Milad Nahavandi: A loss felt with each passing day

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When Milad Nahavandi first contacted Chemical and Biochemical Engineering professor Charles Xu in 2016 about becoming a grad student at Western, Xu wasn’t sure if he was on the up-and-up. Nahavandi was simply too good to be true.

“I checked his CV and realized he had already published two or three papers at that time, and one of them was a single author,” said Xu, adding it’s nearly unheard of for someone just beginning their PhD to have solo published. “It made me a little worried and I became a bit cautious about this.”

“He was a little bit suspicious,” laughed fellow Chemical and Biochemical Engineering professor Sohrab Rohani of his colleague’s concerns. “And it was even in a very high-impact journal on top of that.”

Xu asked Nahavandi to verify his work and found that, indeed, while doing military service in Iran he was also doing some simulation and computer work on his own.

“He wasn’t even in school at this point,” Xu said. “That purged our worry and we knew we wanted him to come to Western.”

Soon afterward, Xu and Rohani became Nahavandi’s co-supervisors.

On Jan. 8, Nahavandi was one of 176 passengers on board Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 scheduled to fly from Tehran to Kiev. Most of the passengers were headed to Canada. Shortly after takeoff, the plane was shot down. All passengers and crew were killed.

Many of those killed were students, faculty, researchers and alumni from universities and colleges across Canada. Western graduate students Hadis Hayatdavoudi, Ghazal Nourian and Sajedeh Saraeian were also victims of the crash.

At Western, Nahavandi was part of Xu’s lab and was tasked with researching the process of converting sugar to chemicals, to be used in bio-based polymer (plastic). He was working towards replacing PET (polyethylene terephthalate), the most widely recycled plastic in the world and used in everyday items such as water bottles, with the sugar-based polymer.

Nahavandi’s important work will continue some day in the hands of a future graduate student.

“He came here and was very productive right from the start,” Xu said. “He demonstrated a strong capability for research, was very self-motivated and independent. He’d even come in on weekends quite a bit.”

Rohani remembers a respectful and polite individual. It was just a couple weeks ago when Engineering professor Amerjeet Bassi told him “what a nice guy” Nahavandi was.

“Whenever Amerjeet is in his office the door is always open. Without exception, any time Milad was passing he would stop and say, ‘Hello Dr. Bassi. I hope you have a good day,’” Rohani said.

Beyond his expected research, there was also the handyman factor. Countless times when some sort of machinery would be on the blink, Xu would find Nahavandi tinkering with it and getting it working.

Rohani even recalls one day the High Performance Liquid Chromatographer in his lab was not working. Despite its sophistication, it was up and running again after Nahavandi got a hold of it.

When he first came to Western, Nahavandi was primarily working with Xu and his group at the Institute for Chemicals and Fuels from Alternative Resources (ICFAR), a research facility located north of London.

Rohani smiles when he thinks of one time Nahavandi asked him about possibly spending more time working on campus.

“One day, he came and told me that his mom said to him that the next time you go to Canada make sure you meet a nice Canadian girl so you can marry and settle down,” Rohani said. “But he added that when he goes to ICFAR it’s in the middle of nowhere. That’s why I assigned him a lab here on campus.”

“Oh, so that was the reason,” Xu said laughing, noting his absence from his lab.

Last summer, Nahavandi spent four months in Germany working with Technische Universität Darmstadt Engineering professor Marcus Rose. With their work soon to be published, Rose has ensured when it is published that it will include a dedication to his colleague.

For Rohani, it’s a combination of so many little things he’ll remember most about Nahavandi. One thing that stood out to him, however, was the bond he had with his family back home in Iran – in particular his mother.

His trip back home to Iran this past month was two-fold. Nahavandi wanted to visit with family and friends over the holiday break, but he also was in the process of finalizing temporary travel visas for his family. He planned for them to spend time with him this summer in London.

As the days pass, the feeling of loss grows for Rohani. As the initial shock fades, the sadness over Nahavandi’s death increases.

“The first picture that comes to my mind is his family and his mother, whom I’ve never met,” said Rohani who, along with Xu, plan to call Nahavandi’s mother this week to share their condolences.

“It’s hard to know what to say. He was always talking about his mom. I can only imagine how strong that bond is and what she is going through. I miss him in the lab, his presence, but now I’m always thinking of her. I’m thinking always about his family.”