The sky is the limit—or is it? This is a man who spent a lot of time ruminating about this very question. His mind was always occupied in clouds of thought, jumping from art to science to music. Often, he skipped lunchtime at school and spent his time in junkyards collecting parts with his lunch money, and by ponds to examine how the sunlight would hit the water at different angles. Could you believe ‘The Casual Boy’ would later become a renowned scientist!
Yes, we are talking about Mr. Mizanul Hoq Chowdhury, who is not only a prominent engineer and scientist but also an outstanding painter, enthralling singer and immaculate carpenter. The second of five children, Mizan’s life has always been filled with a sense of adventure and triumph in the face of adversity, starting from his very first day on Earth. Due to several complications during his birth, Mizan was born in a fog of uncertainty and anticipation – doctors were convinced that either his mother or he would survive.
Throughout his youth, Mizan suffered from various ailments and downright cheated death on many occasions. Life was hardly smooth for him since birth, yet the steadfast love and care of his mother and the realization of his own mortality helped shape the empathetic and humble aspects of Mizan’s personality—he learned not to take life for granted and developed a deep appreciation and love for the simple things in life and nature.
The First Step of Evolvement
It was in 1973, just two years after the Bengali Liberation War when Mizan built his first Mechanical Robotic Car and Terrestrial Telescope from scraps he found in junkyards. Just like his birth country of Bangladesh had started to pick up the pieces in the aftermath, Mizan lovingly collected and crafted these devices from discarded spare parts. Amongst the chaos of war, famine, and politics, he dreamt of escaping from the world that held so much destruction and traveling out to distant galaxies to discover their secrets. To Mizan, a telescope meant much more than just a viewing device; it was the instrument that allowed him to peer both within himself and outwards toward the unknown. As he grew up, Mizan built more gadgets, and these creations would win him several schools and district science competitions and recognition on national TV. His love for design and innovation would never die down as he grew up.
Educational Peregrination and Early Career Path
Though Mizan was not a fan of school and examinations and rather preferred to learn on his own terms, his father pushed him towards pursuing a professional degree. As a result, Mizan applied for admission to the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET). A perfect outlet for his creativity in both art and science, engineering encompassed the best of Mizan’s interests.
In the final year of Mizan’s BUET life, the head of the Mechanical department, Dr. Nazrul Islam, introduced Mizan to the visiting distinguished professor Dr. Fazle Hussain and gifted him one of Mizan’s oil paintings. [Currently, Dr. Hossain is a distinguished Chair in Engineering, Science, & Medicine, and Senior Adviser to the President of Texas Tech University]. Dr. Hossain believed that Mizan’s talents would be best nurtured in the United States, and inspired Mizan to move to the USA for advanced education. However, dedicated to cultivating his reputation as a painter in his beloved Bangladesh, he decided that pursuing art and staying in his home country was his greatest desire at that time.
Following his graduation from BUET, Mizan worked for the Bangladesh Oil and Gas Corporation Company. While there, he met Dr. Faleh T Al Saadoon, who was a famous Oil and Gas consultant in the Middle East and South Asia as well as a distinguished professor at Texas A&M at Kingsville. During a board meeting, Dr. Al Saadoon noticed a landscape painting on the wall and inquired about the painter. The Director answered proudly, “He is one of my engineers” and introduced Dr. Al Saadoon to Mizan. He also believed that Mizan’s talents would be best nurtured in the United States and the two kept in touch over the next couple of years. Later, Mizan joined the Water Development Board and was involved with several projects including the Ghorashal Hydraulic Power Station erection project.
Despite Mizan’s wish to remain in his homeland, the tides of his circumstance kept pushing him towards moving abroad. With the ongoing encouragement from the charismatic Dr. Al Sadoon, Mizan took a leap of faith and decided to pursue his master’s degree at Texas A&M University, Kingsville. Though his bachelor’s degree was in mechanical engineering, Mizan chose to diversify his knowledge and pursued his graduate degree in Natural Gas Engineering with a full scholarship. His thesis was in ‘Polymer Gel in Harsh Environment and Fractured Reservoir for Improving Oil and Gas Production’.
After completing his master’s degree, Mizan’s academic advisors and peers encouraged him to pursue his Ph.D. as it seemed like the next logical step in his path. Dr. Al Sadoon was deeply impressed with Mizan’s master’s result and gave him an exceptional recommendation for Ph.D. at Oklahoma University in Norman. However, due to life circumstances, Mizan decided to pursue professional opportunities instead. Since he was on a student visa, gaining legal resident status was the utmost important goal at the time so that he could immediately start earning money to provide for his family and take care of his child who was suffering from chronic illness. He moved to Houston to pursue his career, but he was unable to find a single job related to his degree due to the sudden bad economy and immigration status.
