The Space Court Foundation created the Interview Series, an initiative hosted by Nivedita Raju to amplify voices of minority communities, starting with Women of Colour.
Hello everyone and welcome to episode four of Space Court Foundation’s Interview Series for Women of Colour in space.
I am Nivedita Raju, Director of Legal Affairs and Research at Space Court. At the Foundation we firmly believe in the benefit of outer space for all of humankind. Each episode of our series features a different speaker and highlights their experiences in the international space sector as a woman of colour. This week, we are excited to feature Dr. Ghina Halabi. She is an astrophysicist, a social entrepreneur and was the first person to obtain her PhD in Astrophysics from a Lebanese University. Welcome Ghina! Could you please tell us a little bit more about your journey and how you chose this career?
Dr. Ghina M. Halabi:
I hadn’t always thought and planned to be an astrophysicist. To be honest, many people who become eventually astronomers or astrophysicists, they had always be thinking about the cosmos and the stars and the sky. Of course, I was fascinated as a child by the stars, but I am not sure I even knew what it meant to become an astrophysicist. I was very curious as a child, I always asked: ‘why?’ So perhaps it seemed like a natural thing for me to become a scientist. My two siblings are also scientists as well. My sister is a biologist, my brother is a chemist. So there might also be something in our household that kind of drove us down that path. So I studied physics and then, after I got my degree, I felt that there must be something more to learn, something more to try. So I did a Master’s degree, and then I did my PhD in Astrophysics.
I was interested in many different things and I met who later became my PhD supervisor, and he told me about his research, the stars, how they evolve, their role in the universe, and you know, I was sold to the idea straight away. But as you mentioned, no one had obtained a PhD in Astrophysics in Lebanon before, so my degree was the first homegrown PhD in Astrophysics, and that meant I had to forge that path for myself. There was no ‘user manual’ for how to get that degree and it wasn’t easy.
For your listeners, I really want to emphasize that there were, you know, lots of frustrations and doubt and I often asked myself: ‘how meaningful is what I am doing ?’ You always evaluate these choices. There were lots of sleepless nights, It was really hard work, but it was worth it.
That’s incredible! And after becoming a lecturer in Beirut and completing your post-doc in Cambridge, you founded She Speaks Science ( https://www.shespeaksscience.com/). Could you tell us a little bit more about the program and its objective?
Dr. Ghina M. Halabi:
As you mentioned, for a while I worked at the American University of Beirut, where I got my PhD. I worked as a lecturer there, I taught physics courses and then I was offered a position in the University of Cambridge, where I am now based, to work as a researcher, as a post-doc. So I moved here in 2015. During my post-doc, I started becoming more and more involved in promoting STEM among the young people. You know, given my own background – I was the first person to get a PhD in Astrophysics from a Lebanese University, and that’s okay! But what is not okay, and what is not acceptable, that I be the last one, right? So I felt that I had a duty there, a role to play. I wanted the Lebanese youth to understand, to realize that there is no special powers behind being a scientist or an astrophysicist. It just takes a lot of dedication, a lot of commitment, hard work and curiosity, and love for learning. Being the first person to discover something new, there is a huge thrill to that! Because of my commitment towards advancing the gender equality agenda within STEM subjects broadly and understanding more and more and realizing the importance of storytelling in getting these messages across and making these subjects quite reachable for the audience and subjects that people can identify with and engage with and be interested in!
So these two things came together: this commitment I had to spread that message and my love of storytelling. You know, being from lebanon, we have lots of stories and the Thousand and One Nights and Scheherazade, the storyteller. So how can we merge these two? How can we transform what we are doing in terms of research? This really impactful research that women are doing all over the globe! How can we transform these into impactful messages that people relate to? I started thinking: ‘so there is this latina doing incredible space research or this lady from India who is working in biology, or genetics, or chemistry, or whatever it is!’ So using storytelling, She Speaks Science started to promote a positive identity around STEM, and who does STEM (meaning Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths).
Changing the perspective! Because what we have seen is that we have promoted the image of a scientist as a person we look up to, rather than someone we identify with and someone we can be. So changing that perspective and at the same time promote the women who are doing science all over the world, so that the younger generation can start to identify with these people and think: ‘oh i can do that too! Oh it is tough, there are difficulties, there is failure, and it is okay!’
So through She Speaks Science, within stories from these women on not just astronomy or space science, but biology, computer science, engineering, space exploration. We started translating them into different languages so they are available in Arabic because of my background, in Italian, in Spanish, in German, and of course, in English.
Could you also tell us a little bit more about your new mentorship program PENTA?
