Reaching for the Stars: An Interview with Astronomer Munazza Alam

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In today’s day and age, Muslim women are often portrayed as being suppressed, uneducated and limited or discouraged from pursuing their dreams, yet, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, in Islam, men and women are enjoined equally in the acquisition of knowledge. One of many such examples is Munazza Alam. Munazza Alam is an astronomer, a National Geographic Young Explorer and a graduate student at Harvard University. She was a physics major at CUNY Hunter College, New York City, and has worked in various research groups in the Astrophysics Department at the American Museum of Natural History. Raised on Staten Island by parents of Pakistani Muslim heritage, Munazza’s accomplishments belie her youth. Munavara Ghauri, Editor of the Women’s Section for The Review of Religions, had an opportunity to ask Munazza about her work, faith and aspirations to discover Earth’s twin star.

MG: When and how did your interest in Astronomy spark?

MA: I didn’t have much of an interest in astronomy during my childhood, probably because I grew up in New York City where there is too much light pollution to have a proper view of the night sky. My interest in astronomy was instead sparked as a college student when I began working with a research group in the astrophysics department at the American Museum of Natural History. As part of the group, I started my own research project and had the good fortune to travel to observatories at national facilities to obtain data for my research. My first observing run at the Kitt Peak National Observatory, in Arizona, was the first time I had truly seen the night sky illuminated by hundreds of thousands of stars. It was a breathtaking sight that solidified my intent to pursue astronomy long term.

MG: You are currently a doctoral student at Harvard. Can you tell us about your research thesis? 

MA: My research focuses on detecting and characterising the atmospheres of exoplanets, or planets outside of the Solar System. We can learn about planet atmospheres by observing a planet when it transits (passes in front of) its host star. During transit, a fraction of the starlight filters through the atmosphere of the planet. We can discern information about the planet’s atmosphere by carefully analysing the light from the star. To do this work, I use observations taken with the Hubble Space Telescope and large ground-based telescopes located in Chile and Hawai’i.

Astronomer Munazza Alam uses observations taken with the Hubble Space Telescope (image) and large ground-based telescopes for her research
Hubble Space Telescope
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MG: You are the recipient of a National Geographic Young Explorers grant. What are these awarded for and how has it helped your research? 

MA: The National Geographic Young Explorers program (now called the Early Career Grant) supports projects led by early-career individuals in the areas of research, conservation and exploration. I applied for this grant to support my astronomy research as an undergraduate student. Even after the terms of my award were completed, this grants program has helped my research because it has led to a number of opportunities. I was invited to participate in a number of professional development workshops on topics such as public speaking and photography, through National Geographic. I have also participated in fun projects, including serving as a consultant for Mattel on an astrophysicist Barbie doll and writing the forward and chapter introductions for a children’s book on space.

MG: When you started your degree in physics, you were introduced to female astronomers heading a research group at the American Museum of Natural History. What was it like to work in a team with a female majority? 

MA: In astronomy, the gender balance is a bit better than other physical science fields although improvement is still necessary. In the past few years, women have earned approximately 40% of astronomy doctorates [1]— but women are also three times more likely than men to leave the field early in their careers.[2] To work in a team with a female majority, especially at the leadership level, means that I was working with women that made it to senior positions in astronomy despite various hurdles and obstacles along the way. Through my experiences working with this group, I learned a lot about perseverance and grit in the face of adversity.

MG: At Hunter, you were part of the John P. McNulty Scholars Program, where the goal is the advancement of women in all STEM fields. You have also won the Rosalyn S. Yalow Achievement in Science Award – named after the Nobel laureate and first female Hunter student to major in physics. Why is it important for women to pursue scientific endeavours? 

MA: I personally believe that it is important for women to pursue scientific endeavours because it can be a way for a woman interested in science and research to strive for something greater while simultaneously impacting their communities. To pursue science as a Muslim woman, it is all the more important to show the world that we are not limited by but rather enriched because of our faith and identities.

MG: You are actively working to inspire school students to become interested in science and astronomy. What does this entail? 

MA: I am committed to sharing my love of science, astronomy and inquiry-driven exploration. I have organised a variety of different programs and activities for school students, including acting out planet orbits, using art to break down scientific concepts, and doing hands-on experiments. Different students have a unique way of learning, so I think it’s important to be flexible in approach when doing outreach. For students in high school, I am also committed to mentoring these students in preparation for college and various opportunities that they can pursue.

MG: A lot of your work is based during anti-social hours. Has this ever been problematic for you as a woman? 

MA: As an observational astronomer, I frequently observe at national observatories, which means that sometimes my work requires me to stay up all night to collect data for my research. Observatories are located in remote, dry places at high altitudes – on mountain tops and in deserts – with few people around. By the Grace of Allah, I have not found working during these late hours in remote locations to be problematic for me as a woman. I always take extra care to stay alert and I take up any available arrangements that may better enable me to be safe in these situations.

MG: The Holy Qur’an has instructed Muslim women to observe purdah – cover their heads and dress and behave with modestly. Has this presented any difficulty for you in pursuing your career?

MA: While pursuing my career, it is very important to me that I maintain purdah in both my appearance and my mannerisms. I wear my full burqa and hijab at all times when I am outside of the house, which includes every work-related event or gathering I’ve ever attended. I have operated telescopes at national observatories, presented at conferences, and met with Nobel Prize winners in my full purdah in venues all over the world. I do not shake hands with men and I have found this practice to be especially effective for setting a physical boundary from the start with the non-related men I meet. I have met some people who believe that doing purdah or refusing handshakes might disadvantage women from opportunities in their careers, but I have not found this to be the case in my experience. I have never felt that doing purdah has hindered my ability to be a professional scientist in any way. In fact, many people have told me that they admire my courage and respect me more for doing purdah even though it sets me apart in professional settings. We live in a world today in which society is moving toward being more inclusive of people from all different backgrounds, which includes Muslim representation in STEM and other fields. Moreover, we have a right to dress in our purdah as Muslim women and discrimination against it is illegal. We should not be afraid to show the world who we are.