Throughout these struggles, his wife Jasmin Akhter Chowdhury always supported him and helped him face life’s challenges. For that reason, Mizan remained optimistic. He expanded his search and finally secured a job in a small injection molding company. It was not ideal, but he took it for two reasons: the first was because he was eager to get hands-on experience with injection molding, and the second was so he could keep his immigration status legal. A few months later though, the company was out of business due to the unstable economy. At that point, Mizan had to make a difficult decision—he could stay in the United States or return to Bangladesh.
Invested in the idea of inventing something meaningful for the world, Mizan decided that his best shot at research and development would happen in the United States. That was why he had finally decided to leave Bangladesh in the first place! Mizan learned an important lesson here. At the darkest time, you will eventually find a light. One day he received a call from a Gas Pipeline Valve Company that was looking for an engineer with a Natural Gas engineering degree as well as mechanical and hands-on injection molding experience—exactly a description of Mizan! Overjoyed and thankful for this opportunity, Mizan worked harder than ever to make a special valve that would help the company grow. As a result of his hard work, Mizan partially fulfilled his goal of inventing something in his lifetime in a relatively short number of years. He invented an as-molded leak-proof plastic valve, which didn’t require machining or finishing work. It was his first invention in the USA and patented by the company. He realized that all the uncertainty, hard work, and tar-stained hands provided him with valuable insight for future inventions.
The Wind of Change
At the end of 1999, the oil and gas industry was experiencing a lull, and a number of opportunities in computer science and technology arose. Mizan made a career shift and started to explore the software engineering field. He trained himself in multiple computer languages, cryptography, Public Key Infrastructure (PKI), federated and delegated identity, and authorization. Mizan worked for several computer companies to gain in-depth knowledge in software technology. Finally, in 2007, Mizan joined a security company where he worked as a consultant of US Department of Defense and Health domain. In 2010, he built the Patient Privacy portal for the VA Electronic Health Record through Kaiser Permanente. In 2011, he was awarded the US Air Force Small Business Innovation and Research (SIBR) Phase-1 project to secure US Distributed Common Ground System-Army (DCGS-A) decision portal. In 2012, Mizan’s work was patented by the US Air Force.
Mizan always had an unspoken goal in mind. He wanted to be a space scientist, but for his survival, he had to take on several roles and almost lost sight of his aim in life several times. One day, his daughter Saba Jamin Chowdhury received a grant from Harvard University to study Alzheimer’s disease. As he always treated change as a symbol of new hope, he and his wife left everything behind and moved to Boston from Dallas to encourage their only daughter, and then started job searching and went through several interviews. By a stroke of luck, he received an email with a job offer from Dr. Alvar Saenz Otero, who is the director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Space Systems Lab. That day Mizan realized that he had always been subconsciously working towards his goal, despite all the seeming deviations his career had taken. Mizan finally fulfilled his childhood dream of reaching beyond the sky—working with space.
Journey With MIT Zero Robotics
In June 2013, Mizan joined the Zero Robotics (ZR) project at MIT Space Systems Laboratory as a system administrator and architect. His current role requires him to be the “brains” behind the project operations. He developed the ZR online satellite simulation environment, which mimics the International Space Station (ISS) module environment using low-latency and high-performance multi-threading and parallel programming. His work helped reduce 80% of the cost for the satellite testing platform. In January 2018, Mizan received a special recognition award from MIT Aero Astro Department for his exceptional achievement in Space Research. Mizan facilitated MIT students by teaching programming in multiple languages and assisted researchers in writing algorithms, running simulations, and creating visualizations. He also aided the team with running tests inside the ISS with assistance from astronauts. In fact, Mizan enjoyed the amazing opportunity to work with several US astronauts, including Scott Kelly, Cady Coleman, Michael Finke, Greg Chamitoff, Greg Johnson, and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko.
Mizan was fortunate to meet astronaut Michael Collins, the lunar module commander of the famed Apollo 11. The greatest lesson he learned from these incredible people can be summarized with this quote from the astronaut Mr. Michael Fincke about the four steps of life: (a) Be a good person before you become a successful person (b) Work hard (c) Dream BIG (d) Never give up!
In addition to his MIT job, Mizan is currently consulting with Cisco System to build a Cloud Security System.
Mizan is also one of the key players of the “Open Music Initiative” project of MIT Media lab funded by Berklee College of Music.