Dr. Ghina M. Halabi:
So besides the stories that I mentioned, which are a core and essential part of She Speaks Science, we recently launched a program called PENTA, [from the Greek:] “Five“. The idea behind PENTA is that we have a very tightly knit community of women and girls from all over the world, particularly from five different regions: Asia, Middle-East, Africa, Europe, and the US and Latin America, to ensure that we have this intersectionality, this broad representation. Women on the program are from five different career stages, so executive level, working in STEM subjects and then professionals so these could be post-docs, researchers, or even working in the industry, university students could be finishing their PhD or their Master’s degree, high school students and school students. The idea is that the program runs for five months in keeping with a theme of five. During these five months, this network of women and girls engage in mentoring and being mentored in a cascade fashion. So for example, if you are a professional in this network, you will be mentored by the executive and you will be mentoring the person just underneath you, on that career ladder, who would be the university student. The university student in turn would be mentoring the school student, etc. The idea behind this is to nurture the idea, the thought that whoever you are, whatever your career stage is, someone is looking up to you, you are someone’s role model and someone’s mentor. We launched on the February 11th, International Day of Women and Girls in Science.
Each month, we explore a different theme. So besides the monthly meetings between the mentor and the mentee, we have monthly meetings in which we explore a certain theme so the idea behind PENTA is that it is a launch mission, launched into a destination that is very exciting! Say Mars for example. So we start with the launch and how you launched your career and then, we moved to the jettison phase, how you let go, just like a spaceship needs to let go of its booster rockets, once they run out of fuel. You really need to let go of these. So how do we let go of these negative mindsets which do not serve us anymore, like imposter syndrome, self-doubt, all of these things. Then, we move to the cruise phase, you know, exploring different options and then, we move into the landing phase and exploration phase.
In each phase, we explore the parallels for what it means to us in terms of our career. We explore ideas like visibility, public speaking, world-life balance, etc. The program is a pilot program, so we weren’t really sure how it would be received, and in the first time we ran it, this year, the feedback that we got and the number of applications we received was so incredible! And the quality of applications was so truly incredible and amazing! It really shows the need for this kind of connections, for the networking element, for this aspect. As the PENTA crew go, they go through these phases. We are learning about how they are building their profile, their Linkedin pages, they are applying to internships, to training programs that their mentors told them about. So it is really becoming a very exciting adventure for this group of women and girls, and we are very excited about that. They come from 24 different countries, imagine! We have 33 women and girls on this network and they come from 23 to 24 different countries. So it is truly incredible, the diversity that we are seeing and it is very exciting. I look forward to the future versions of PENTA as well!
On the subject of mentoring, our organization Space Court Foundation focuses on increasing accessibility to space law and policy. Mentorship is an area we have identified, even in earlier episodes on the series, as a crucial link. From this perspective, what challenges have you identified in accessing space education in Lebanon?
Dr. Ghina M. Halabi:
It’s a spot on, the remark about the role of mentorship and the role of network. If you think about the challenges the space education field is facing in Lebanon, apart from the challenges that are not only unlike any other, challenges we face at the moment, given that the situation in Lebanon is challenging in itself, whether economic aspects financial, political, etc. Because it is not hugely developed, the space sector in Lebanon, we do not have a space agency for example, although we do have lots of groups working in astronomy and space research. A very crucial factor in my career while I was still in Lebanon is having mentors from outside of Lebanon, not just inside Lebanon, to whom I could ask questions or I could come to for opportunities, for ideas, like a PhD as a Master’s student. Then later, as a PhD student, I had all these questions and I also needed to understand where I am standing in this kind of bigger community of space research. Am I doing well? Is what I am researching relevant?
So reaching out to these people, going to conferences and building networks, connecting with researchers who are doing similar things in Europe, in the US, everywhere in the world. It was really a very crucial factor for me to be able to get my PhD because my PhD committee included professors from the US, professor from Spain, in addition to the professors from Lebanon. So this really played the role, meeting these people. Because in Lebanon, it can also be a bit isolating. So for example, when I was doing my PhD, it was only with my Phd supervisor. It was just the two of us working on this research. In contrast, I realized when I came to Cambridge, and I started working at the Institute of Astronomy, that when a Phd student is working on their degree, on their thesis, they are generally working within bigger groups. It could be five, six or even more involving post-docs, senior post-docs, professors, etc. Also, Master’s students and sometimes undergrads.
So there is always this brainstorming, always this collaboration, this cooperation. You also have easy access to groups everywhere else, working on similar topics. So this factor of isolation can be intimidating, can be demotivating for a researcher working in places like Lebanon or elsewhere. So my advice would be to build these connections with everywhere else, to go to conferences , to network and speak at every opportunity you have. Start building these bridges. These are the bridges that enabled me throughout my career.
Thank you Ghina, for that moving and insightful discussion. You truly are a leading example to many hopefuls in the international space sector.