Every day, Payam Momeni thinks of his opportunities as an Iranian student in Canada.
He considers how Western University, in shaping him as a researcher, is also helping mould his country’s future.
And every day, he also remembers he is carrying the torch for four Western students from Iran who lost their lives aboard Flight PS752 a year ago.
Momeni, a PhD geophysics student specializing in tsunami research, is the inaugural recipient of the Flight 752 Memorial Graduate Scholarship.
Established with a gift from the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) and community donors, the scholarship honours the four Iranian students by supporting the studies of a graduate student in science or engineering each year.
Momeni said he bears the weight and responsibility of their unrealized futures, on behalf of their families and other friends.
“We only knew these students for a few months or a few years but their main goal was to live in peace and serve this country as their new home – which provided them great opportunities to pursue their dreams – as well as their home country Iran. I think the best thing I can do will be to live that goal.”
Hadis Hayatdavoudi, Ghazal Nourian, Milad Nahavandi and Sajedeh Saraeian, graduate students in science and engineering, were en route back to Canada after winter break when the plane they were on was shot down soon after departing Tehran airport. All 176 people on board perished.
Nourian and Momeni were friends – both arrived at Western in September 2019 – and Momeni described her as “one of the most kind-hearted people I knew.”
Momeni’s research, under the supervision of Katsu Goda in the department of Earth sciences, entails conducting hazard analysis for tsunami-prone areas – with an aim of helping communities develop policies and build infrastructure to reduce loss of life and property.
He earned undergraduate and master’s degrees in engineering and worked as an engineer and teacher before leaving his home city of Babol, north of Tehran, to pursue his PhD at Western.
An outpouring of support and donations flowed in the wake of the four students’ deaths.
They include the new gift of more than $20,000 from the NWMO to create the endowed scholarship.
The NWMO has a longstanding relationship with Western and supports science research to prevent corrosion in copper-clad canisters intended to ensure long-term safe storage of spent nuclear fuel.
While the NWMO’s connection with Western has included millions of dollars in research funding, this This is the first philanthropic gift the organization has made to a postsecondary institution.
“It was during the memorial service for those who tragically lost their lives during flight 752, that my colleagues and I decided we wanted to do something to honour their legacy,” said Mehran Behazin, corrosion scientist at the NWMO.
“Among the victims was Hadis Hayatdavoudi, a researcher who we had grown close to while she was working on a NWMO-related project as part of her PhD program at Western. We were touched by the stories of those like Hadis who had come to Canada to build their lives, and wanted to both honour their memory and support future generations of new Canadians,” Behazin said.
In extending congratulations to Momeni on behalf of the NWMO, Behazin said, “It is our hope that our contribution to the Flight 752 Memorial Graduate Scholarship will help support and encourage students in advancing scientific excellence.”
Momeni said his joy at receiving the scholarship is tempered only by how intensely he misses his friends.
“These students that we lost were among the few best students among hundreds of thousands of students in Iran. And among several countries that they could choose to continue their studies, they decided if they were going to leave their family and friends, they chose Canada. This beautiful country with caring people, just like home.
“But this chance has been taken away from them: a peaceful life and a family. So this chance is not only for me but for all international students, and that won’t fade for me.”
The crash also prompted Western alumna Nasim Bagheri, PhD’88 (Chemistry), to launch a chemistry scholarship at Western, in honour of Hayatdavoudi.
As part of an Ontario government scholarship program in memory of students aboard Flight PS752, Western also has four scholarships of $10,000 each to disburse to undergraduate students based on merit and financial need. Applications will be received this month, with recipients to be selected in February.