Prof. Vatche Sahakian

ASOF Aims to Deploy Full Force of Diasporan Scholars to Strengthen Armenia

979
0

BOSTON — A new organization hopes to provide a framework through which innovators in Armenia — be they scientists, academics or artists — would be supported by their diasporan compatriots to gain access to the highest echelons in their fields.

That new body, Armenian Society of Fellows (ASOF), held its inaugural meeting, at San Lazzaro Monastery in Venice, Italy, earlier this summer.

The organization is based on an idea by the late Dr. Vartan Gregorian, the former president of the New York Public Library, Brown University and later the Carnegie Foundation and expedited as a result of the disastrous war of 2020.

Prof. Ani Aprahamian

Just Getting Started

ASOF is led by an executive board, the chair of which is Prof. Ani Aprahamian, a professor of nuclear physics at Notre Dame University, in Indiana, who also serves as the director of the Alikhanyan National Science Laboratory, in Armenia.

In a conversation last week, she and the board’s secretary, Prof. Vatche Sahakian, a fellow professor of physics, at Harvey Mudd College in California, shed light on the organization and expressed hope that it will make a positive change for Armenia.

Aprahamian explained ASOF’s vision. “We’re hoping this is not going to be just a diaspora organization. We are really planning and strategizing and our vision is to bring about significant change in a lot of the areas that our mission is in. It’s no longer just a diasporan organization that focuses on some razor-sharp point. We really feel it’s time to engage all the people in Armenia, the government of Armenia as well as the diaspora.”

Get the Mirror in your inbox:

The disastrous and devastating 44-day war of 2020 was the impetus for the organization, Sahakian noted.

“In one form or another, there was always a conversation about the need to bring together the scholars and experts from the diaspora in a coordinated way, but nothing concrete was developed because of various challenges,” Sahakian said. “I think the turning point was the 44-day war. Prior to that, there were some conversations about something like this, with people involved in northeastern Armenian diasporan circles,” he noted, which included people like Gregorian, and the late astronomer Prof. Yervant Terzian of Cornell.

“After the 44-day war, I felt there was a sense of urgency, that one cannot push this agenda further and further away,” Sahakian said. He recalled he had a “very inspiring discussion [with Gregorian] where a lot of the basic ideas of this organization took shape.”

Sahakian noted, “One of the last things he said was, ‘I will do everything in my power to make this happen.’”

Unfortunately, Gregorian died only a few weeks after the conversation but Sahakian reached out to more and more people, expanding the list of people who were interested in creating and joining in this venture.

Aprahamian concurred: “I share Vatche’s concern that we don’t have time any more. Our existence is in danger unless we can pull this off.”

And Sahakian added, “Personally speaking, here we are, some of the best minds that this nation can offer. We come together — not a small feat — and we are ready to engage by physically coming to Armenia and making a difference. There is no doubt that we have the potential to do it. It’s now time for the rest of Armenian society to back us up because we cannot do it alone.”

 

Spirit of Collaboration

According to the society’s website, its goals include “the creation of specific circumstances to encourage scholars and specialists from and outside the Armenian diaspora to bring part of their work to Armenia through their physical presence in Armenia and, as defined necessary by the Society, through virtual interactions; connecting individuals and institutions in Armenia with centers of research and education of high standing around the world; serving as an umbrella organization that promotes new and existing efforts focused on achieving excellence in education, engineering, the humanities, the natural and physical sciences, and the social sciences in Armenia; offering a platform for gatherings of academics and specialists from around the world interested in the advancement of Armenia in education, engineering, the humanities, the natural and physical sciences, and the social sciences.”

This broad platform proposed and encouraged by ASOF has been welcomed by many both in the diaspora and Armenia, the two said.

Aprahamian noted there “hasn’t been a sense of competition” with organizations that are working on similar goals in more specific areas, and that many have agreed to join and collaborate with ASOF.

“I really feel we have a chance with ASOF. It’s concrete, it’s serious and the members of ASOF are pretty well known all over the world. We are hoping to take Armenia with us to that higher level of recognition and global networking,” Aprahamian said.

“Every organization that has heard about us [that] we have contacted or [that] they have contacted [us], there has been an enormous collaboration and cooperation willingness. That has been unusual for me,” she added.

How it works is fairly organic, with many working groups tackling specific areas of interest.

