Student Follows Rocky Path to Original Geology Research in Yemen

As the summer semester gets going, we celebrate the small-college experience that gives York its distinct personality in the City University system. The close student-faculty relationship here encourages undergraduates to engage in high-level academic research, from first idea to final presentation. Here is one team that has had its share of adventure:

Malek Shami’s journey from a remote, mountain-side village in Yemen to the geology program at York College and a science career came to a halt at the airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

 As he watched a nervous security guard remove most of a summer’s worth of hard work from his suitcase – rock fragments and sand, Ziplock-bagged and tagged and plotted on a detailed map of Yemen – the prospect of missing his connection to New York and disappearing into custody rose in his mind like a bad in-flight movie.

 “It was weird for them to see a suitcase full of rocks and sand. They said they needed to test the samples for radioactive materials,” he said recently.

So he played his only card, unfolding a letter from Dr. Stanley Schleifer, chairman of the Earth and Physical Sciences Department at York. “To whom it may concern,” the note began, the bearer of this note is a scientist, the samples are of scientific value only, please allow him to transport this material in the name of science.

The guard called a technician who took away about 40 pounds of science. The letter did not concern them.

Shami made a command decision. He abandoned two-thirds of his samples and raced to his gate. “I just wanted to stay away from trouble and from jail,” he said.  

He also wanted to get back to Dr. Nazrul Khandaker, his research mentor at York. Khandaker calls Shami “one of our gems in geology,” a student who has become a regular presenter at the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America.

But when Shami left his village above Ibb City and came to New York to continue his education and find a career in engineering, he had to spend a year at John Adams High School in Ozone Park before applying to college. He called it a requirement “to confirm my transcript from Yemen.” Even that was not enough for most schools. Of his CUNY applications, only York accepted him.

“I’m glad they gave me the opportunity,” he said. “My relationship with Professor Khandaker is one of the most successful things that I’ve ever built. I met him walking in the hallway. He said, ‘Try a class and see if you like it, so I did.’ I love the field work, the physical work and the balance between the lab and the field. We really get along. I call him Naz all the time.”    

Prof. Khandaker also covered a lot of ground to reach York. He grew up in Bangladesh and did graduate work at the University of Rochester and Iowa State University in Ames.

“There is no similarity among those locations. Not culturally or geologically,” he said.

He was teaching at King Fahad University of Petroleum and Minerals in Saudi Arabia when he and his wife decided to return to the U.S. He taught geology at Grover Cleveland High School in Ridgewood and served as a consultant to the city Department of Environmental Protection on the Third Water Tunnel project, then joined the York faculty in 2003.

“The administration is very supportive of undergraduate research,” he said. “In return, students get visibility at national meetings, exposure to professional points of view, and experience in the poster-presentation of research as well as learning how to make oral presentations and a networking opportunity.

“Students can hear about the profession from me at York, but [presenting at conferences] is a reality check. They have to learn the traditional geology, where you put a pickaxe in your backpack, gather samples and bring them back to the lab for analysis, but geology now is a much more applied science. … It touches on everything from water to disasters. Everything is earth-system science. One has to have the basics -- chemistry, physics and biology, of course, before starting to do research.

“But here’s what students learn in their research training: how to form a topic, how to use the tools they will be using into their careers, how to finish what they start when data takes them in a different direction, how to present. The work they do could be masters or doctoral preparation or they could use it at work, they are using the same tools.

“In Malek’s case, he said ‘I’m going home over the summer. I’d like to do something with respect to Yemen.’ So we worked together and said ‘here’s your map. Here’s how to preserve your samples: documented and photographed. And here is a letter for customs to let you carry the scientific material with no value.”

Whether or not Dr. Schleifer’s letter carried any more weight at JFK Airport, Malek made it back to the Jamaica campus with enough material to do the lab work, to establish the general geological information from a part of the world that was a blank slate, geologically speaking. 

“This was primary research,” Shami said. “I knew a little wadi near a beach on the Gulf of Aden. There had been no development there – a friendly ecosystem – until 2006, when a major highway came close to the beach. 

“I was surprised that nothing had been published about the area’s geology and I wanted to publish something. Now academics who want to learn the geology of the Gulf of Aden will see my research. The survey alone took three months. I was looking to see the correlation between the mountain and the beach, to see whether the material that makes up the beach came from the mountain.”

“I also wanted to do this to see any indication of dumping by the highway construction company. I did not find contamination, so you get the satisfaction that the area is clean. Chemical analysis shows it.”

Shami presented his research in October at the annual GSA meeting in Portland. As was the case with Student Research Day last month at York, he stood next to his poster and fielded a steady stream of questions and comments. 

“You have famous geologists passing by my poster, asking questions, passing out their cards,” he said. “People from the U.S. Geological Survey, Exxon-Mobil, the EPA. People who have published the textbooks. We have one-on-one conversations.” 

He’ll be back at the GSA when it meets in Denver later this year to present the research he is doing at the Gateway National Recreational Area with York chemistry major Sumaiya Abedin and York Geology Major Ayatt Musid in collaboration with the U.S. Department of the Interior. He is doing a geochemical analysis of contaminants from soil samples along the Belt Parkway from JFK to just past Canarsie Pier.

Last year, Shami and Khandaker took time out from the meetings to do field work on Mt. St. Helens and Mt. Hood. This year, he may just hike over to the Colorado School of Mines in suburban Golden, Co. He wants to do his graduate work at Mines, the gold standard for geologists. 

“I want to do something with lots of field work, but with academics as an option,” he said. As a teaching assistant and tutor, he discovered “I am passionate about it, though field work is my strong suit.”   

Shami left his family in Yemen, but when he’s in a geology lab, he’s home.

Why York? “It’s a close community where you feel in place,” he said. “I know students are all my class mates. Students are my family members. Professors make the work so ... connected to the point where coming to the lab is part of your lifestyle.

“We all get that special treatment. Everyone has that motivated attitude toward academic achievement.” 

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