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Meet Kimia Mohammadi: PhD candidate & aspiring pilot shattering glass ceilings

By Natasha McKenty | September 1, 2023

Estimated reading time 9 minutes, 7 seconds.

Born and raised in Iran, Kimia Mohammadi admits that her motivation to break barriers is rooted in a system where female role models are not the norm. The current student pilot at Breslau, Ont.-based Waterloo Wellington Flight Centre (WWFC), working towards her private pilot license (PPL), says although the obstacles she has faced were less than ideal, she is often fuelled by those who advise her that she can’t or shouldn’t seek to challenge herself. In fact, her determination is driven by the collection of times that she has felt discouraged.

After achieving an undergraduate degree, Mohammadi began searching for opportunities to further explore her dreams without the restrictions of cultural confinements.

Born and raised in Iran, Kimia Mohammadi was destined to become a pilot. However, she was not able to pursue that dream in her home country. Photo courtesy of Kimia Mohammadi

“I studied engineering physics in Iran, then I came to Canada for my master’s, and I studied physics quantum information here at the University of Waterloo (UW),” she shared.

“[Within] the first month, I met a friend who told me he had a friend who is a pilot. So, this is how I found WWFC.”

Mohammadi began working several jobs to save for her flight training.

“I saved the money, and as soon as I graduated, I signed up for the flight school,” she recounted. “After my master’s, I found a full-time job for a year, and now I’m [working towards] a PhD as well as working part-time to make sure I can afford the flights — at least until my flight test.”

Mohammadi told Skies she has always been “crazy about” planes and science.

“A part of me wants to combine them and become an astronaut,” she continued.

Mohammadi is currently a student pilot at Waterloo Wellington Flight Centre, working towards her private pilot license. Photo courtesy of Kimia Mohammadi

Admittedly, it’s a big dream. But for the PhD candidate (for quantum physics, no less), the glass ceiling metaphor is fragile for a reason.

“[In Iran], I could not train to be a pilot,” she said. “If I wanted to attend aviation school, I could only be a flight attendant.”

But, for the girl who began collecting fighter jets as a child, nothing would get in her way of reaching the flight deck.

“Dreams sound impossible, or even [humourous] to some,” she said. “But mine have happened for me, so I believe nothing is impossible.”

Despite having to jump through hoops for an aviation medical, and often feeling overwhelmed by the language barrier while learning to communicate with air traffic control (ATC), Mohammadi — who began ground school in September 2021 — soloed in the winter of 2022.

She shared with Skies that peers often ask her why she’s spending so much on flying if she doesn’t know what the future holds for her.

In addition to working towards her PPL, Mohammadi is a PhD candidate for quantum physics. Photo courtesy of Kimia Mohammadi

“And, the thing is, I don’t have a complete answer to this at the moment,” she said. “But whenever I fly, I have that gut feeling that I am doing the right thing. Maybe I don’t know the purpose yet, but I’m 100 percent sure that that’s the right thing to do. Good things happen to you if you just believe in what you are doing.”

As Ontario’s warmer months pass, she is working towards finishing up her rating with more consistent flying weather. Once she has completed her PPL, she intends to go after her flight instructor rating. Beyond this, her potential and ambition are limitless.

With over 70 flight hours (in both a Cessna 172 and 152), her advice to others who face similar barriers on their career path is to remember that there will always be “people who say you can’t do something, or [that] you’re not built for this. They will say, ‘Maybe you should reconsider.’ But, even if there is no reward, I want to prove to myself that I can do it.”

Unable to find a mentor in her community, Mohammadi said that she began following NASA stories and news.

“I am a big fan of Karen Nyberg (a NASA astronaut). I had her name everywhere in my room and on my desk,” she laughed.

Mohammadi said if she wanted to attend aviation school in Iran, she could only be a flight attendant. Photo courtesy of Kimia Mohammad

Yet, Mohammadi admits that finding female Iranian role models has been a struggle. Despite the lack of accessible mentors, she has found strength in the support from her family as well as high school teachers who encouraged her.

“My [parents] never stopped me from pursuing who I’d like to be,” she said. “[At the same time], they were [also] reminding me [to focus on] willpower.

“I don’t see myself as any different than them, and I tell myself, ‘If they can do it, so can I,’” she added.

The idea that she would be one of the first Iranian women to seek new heights in aviation and physics fuels, rather than inhibits, her ambition. 

“I can admit that I am a dreamer,” she told Skies. “But they call them ‘glass ceilings’ for a reason. You can just give it a punch, and it’ll break. I don’t see limits or boundaries of what I can be. If no one has done it so far, I can be the first.”

Mohammadi says that type of mindset gives her more energy to invest in her dreams and one day become a part of history.

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