Mizan’s Creative World
At university, Mizan often found himself drifting inside his own headspace during lectures. Preferring to draw his professors on paper rather than listen to them, Mizan created a sizable collection of artwork during his time at BUET. With the encouragement and aid of his classmates and friends, Mizan held the first art exhibition at his university on Mechanical Engineering Day, which depicted a beautiful blend of art, science, and technology. His artwork included oil and watercolor paintings, sketches, sculptures (clay, cement, and wood), a handmade microscope and a three-in-one (radio, cassette player, and long player).
In 1987, his oil painting was nominated for 1st place by the Asian Biennial Art committee. In 1989, one of his paintings was presented to President George H. W. Bush by the president of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh. From 1985 to 1989, his paintings were exhibited in several National and Asian Biennial Art exhibitions organized by Shilpakala Academy (Juried art exhibition). One of his masterpieces was bought by BEXIMCO from the National Art Exhibition.
One of Mizan’s exhibits included a clay replica of BATA company slippers, which was a tribute to people leaving the comfort of their homes and trekking from town to town in search of jobs. The exhibit was so lifelike that a professor chucked the sculpture to the floor in rage at the thought that someone had disrespectfully placed slippers on the table. Professors and students alike were greatly charmed with Mizan’s work. The vice-chancellor Dr. Patwary ended up presenting him with the highly prestigious and coveted Gold Medal in recognition of his excellence in extracurricular activities. The comment that Mizan fondly remembers from his professor, Dr. Musharraf Hossain, has almost become a personal motto: “I never saw Mizan in my class, but I think he has made excellent use of his time”.
The same year, he was recognized with a gift of books for excellence in extracurricular activities from the honorable Sheikh Hasina, the Prime Minister of the Government of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh.
He had several phases in his life. During childhood, he was mostly into technology. After BUET, his interests moved to art and music. From his childhood, he followed the legendary Bengali singer Manna Dey by singing along with his music and learned his techniques. It was his habit to sing songs while busy with painting and technical work. Mizan is a well-known and established singer in the USA. Though he never went to school for music, he attained distinction in singing modern Bengali songs of the 60-80s of many popular singers, such as Kishore Kumar, Mohammed Rafi and particularly Manna Dey. In Houston, he was called ‘Mizan Dey’. He has performed as a solo artist at FOBANA (Federation of Bangladeshi Associations in North America), NABC (North America Bengali Convention), BUFLA (Bangladesh Unity Federation of Los Angeles), and in several states across the USA. Mizan also received an ATN Bangla award for USA Bangladeshi Musical Contest in 2006, and in 2016 he released his debut music album. Mizan’s songs can be streamed on YouTube by searching for “Mizanul Chowdhury”.
Cogitation on Bangladesh
Mizan’s career and life experiences have brought him to several realizations about Bangladesh and its future in technology. He realized that the sizable population is a crucial resource for the country. During his time at MIT Zero Robotics, he developed an ambitious yet practical vision. Zero Robotics allows students from all over the globe an opportunity to explore world-class research facilities on the International Space Station (ISS). Students write programs at their high schools that may control a satellite in space using a game-based platform. The goal is to build critical engineering skills for students, such as problem-solving, design thought process, operations training, leadership, and teamwork.
Implementing a STEM-based educational project in Bangladesh, through Zero Robotics or similar program can positively impact generations to come. The STEM program, which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics program, was created in the United States to nurture interest in science in kindergarten through twelfth-grade students. Engaging in hands-on projects like Zero Robotics broadens minds and shows children that even the sky is not the limit. Mizan is amazed at the way that game-based learning facilitates young students to understand something as complicated as literal rocket science—digital platforms have helped demystify such complex mathematical problems so that everyone and anyone who wishes to learn, can learn. As internet access becomes more widely available throughout Bangladesh, Mizan thinks, it is possible to implement a program like Zero Robotics to mobilize ALL children in Bangladesh, not just the ones with access to the most resources. An empowered generation of youth will grow up with the confidence and skills to contribute to the 4th Industrial Revolution. Mizan believes, though we cannot build rockets in one day, we can put a system in place that will allow children to dare to build it one day. During his visit to Bangladesh in February 2019, he presented his ideas at the CONE (Convention of NRB Engineers), BUET, NSU, USTC, etc. These institutions highly appreciated Mizan’s idea.
Mizan thinks every single human is smart, creative, inventive, and unique. He believes the brain is an endless resource, and there is no big difference between any ‘regular’ brain and that of Einstein or Hawking’s brain. It’s just the spark of utilization that we need. After meeting brilliant young students at several universities during his recent visit to Bangladesh, Mizan is even further encouraged and convinced that the youth will help to push Bangladesh into the future as a formidable and resourceful nation.