that might be hard to get into. It appears to be something Ali has never considered before.

“Now that I think about it, that’s maybe a subconscious thing that ended up happening as well,” he tells me.

The real reason, though, takes us back to his childhood yet again.

“When I was a kid, up until about middle school, I would go by my first name,” Ali says. “But [Haider] ends up turning into … ‘Heather,’ which is a girl’s name in the United States or in the Western world. And so I ended up pretty much being called ‘Heather’ for a decent amount of time in my childhood, until I realized that [there was] another student in [my] class who was also named Heather, and I was like, ‘Wait she’s a girl. … I have a girl’s name?’ ”

And that is how Ali started calling himself Ali. He also points out that Haider is a common Pakistani name, but not an obviously Muslim name in the West, while, Ali, on the other hand, is the opposite. And identifying openly as Muslim is important to him.

“I’m the only Muslim person usually in the room. Typically, … I’m the only Pakistani person,” Ali says. “I have this habit … in Zoom meetings, [of] going on gallery view and looking: Is there anyone else who looks like me or has maybe a Muslim name or something like that? It’s rare to see. And you know, that ends up being something that makes me think, ‘Okay, I would like to be that person. I would like to try to get to a position in which I can … be a Muslim scientist, a Muslim researcher who is proud of their religious background but also very much integrated and a part of science.”

Also, Ali says, he just likes the name Ali.

To learn more about Ali’s research, visit his website, and to check out the Bioinspired Design course he’s currently teaching for, visit the Bioinspired Design Program website.

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