MG: Has being an Ahmadi Muslim woman hindered you in any way in terms of your career aspirations? 

MA: I have never felt that being an Ahmadi Muslim woman has hindered my career aspirations in any way. I am inspired by Hazrat Musleh Maud’s (ra) (Second Worldwide Head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community) words, encouraging Ahmadi Muslims to enter and excel in every secular activity, skill, and profession to fulfil the promise of God that Jama’at Ahmadiyya will become dominant in the world [3]. In light of this promise, I believe that being an Ahmadi Muslim woman will help me achieve my career aspirations.

MG: As Muslims, we offer 5 daily prayers and fast during the month of Ramadhan. How have you managed to combine fulfilling your religious commitments with your work during a busy daily schedule? 

MA: Alhamdolillah (All praise belongs to Allah), I am able to maintain my religious commitments alongside my work without any hindrances. I have a private office space, which I use for reading my daily prayers without any disturbance while I am at work. As for Ramadhan, it is a blessing from Allah Ta’ala that I have an understanding and supportive thesis advisor. She is from the Canary Islands of Spain, which is close to Morocco and as a result has Muslim influences. During Ramadhan, my advisor allows me to work remotely for the entire month so that I can go home and be with my family while I am fasting. My advisor is very supportive of this arrangement. In fact, last year, a few weeks before Ramadhan she asked me, “Why are you still here on campus? You should be at home with your family preparing for Ramadhan”.

MG: Professor Abdus Salam, the first Ahmadi Muslim to win a Nobel Prize in Physics, often mentioned how the Holy Qur’an inspired his research. As an Ahmadi Muslim yourself, where does your inspiration come from? 

MA: My inspiration to do research includes the wisdom of the Holy Qur’an as well as Hazrat Musleh Maud’s (RA) message for youth from a sermon in 1936, which I’ve included below. It reminds me that as an Ahmadi Muslim, pursuing research and contributing to scientific knowledge is an act of worship, helping to fulfil a prophecy of the Promised Messiah (as) that Ahmadis will become successful in every field Insha’Allah (God-Willing).

‘You should make yourself more proficient, and more capable, not only in your religion but also in every secular activity, every skill, and every profession. So much so that there is no field left in which the world can find anyone more competent than the members of Jamaat Ahmadiyya. 

You become the most skillful blacksmith; you become the most accomplished carpenter; you become the supreme architect; you become the best chemist; you become the ideal doctor; you become the most flawless artist; you become the most immaculate fabric weaver; you become the perfect designer of devices. When you will stand up with this determination and resolve and spread wide into the countries of the world, then God’s angels will shower favours upon you, and whatever work you do, even if it appears to be a secular task, you will be rewarded for it. It is because every step that you take will be to complete the promise of God which is that the Jamaat Ahmadiyya will become dominant in the world. 

Thus, the blacksmith, who tries to outstrip the rest of the world in forging iron for the sole reason that there is a promise of God that Jamaat Ahmadiyya will dominate the world, and he wishes to partake in the completion of this prophecy, then he is not forging iron, but he is in fact engaged in worship. 

Among you, the engineer, who is trying to overcome the whole world in advancement in engineering for the reason that there is a promise of God that Jamaat Ahmadiyya will dominate the world, and he wishes to partake in the completion of this prophecy, then he is not doing engineering, but he is in fact engaged in the worship of Allah. 

Similarly, the farmer among you, who is increasing his yield with the intention and determination that there is a promise of God that Jamaat Ahmadiyya will dominate the rest of the world, and he wishes to partake in the completion this prophecy, then he is not doing farming, but he is in fact engaged in the progression of faith. 

Therefore, progress in every profession, every skill, and every art, and become free of the confines of countries and territories — since a righteous person cannot be kept restrained by the enclosures of any state or land. Thence, you will observe the showers of Allah’s blessings upon you.’  [4]

MG: Your ambition is to discover an earth twin planet that may host other life forms. There are intimations of other possible life forms in the Holy Qur’an (e.g. 42:30). Have you been inspired by your faith in this regard?

MA: Absolutely. The Holy Qur’an categorically states the existence of life in the Universe, a claim that astronomers currently cannot make with certainty based on observations. Guided by the beautiful wisdom of the Holy Qur’an, I am inspired to pursue my research.

MG: What are your future goals and ambitions? 

MA: Insha’Allah, I would like to remain in astronomy and academia. My goal is to become a university professor, advance our understanding of the universe and advise student research. I would especially like to support young Muslim women and other Ahmadi students to pursue academic research. I pray that I achieve this goal, Insha’Allah if it is right for me.

MG:  Thank you Munazza for sparing the time to share some of your thoughts and experiences with us. We wish you the best of luck with your future goals, Insh’Allah. 


ENDNOTES

[1] American Institute of Physics, Women in Physics & Astronomy 2019 Report. https://www.aip.org/statistics/reports/women-physics-and-astronomy-2019#files.

[2] Flaherty, K. The Leaky Pipeline for Postdocs: A study of the time between receiving a PhD and securing a faculty job for male and female astronomers (2018). https://arxiv.org/pdf/1810.01511.pdf.

[3] Khutbat-e-Mahmood 1936, page 36-37)

[4] Ibid.

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