Dr. Rafat Ansari – From Lyari to the NASA

Dr. Rafat Ansari, Scientist, Academician, and Pilot, Interest in Space Exploration, NASA
Dr. Rafat Ansari; Scientist, Academician, and Pilot


Walt Disney once said, “If you can dream it, you can do it.”

This is a story of a young Lyari boy (now Dr. Rafat Ansari) who went on to become an accomplished NASA scientist. Hamara Lyari requested Dr. Ansari to share his story to inspire and motivate others.

Dr. Ansari’s School life
Dr. Ansari’s School life

Reflections of Lyari

Ansari’s parents built a modest house in Lyari -Agra Taj Colony in late 1950’s after moving from Bombay (now Mumbai), India. Ansari’s Dad chose this area as it was closer to his work site. Dad was educated in Bombay and worked at the Naval Dockyard in Karachi as a civilian employee.

Ansari’s home was situated on Mauripur Road. As a young boy looking west, he could see the shipyard to the left, Sandspit-Hawks Bay Beach huts row along the Arabian Sea coastline in the middle, and the sea salt ponds on the right (near Gulbai). The brackish water coastline facing his house had Mangroves, and the Lyari River within a few blocks drained into the sea. During high tides, the water touched steps of Ansari’s house and he could see small fishes swimming in crystal clean water. There was no electricity in homes or streetlights at that time. They used kerosene lanterns for studying and illuminating homes. Blowing dust on windy days was a problem as sand dunes were common on empty plots of land.

Social and Cultural Life

At that time, Fridays and Saturdays were half-days and Sundays full day holidays. Starting Friday afternoons, Ansari used to see hundreds of cars with foreigners from western countries driving toward the beautiful beaches. This trend reversed on Sunday afternoons when they returned to the city to start the workweek.

Ansari remembers, “Lyari residents gathering along the Mauripur Road to greet US President Eisenhower in 1959 and UK’s Queen Elizabeth in 1961 when they visited Karachi. It was a very peaceful place. Lyari had a feel of a suburban village with a diverse population of all types of ethnicities, languages, and religions. Within 5-10 miles one can find mosques, Hindu temples, churches, imam baras, Jewish synagogues, and Zoroastrian Fire Temples.”

In the sports world, football, volleyball, hockey, cricket, bicycle racing, donkey cart and horse cart racing, wrestling, and kabadi were popular.  Vibrant music and dancing after these racing and kabadi competitions were fun to watch. Sometimes, free movies (black & white cinema) were screened in an open area with a projector mounted on a mobile van. Some people brought chairs from their homes to sit while most sat on the dirt floor to watch. The atmosphere used to be festive and most people seemed happy. People who lived among them were doctors, lawyers, teachers, shopkeepers, mechanics, clerks, engineers, accountants, bakers, day laborers, factory workers, social workers, artists and actors, and one PTV female news anchor. Just a couple miles toward Kharadar there was a community of fishermen and highly skilled boat makers. The colorful boats were designed for open waters of the Arabian Sea.

Lyari River and Floods

Ansari remembers, “During Monsoon rains, Lyari River brought serious flooding especially in 1959 and 1967. The homes were submerged with significant property damage. Ansari’s Dad was an excellent photographer. Unfortunately, all his collection was lost in these floods. The people were resilient. There was a strong community self-help feeling. Almost everyone tried to help everyone else through thick and thin. The residents, without any help from the government, through their collective community spirits and hard work got up, cleaned up, rebuilt, and started living again.”

Interest in Space Exploration

The area Dr. Rafar Ansari lived in was quite open. There were no high-rise buildings, the air was free of pollution, and the sparkling stars were clearly visible in the night sky. One can feel the heavens. This is where his science journey began and he ended up in the United States of America where he has been living and working for the past 40 years. He says, “This journey began with my Dad taking me in the night to our backyard and talking about planets and stars. The timings were perfect. The space race between the US and the Soviet Union (now Russia) was heating up. My Dad has me read the Life magazines and newspapers.”

Mr. Razak Ansari (Dr. Ansari’s Dad)
Mr. Razak Ansari (Dr. Ansari’s Dad)

In 1962, John Glenn flew in space in his spaceship (Friendship 7) around the Earth. This spaceship was later exhibited in front of the US consulate at Frere Hall for a few days. Ansari’s Dad took him there a few times to see it. He was ten years old at that time. This motivated him to study science with a goal to become a scientist someday in the future.

