Warrane College UNSW | college accommodation for students at UNSW
Warrane College UNSW | college accommodation for students at UNSW

Armin Alimardani: a PhD student who quotes Rocky and likes to lose

As it turns out, Armin Alimardani, 27 year old PhD student and Warrane resident, likes to lose.

Hear him out: “I always say successful people are not winners, they’re more losers, because we lose and lose and lose, but we never give up until we win.”

“If in your work everything looks okay, no doubt there is something wrong,” he continues. “Losing is part of the game, and only those who are successful understand it. They know that they will lose again and again and again, and it makes them work harder, do a better job. They should not give up until they win”.

And a quick glance at his CV will certainly prove that he’s not a quitter – that is, if a quick glance is enough when there are seven detailed pages to peruse. From his Bachelor of Law and Master of Criminal Law and Criminology (both studied in his home country of Iran), to the book and multiple articles he has written; as well as the conference presentations he’s given, the teaching he’s done, the awards he’s won (such as the Monash Criminology Postgraduate Prize for his presentation of criminological research at Australian and New Zealand Society of Criminology Postgraduate Conference) and more, Armin certainly doesn’t give up.

Plus of course, there’s his current PhD research at UNSW about the use of neuroscience – namely brain scans – in criminal courts.

“Anything you want to do in your PhD is kind of a challenge, it’s not easy at all, and I like it this way,” says Armin. “Because if it’s easy, it’s not fun, anyone can do it … I know I’m going to lose several times and it’s going to be tough, but at the end, when you do it, it’s a unique feeling.”

“There is a quote from Rocky I think – he says that it’s not about how hard you can hit, it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. So every time I feel so depressed when I lose, I’m like ‘It’s alright, keep moving forward’.”

And initially, one of his challenges was finding a university who wanted a PhD student to work in his chosen area of research – hence how he ended up in Sydney.

“Because the area [of study] is so recent and multidisciplinary, I found it hard to find universities even in Europe who want a PhD student in this area.” But luckily, UNSW was the answer.

While a PhD might not be everybody’s thing, Armin’s chosen topic is definitely fascinating – it delves into the brains of criminals, and looks to solve the limitations of using brain scans in court.

“Some of them [criminals] have some bad experiences in their lives, like in childhood… and these things, through time, change their personality and they become criminals. And the Criminal Justice System is like ‘Okay, we understand that adverse experiences in your life contributed to your criminal behaviour, and it’s not fair to punish you like criminals who willingly commit crime, so we will diminish your punishment’. And we’ve found other factors (like psychiatric and psychological factors, and even genetic factors) to say for instance that some criminals can’t control their impulses … and one of the recent factors is the brain, which is my research.”

Armin continues: “As we now know, the brain plays an important role in who we are. So I study brain impairment and how it can contribute to criminal behaviour, and how we can prove it in court by showing the impairment through brain scans.”

But the problem is that brain scans have limitations – and so Armin’s thesis is trying to find solutions to these limitations.

“Let me give you an example,” says Armin. “We say the prefrontal cortex is associated with rational thinking. If your prefrontal cortex is impaired for any reason – an accident or whatever – you probably can’t control your behaviour. But the problem is that the brain is much more complex that you might think. There were cases where brain scans indicated some impairment in the prefrontal cortex, but there was no behavioural problem. And this is a limitation of this type of evidence.”

“I’m looking for some ways to solve this problem…how we should use brain scans to minimise their limitations; how we should inform judges of these limitations, who are not experts in the area of neuroscience. And to do so, I need to have a good understanding of neuroscience, criminal law, evidence law and forensic experts’ analysis.”

That’s a mouthful just to read, so it’s easy to see why the researching keeps Armin busy seven days a week, from 9:30am to 8:30pm.

“I know it’s not healthy,” he laughs. “People usually ask me ‘How? We don’t understand how you do it!’ and I say ‘Me neither!’… Normal human beings cannot do it, so I might have some brain impairments – maybe I need a brain scan!”

It’s a good thing that Armin loves his work so much – his enthusiasm really shines through in his voice. Plus not all of that time is spent on his PhD. He also works for a group called the Australian Neurolaw Database (analysing how well neuro-scientific evidence was used in certain Australian cases), he teaches criminology in UNSW’s Faculty of Social Sciences, and he enjoys writing articles and going to conferences. All in all, there’s enough going on to give him little time to miss his parents and younger sister in Iran, and his older brother who is in Canada.

And to unwind? Armin is pretty keen on television series such as Mr Robot and Dexter (“It’s perfect” he says); and playing DOTA 2 (“It’s the only game I play, because it’s not easy to learn, and it’s challenging”). Not to mention that he loves living at Warrane, and found it a good place to pick up the Aussie accent.

“It’s the best place I can live,” says Armin. “Because it’s just more than a place to eat and sleep; it’s just like my home and part of my family, you can say. I share everything with them… It’s easy to socialise. People are always there and always welcoming.”

“When I came to Australia, it was the first time I left Iran, maybe because I’m not much of an adventurous person. I learnt English language in Iran, and I wasn’t good at all in the first couple of months. While I was struggling with doing presentations at university, the kind residents of Warrane helped me out several times – you won’t believe how they participate when I’m practicing and give me feedback. And after about 15 months, I teach others how to do a good presentation. Isn’t it amazing? I owe them heaps.”

With three semesters of his PhD down and five to go, Armin hopes to stay on as a postdoctoral researcher and later work as an academic/university professor. And it’s a sure thing that he won’t give up on it!