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Monday June 07, 2010

Branching out

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7 Jun 2010

Growing up in Sari, Iran, was surrounded by bright minds. Her father, a high school mathematics teacher, taught his students in the family's home. He was banned from teaching in public schools because the family are members of the Baha'i faith, Iran's largest religious minority.

"Back in my country, because I'm a Baha'i, they didn't allow us to go to the public universities. So the Baha'i people in Iran started to establish their own university. We're not allowed to have a public place, so we started to have it in houses."

Restricted to studying IT or civil and structural engineering, she chose the latter. It's a decision Zabihi has never looked back on.

Later this month, the young engineer will be among eight Australian students and the only female in the group attending the World Conference on Timber Engineering. They were selected after entering a national essay-writing competition.

"At first I didn't want to submit a paper because I thought there's no chance I'd get the prize. It was a 500-word essay, so it was limited, but the topic was quite vast why wood is naturally better as a construction material from an engineering and environmental perspective."

Her argument centred on emerging wood products used in engineering the strength and stiffness of which compete with steel and concrete and the role of trees in preventing climate change.

It's the ideal opportunity for Zabihi who moved to Australia last year to undertake her PhD to see the other innovations and ideas for using timber worldwide.

"Around the world we have lots of evidence like many historic buildings in Europe and Asia of very old timber structures that are still stable.

"In Europe there are tall structures up to eight stories, all made from timber. But not in Australia." Zabihi hopes that will change.

Supervised by Professor of Structural Engineering and the UTS Project Leader for the Structural Timber Innovation Company, Keith Crews, she is investigating how timber or timber-composite flooring structures (the load-bearing beams that hold up a floor and the sheeting we walk on) can be designed and built in multi-storey and commercial applications to best suit Australian and New Zealand needs.

After completing her PhD, Zabihi and her husband, Riaz, are hoping to start a family.

"I don't have a clear plan right now," she says. "I'd like to go back and serve my country but at the same time I am thinking of becoming an academic, which is almost impossible for a Baha'i in Iran. Since I was a young kid I really liked to be a lecturer."

For Zabihi, who already volunteers a few hours each Wednesday to teach Baha'i education classes at Boronia Park Public School, it seems a natural progression.

"When I was a kid I loved watching my dad teach mathematics at home. Maybe that's why I'm so interested in teaching too."

Fiona Livy Marketing and Communication Unit

Source: University Of Technology Sydney

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