Odysseys: Pakistan native finds his science career thriving in Pittsburgh

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Ali Israr didn’t have specific plans about where he would live when he came to the United States, but he knew that to further his education and his research he had to leave his native Pakistan.

“Pakistan has many smart, intelligent people but not a lot of technology,” he says. The country makes a very few things: soccer balls, cutlery such as spoons and medical tools, and nuclear weapons. “There is no in between.”

Since he was not interested in doing defense-related work, his career prospects were limited in his home country. So he immigrated to the United States in 2000 and studied haptics, the science of touch, at Purdue University, he says.

He came to Pittsburgh out of necessity, for work with Disney Research, but he and his wife decided to stay here with their two children, in part because he found cities such as New York and Los Angeles too overwhelming.

“There are so many things to do here but not so many as in L.A. or New York, where you can never decide,” he says.

More important to him, Pittsburgh has been an ideal place to advance his research in haptics. The technology includes things such as touch screens for the blind and entertainment systems for games, movies and rides that allow participants to feel the media content, not just see or hear it, he explains.

Pittsburgh’s medical and research resources and its well-established blind and deaf communities have been crucial to furthering that research, he says.

“We interact with a lot of folks, not just faculty but folks who could participate in our studies and try out our technologies. I do not think we would be able to have all this in one place for our research in another city.”

He marvels at how much there is to do outdoors in Western Pennsylvania, that it is so urban and so rural at the same time. “It’s so green, so much to do on the rivers and ski resorts, and the cost of living, of course, is so good,” he says.

“So close to the city, and yet the other day I opened my garage door and there were three deer right in front of me.”

Mr. Israr says he didn’t have an “American dream” until after he came to America. “When I came here, I felt completely lost, but America is a place where people are open to new ideas, to every new, creative thing,” he says.

“I was able to find what I have to do, how I can be successful in my research.”

This article is part of the Odysseys project through which the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is trying to track immigrants from 193 countries in the United Nations, folks who made Pittsburgh their home. Read about countries we have found, and help us with those we are yet to make a connection at post-gazette.com/odysseys.

Kim Lyons: klyons@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1241 or on Twitter @socialKimly.

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