Perhaps the most powerful feat enabled by the internet is the ability to bring together people from around the world who might never have had the opportunity to meet, to chat and to get to know each other. For Peggy Mason, PhD, professor of neurobiology, a chance tweet from a student enrolled in her MOOC, Understanding the Brain, led to one such moment. Sabeen Mahmud, a Pakistani social activist who opened The Second Floor, a coffee shop/bookstore/community space that became a popular place for activism in the city of Karachi in Pakistan, and Mason met earlier this year in February, discussing Mason’s work on empathy in rats over coffee. In late April, Mahmud was gunned down in Karachi, shortly after hosting a panel about the controversial province of Balochistan, one of Pakistan’s poorest regions that has in recent years been host to a separatist uprising. Mason writes about her connection with Mahmud and the impact of Mahmud’s life.
Sabeen came into my life because while taking my MOOC on Understanding the Brain she followed me on Twitter. On January 31 of this year, she tweeted, “@neuroMOOC Hello Prof Mason. I live in Pakistan and am a huge fan of your work, especially empathy in rats” and then a follow up tweet, “@neuroMOOC >> I’m coming to Chicago next month and wondered if I could come say hello. It would be a dream come true. Hope to hear from you.” I tweeted back and we arranged to meet on Feb 24th in the University of Chicago Bookstore Café… We spent a delightful hour together that afternoon. Sabeen was on her way to Berkeley, CA to participate in a conference on Pakistan: Beyond the Security State. She was slated to give a talk entitled, “PeaceNiche: Finding Space for Contested Issues.” Sabeen had not found a niche for peace, she had made one.
A recent New Yorker article also pays tribute to the life and death of Mahmud. Mason provides comment in the story.