Taking Up Space

Ghina M. Halabi

Astrophysicist, founder and Executive Director of She Speaks Science

Despite the existing prejudices, you do not have to be a genius or observe the stars from childhood to dedicate yourself to astrophysics and investigate the mysteries of the universe. She Speaks Science came from this perspective, and is a multilingual platform whose objective is to enable the access of the most vulnerable young people (especially girls, who suffer most from prejudice and the absence of role models) to scientific research. To this end, the platform offers a series of stories with a plot and characters that motivate and appeal to the imagination of girls and young women to get closer to science. In addition, the stories help normalise failure as a learning tool and highlight the importance of resilience in our lives and careers. Thus, we can state emphatically, in response to T. S. Eliot’s question, that yes, it is about time to dare disturb the universe.

Almost any astrophysicist you meet will tell you that she started marvelling at the mysteries of the cosmos from a very tender age. I didn’t. I grew up in Barouk, a small village sprawled on a hill at the foot of Mount Lebanon. The mountain’s summits boast a primeval cedar forest so ancient that its wood is believed to have been used to build the temple of Solomon. During summer nights, the forest entraps clouds floating in from the Mediterranean Sea and a light breeze cools off the loitering heat of day. Dark skies blanket the village as coyotes howl at the bottom of the valley. From our balcony, the stars wink and beckon, but I’m gravely warned against indulging in their wonders.

 Among my people, the Druze community that has inhabited the land for hundreds of years, an urban legend has it that counting stars inflicts warts on your fingers. As any child would, I peaked at the stars all the same but not without a creeping sense of thrill and apprehension of their horrid cutaneous curse. Admiring the stars did not turn me into a cruciferous vegetable, but a grave affliction did befall me: an unshakable spell of defying norms and seeking challenges. That is how physics became attractive to me, but it was not my plan A either.

Born in the eighties as a civil war rattled my country, the sounds of artillery, missiles and sonic booms were my daily reality. I was intrigued by the jets that sliced our skies, so I wanted to become a fighter pilot. However, my fifteen-year-old self could see no women breaking clouds, and even entertaining such thought felt embarrassingly naïve.

Perhaps when reality disappoints and circumstances shackle one’s dreams, defiance becomes a life-affirming act. So my flying aspirations were grounded but not the skyward dreams. I took to studying physics, which seemed like a satisfying challenge, then worked hard for a PhD in astrophysics. I imagined it would only get easier from there; how wrong I was. No one had attempted a PhD in astrophysics in Lebanon before so there was no clear path to tread or role model in whose footsteps I could follow. I had to blaze that trail myself, yet another challenge that I accepted with the bravery of the uninitiated.

For more than a decade I studied stars, the powerhouse of the universe and seed of all forms of life. Stellar interiors are the furnace where nuclear burning happens and chemical elements are forged, the very same chemical elements that go on to form other stars, planets and people.

Looking at their twinkling light and witnessing them pouring out their heat and energy into the universe, one is tempted to think that stars are readily available for human exploration. However, there is hardly any region in the universe less accessible to scientific investigation than the interiors of stars. We can send probes to explore the farthest stretches of deep space, but we cannot send a probe inside a star. The closest we ever got to a star was the Parker Solar Probe, and yet it remained millions of miles away from the sun’s surface.

There is hardly any region in the universe less accessible to scientific investigation than the interiors of stars.

My research looked at how a star evolves, how it interacts with a nearby companion, and the processes it goes through during its lifetime. Because we cannot dive into a star to explore its depths, we use computer simulations that allow us to predict what may be happening underneath its luminous surface. My work focused on developing computer codes that simulate their evolution and trace the progression of their properties throughout their life cycle. This has allowed me to predict the abundance of chemical elements in a star, and thus its contribution to the chemical enrichment of its galaxy.

I also applied my codes to more complex scenarios. For example, it is complicated enough to figure out the internal workings of stars, but what if the star is not single? What if it has a close companion with which it interacts? This is called a binary system in which two stars may come so close that they embrace in a single cocoon and engage in an exchange of momentum and matter that ultimately alters their fate. Another example is one where a star is spinning fast. This complicates matters further and affects its shape and its observable properties.

After years of studying the universe in its constant flux and metamorphosis, I migrated to another that is equally fluid and kinetic, entrepreneurship. However, my cosmic adventures continue to inform my perspective in more ways than one. Among these is a strong sense of agency as someone who can bring about change, from leading She Speaks Science to empowering with the art of storytelling. In unimaginably complex stellar systems, each part – however small – plays its role and triggers a cascade of consequences that affect the larger system. Stars, together with all the planets and galaxies in existence, make up just four percent of the universe. Yet, they have altered the dynamics of the cosmos and continue to drive its rattling events. This has always made me wonder: if my efforts can be impactful albeit minuscule, how can I contribute to the betterment of society and drive positive change?

This was the spark. What fuels and sustains my work on equality and broadening access to science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) is my own experience and the barriers that I faced growing up as a minority. I hope to make a difference, however small, so that a young girl or boy does not miss out on becoming an engineer or pilot or astronaut simply because of lack of mentorship or role models.

This is why She Speaks Science aims to make the presence and role of women and minority scientists more visible, and to promote a positive STEM identity among the youth. Our stereotypical role models seem to have enforced a normative idea of who does STEM, making a scientist figure someone to look up to rather than identify with.

To face the threats of the coming decades humanity requires the understanding and support of science at a global scale

My consultancy work in storytelling and science communication made me realise how not every role model would inspire and not every approach to promoting STEM would work. On She Speaks Science, we take a storytelling approach for three reasons:

• Stories featuring characters, change, struggle and adventure spark imagination and motivate girls and young women to explore science. Girlhood is changing, being an eleven-year-old these days is different from what it used to be. Girls today are individualistic and socially conscious. They have a message and want to make an impact; they want to change the world. Our stories show them how through science they can do that.

• Stories help normalise failure. One factor that deters young people from pursuing a scientific career is the notion that to be a scientist, one has to be a “genius”. We often overlook struggle and resilience as essential aspects of being a scientist. A study in educational psychology found that students who are exposed to scientists’ “struggle stories” recorded higher science grades and levels of motivation than those who were not. Thus, narrating the struggle of a scientist, as a protagonist searching for the truth, is effective in normalising failure and building resilience among young explorers.

• Stories help bring about a culture change. They normalise the idea of a woman scientist to boys and young men so they come to view it as commonplace rather than exceptional. She Speaks Science’s readership now spans more than 180 countries across Europe and the globe. Offering our stories in five languages (English, Arabic, Spanish, German and Italian) is crucial to ensure wider accessibility and to cater for a global audience. Although the English language dominates global scientific activities and using a single international language facilitates the dissemination of scientific knowledge across national and cultural borders, the English language should not be a gatekeeper to scientific discourse. More critically, to face the threats of the coming decades humanity requires the understanding and support of science at a global scale. This makes science communication in multiple languages crucial to ensure a larger reach and effectiveness. That is what we are trying to do through our team of dedicated translators.

Taking up space can be intimidating, from studying astrophysics to occupying spaces in which we are a minority. “Do I dare disturb the universe?” wondered T. S. Elliot. Yes, and it’s about time.