Last Wednesday, the University of Toronto Mississauga (UTM)’s biology department organized an academic symposium honouring the academic contributions of Zeynab and Mohammad Asadi-Lari.

Both siblings and U of T students, Zeynab and Mohammad were killed aboard the fateful Ukrainian International Airlines’ Flight 752 on January 8. The symposium paid tribute to both siblings’ achievements in the scientific field, while highlighting their work in community service, youth empowerment, and humanitarianism.

Entitled “Welcoming Tomorrow: Reflections on the Power of Commitment,” the evening featured video messages from family members, followed by heartfelt lectures delivered by War Child Canada founder Dr. Samantha Nutt, STEM Fellowship Toronto president Dr. Sacha Noukhovitch, and UTM psychology professor Tina Malti.

The event also offered attendees the chance to hear from Zeynab and Mohammad’s relatives, mentors, and academic colleagues. Ahmed Hasan and Farah Qaiser, both graduate students at U of T, met the late brother-sister duo while pursuing similar goals in the summer of 2016.

“[We] met Mohammad when we first joined the STEM Fellowship,” said Qaiser, a Master’s student and researcher at U of T. “We were working very closely with Mohammad and Zeynab, and that meant leading these new initiatives and helping empower students.”

Mohammed Asadi-Lari co-founded and formerly managed the STEM Fellowship, a non-profit organization helping students succeed in data science and scholarly writing. While pursuing the Medical Science (MD/Ph.D.) program, he co-founded the Canadian Association of Physician Innovators and Entrepreneurs (CAPIE).

Mohammad also led youth engagement initiatives through organizations like the Canadian Red Cross, and the Canadian Commission for United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). 

Completing a Bachelor of Science at U of T, Zeynab Asadi-Lari was responsible for establishing a STEM Fellowship branch at UTM. The STEM Fellowship has since expanded across 20 universities in eight provinces.

“These are people with lives, goals, dreams, all of which were unfairly stripped from them,” said Hasan, who introduced and concluded the event alongside Qaiser. Hasan is a UTM Ph.D. candidate, and a friend of Mohammad and Zeynab.

“It’s been over a month since that incident, and I still haven’t found the words to really describe just what we lost,” continued Hasan. “I wonder if those words exist at all.”

While addressing the crowd, Dr. Samantha Nutt reiterated the ubiquitous state of shock expressed by student communities across the country.

“[The attack] was the direct result of the kind of reckless posturing and strong-arm diplomacy that has become commonplace in our world,” said Nutt.

Carrying 176 passengers, Flight 752 was shot down within minutes of taking off from Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport. 138 passengers were headed to Canada.  The aircraft mostly comprised of university students, doctors, families, and newlywed couples returning from holiday.

While addressing the crowd, Nutt reflected on international conflicts in the context of global health—a topic that Zeynab demonstrated a strong commitment to. Nutt encouraged attendees to carry forward Mohammad and Zeynab’s legacy by spreading awareness.

“I don’t believe that we have to be passive observers of these tragedies,” said Nutt. “We have to participate in all that we want to change, because the good does not happen without us, and the bad never seeks our permission. Zeynab and Mohammad showed this kind of activism and compassion every day.”

Nutt is the founder of development charities like War Child Canada and War Child USA. She also serves as a staff physician at Toronto’s women college hospital, and is an assistant professor of medicine at U of T.

Later in the event, STEM Fellowship president Dr. Sacha Noukhovitch shared candid details of first meeting Mohammad. At that time, Mohammad was completing an honours degree in cellular, anatomical, and physiological sciences at the University of British Columbia.

“I approached him with an idea I had, if he could be an editor of STEM Fellowship’s journal,” recalled Noukhovitch. Accepting the offer, Mohammad later served as STEM Fellowship Journal’s first student editorial board chair. Through the role, he led the fellowship’s policy outreach work and helped expand the scope of their Big Data Challenge.

Noukhovitch also described Zeynab’s effort in bringing a new wave of dedication and excitement to STEM by creating the human resources department of the fellowship organization.

“We all know what HR (human resources) is. She created a different one. Zeynab created the channel not for hiring or for interviews—she was attracting a new type of better human beings. And that is something different.”

Zeynab Asadi-Lari also served as a mental health network coordinator for the Youth Mental Health Association and was a youth member at the Young Canadians Roundtable on Health.

According to Noukhovitch, Mohammad and Zeynab’s STEM coaching legacy “will inspire other young students.”

A contribution of $1,000 was presented from the biology department to STEM Fellowship to “carry on Zeynab and Mohammad’s legacy.”

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