In 1969, US spacecraft Apollo 11 landed on the moon with two American astronauts (Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin). Along with his mother and father, Ansari listened to live Voice of America broadcast of this historical moment on their transistor radio (did not have a TV). This was the most exciting day for him. This day, he had a dream, “My dream was to study physics in college and someday to go see the massive Saturn V rocket that took Armstrong and Aldrin to the moon”. Ansari fondly remembers; “Four years later, in 1973, when I was a BSc (Honors) student, I met three Apollo 17 (last mission to the moon) astronauts when they visited and lectured at the Physics Department of Karachi University”. This too was very inspiring and motivational.

Who knew, one day, a young boy from Lyari will be a NASA scientist?

In Pursuit of Scientific Knowledge

Ansari went to public (government) schools in Lyari. After matriculation, he studied at the Haroon College also in Lyari. The college was under the administration of Haroon Trust. The principal was Faiz Ahmad Faiz – one of the most famous poet and intellectuals in the Indian sub-continent of that time. Ansari recalls, “Faiz took a few classes in Urdu when regular lecturer was away. He was very kind and inspirational. I enjoyed his outlook, lessons, and the wisdom he shared with us both inside and outside of the classroom. The lecturers of Biology, Chemistry, Physics, and Mathematics were highly committed to teaching their subjects. Three class fellows (two females and one male) of Ansari at this co-educational institute became medical doctors. The knowledge Ansari gained served him well in his advanced educational endeavors.

From the University of Karachi – the only major university in a major metropolitan city at that time, Ansari graduated with a B.Sc. (honors) and M.Sc. degrees in Physics. As a position holder, the university offered him a faculty job at the Department of Physics as a lecturer where he taught Physics courses and did research in cryogenics (low-temperature physics) and physical oceanography until moving to North America. He received American and Canadian scholarship awards for his advanced studies earning another MS and a PhD degree in Biophysics.

Student Activities

Student activities
Student activities

Living in Lyari, Dr. Rafat Ansari was active in his student life at the University of Karachi. He was elected as General Secretary of the Physics Society He also served for four years as the Secretary of the World University Service (WUS); an international organization. Historically, WUS was established by students and academics committed to social change after World War I focusing on human development and global understanding through education and training. Among many projects, WUS actively fought the war against apartheid in South Africa. During his tenure, Ansari working along with Professor Tirmizi and Vice-Chancellor Dr. Mahmood Hussain (brother of Zakir Hussain; the former President of India) tried improving the lives of many. A new low-cost utility store, enhancement and upgrade of the health clinic with new X-ray machines and a center for adult literacy was established at the university campus.

Inauguration of a WUS Utility Store (L-R); WUS UOK Secretary (Ansari), Professor S.M.A Tirmizi, and Vice Chancellor Dr. Mahmood Hussain (brother of India’s President Zakir Hussain)
Inauguration of a WUS Utility Store (L-R); WUS UOK
Secretary (Ansari), Professor S.M.A Tirmizi, and Vice Chancellor
Dr. Mahmood Hussain (brother of India’s President Zakir Hussain)

From College Mates to Soul Mates

From College Mates to Soul Mates
From College Mates to Soul Mates

In the first year at the University of Karachi, Ansari met a beautiful, cheerful, and very smart student named Surryia. They were class fellows. They got married right after completing their B.Sc. (Hons) and M.Sc. degrees in physics. Now 43 years later, Ansari says, “she is an excellent wife, a great friend, and a soul mate.” The couple is blessed to have one beautiful and brilliant daughter who is a brain doctor (neurologist) practicing in the US.


Career in Space Exploration (NASA)

Ansari says, “I was lucky to have excellent mentors. Upon graduation, my Ph.D. supervisor (Professor Ross Hallett) said, “The Ph.D. you earned is not just a license to practice science; it is a license for lifetime learning”. That meant for rest my life; I will remain a student of science. Moreover, to this day, I am humbled how little I really know. And the process of learning, exploring new frontiers, and discovery continues.”

After finishing his Ph.D. studies, Ansari’s dream of seeing the Saturn V rocket in person came true when he visited the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. He recollects, “It was an amazing sight. It brought back memories of my childhood in Lyari and tears to my eyes that I am finally here in front of this massive rocket which has made possible 12 men landing, walking, and driving in a rover on the moon during the Apollo program.”

Ansari recalls; “At the same visit, I was very fortunate to watch a space shuttle launch. In addition, the dream even got better and bigger. This mission inspired me to explore the unique world of microgravity or zero gravity for fluids physics, medical, and biotechnology experiments. I ended up at the NASA Lewis Research Center (now John H. Glenn Research Center) in Cleveland, Ohio. My NASA colleagues and managers are extremely smart and wonderful to work with. They gave me many opportunities to try new and innovative ideas and follow my dreams.”

Ansari’s work at NASA involved advanced light scattering technology for conducting space experiments on-board space shuttle and space station science missions. In an effort to monitor the health of astronauts in long-duration missions, he developed methods to diagnose diseases non-invasively long- before clinical symptoms appear. He applied this knowledge to medical problems here on Earth. (See Dr. Ansari conducting experiments in zero gravity and his research in these video links: Using Laser-based Nanotechnologies to Explore the Human Eye; ABC News video   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X4MwEg6ZgzY and NASA’s Masters with Masters 33 (Dr. Rafat Ansari) – YouTube ▶ 59:37 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WW15BRKpcO8).

Ansari’s contributions to the greater scientific community include serving on the editorial boards of the Journal of Biomedical Optics, Current Analytical Chemistry, and the Journal of Health Information Science and Systems. He has also served on the executive board of the Prevent Blindness Ohio. Currently, he is serving as a co-chair of the Ohio’s Aging Eye Public Private Partnership. He is also a licensed pilot and a Principal Investigator on a NASA Science Innovation Fund project monitoring algal blooms and water quality scientific issues in nation’s waterways (see Monitoring algae blooms in Lake Erie; CBS Channel 19 News video: http://www.cleveland19.com/story/32815565/monitoring-algae-blooms-in-lake-erie

Honors and Awards

Ansari’s critical work earned him many honors and awards: NASA Public Service Medal, Fellow of the SPIE, two NASA’s Space Act Awards, the Abe Silverstein Medal, STARS Award from the State of Texas, Service to America Medals (finalist) for Science and Environment, the NASA Exceptional Scientific

Dr. Ansari and his wife after receiving the Pioneer in Medicine Award From the Society for Brain Mapping & Therapeutics
Dr. Ansari and his wife after receiving the Pioneer in Medicine Award
From the Society for Brain Mapping & Therapeutics

Achievement Medal, the HHS Innovates Award from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Pioneer in Medicine Award from the Society of Brain Mapping and Therapeutics, and honors from both the Ohio State Senate and the Senate of the United States of America.

Fire in the Belly

Ansari’s NASA career is amazing and rewarding. He worked on space experiments conducted on space shuttles and space station.  He developed new technologies for medical diagnosis and studies of the eye and other diseases, which can benefit all humankind. He won many honors and major awards in the US, gave invited lectures all over the world, published over 100 scientific and technical articles, and interviewed by major TV networks, newspapers, and technical magazines. However, Ansari does not want to stop; at least not yet. He still has a “fire in the belly” and un-ending appetite for acquiring new knowledge.

Dr. Ansari and wife at the Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals Award ceremony in Washington DC
Dr. Ansari and wife at the Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals
Award ceremony in Washington DC

Ansari says, “My story is not unique. It is one of the many stories where people from humble backgrounds and meager resources have done well in life, excelled in their careers, and contributed positively to a peaceful world. The Indian sub-continent is full of such stories. Some of the best and brightest medical doctors and surgeons now practicing in the US are from humble backgrounds with roots in the Indian sub-continent. Dr. Ambedkar (Baba Saheb) born in a low cast family of untouchables (Dalits) went to school in Bombay, received his Ph.D. from Columbia University in the US, and became the architect of the Indian constitution making India as the largest democracy in the world.“

In the end, Dr. Ansari says; “You and your team are spearheading an impressive educational campaign to inspire the young minds of Lyrian’s today to be the trailblazers of tomorrow”. As a former resident some 40 years ago, he sends his best wishes to the team at Hamara Lyari in achieving their goal for a peaceful, modern, and prosperous Lyari.

Disclaimer: Dr. Ansari respectfully submits; “The opinions expressed in this blog are strictly those of mine and should not be construed as the opinion or policy of my employers (past and present) nor they are recommendations for anyone else to follow”. Photos are not to be used without prior permission.