Globally Recognized Scholars

Sahakian clarified, “This is not an organization, but a network, a forum for ideas. The basic working model is that the membership brings ideas to the forum for discussion. If an idea is interesting and has enough support, it will organically generate a project proposal that would be really coming from individual members who form groups based on their interests and disciplines and focus and the society’s role as a whole is to give feedback on it and help launch implementation of the project. But,” he added, “the project itself is a spinoff. It is not owned by the organization.”

ASOF is an “incubator of the ideas,” he added.

The idea then gets proposed to a partner entity. “There has to be buy-in from a local institute,” Aprahamian said. “The project itself would be spearheaded by the members of ASOF that came up with it.”

Added Sahakian, “The key ingredient which is different than [many other organizations is in] the functioning of the body: we want to throw in human resources. The individuals that are proposing projects for implementation are putting themselves as participants for the project by going to Armenia.”

The road will not be easy. “We are not deluding ourselves or living in a fairyland that it is going to be easy,” Aprahamian said.

Sahakian added that one of the advantages of ASOF would be the sheer number of recognized scholars in specific fields, which could add gravitas and more accountability for a project that someone would want to pitch a foundation or entity for funds. For any project., “It’s a different thing if you come up with an idea, backed by 30-35 world-class scholars from the diaspora and the ASOF organization saying this is a great thing. Back it. It gives it stature.”

Aprahamian noted that she and Sahakian visited the International Center for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy, “and the eyes in the room of all the program directors really opened wide when we showed them the intellectual capital behind such an activity,” she added.

Efforts have gotten underway for funding for an organization for physical sciences in Armenia.

“The idea is, at least with the physical sciences, to build an institute like the Advanced Institute in Princeton, …, and attract the best talent from around the world to come and spend time there and work with our local scientists,” she said. “The idea is to make the level and the fame associated with that interaction become a reality. That’s what we are thinking about in terms of the physical sciences,” she noted.

Currently the organization has 168 members but the organization is expecting to grow.

“Vatche contacted a core seed and that core gave more names,” Aprahamian said “It was an enormous amount of work on Vatche’s part, to actually have conversations with people to see if they could buy into the idea. There was a lot of enthusiasm so people we asked were all very enthusiastic.”

“The center of the organization is in academia. Eighty-five percent of the membership is professors but we need the expertise of all kinds of people from outside academia,” Sahakian said. “If you are a professor, researcher, and expert in a field, that is a good start.”

Said Sahakian, a forthcoming board meeting will finalize the roadmap for the organization. “Twenty percent of our fellows are from Armenia, so engagement [with Armenia] is already there and this will only expand with coming projects,” Sahakian said. “As far as a roadmap, we will have a couple of small projects which are proof of concept and will help build trust, which will be executed immediately, within the next month.”

Sahakian said that they are continuing with holding conversations with established groups in Armenia, such as Foundation for Armenian Science and Technology (FAST) and various NGOs, including Gituzh, which aims to help scientists in Armenia.

The group hopes the next annual conference will be held in Dilijan, Armenia, where new ideas will be discussed and progress on the previous ones will be discussed.

For Sahakian, the networking and increased investment in the sciences could potentially be a source of security for the nation. “I would like to see 20 years from now Armenia become a technological, scientific and cultural powerhouse in the region, to the point that our security is more or less guaranteed, because we have developed a society that can meet the challenges that the country faces. If we get there, we are done.”

Interestingly, the organization has a dissolution clause built into its bylaws, which states that if within 20 years it does not meet its goals, it would be dissolved.

“In 20 years we either succeed or we fail and there is no point to go through the same track,” Sahakian said.

“We have big plans and I think we’re going to make it. I love the dissolution clause in our constitution. Twenty of years is plenty of time and we’ve seen a lot of action already. I really think it is going to work. It is the first time that without us publicizing, everyone is asking me about it, asking how to engage,” she said.

Sahakian noted, “I think what we are doing is historic and to not be very modest about it, we have to succeed, otherwise, I don’t see any other way to meet major challenges as a people. It’s a beginning and the engagement of the entire nation, it could be financially, participation as scholars, it is the time for it.”

Concluded Sahakian, “Vartan Gregorian’s take on it was, ‘It’s very ambitious but long overdue.’”

The organization is raising funds for its slate of activities, including the scientific center in Armenia. To contribute or learn more, visit www.asof.am. To request information for membership, write to admin@asof.am.

Get the Mirror-Spectator Weekly in your inbox: