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Cambridge astrophysicist calls on UN to help girls reach for the stars

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Dr Ghina Halabi, a postdoctoral researcher in the Institute of Astronomy, has proposed a “UN sponsored international female alumni ambassador programme, for female role models to go back to their countries and their alma maters to inspire young girls to aspire, to dream and to achieve”.

Halabi received her doctorate from the American University of Beirut, and holds the distinction of being the first person to be awarded a PhD in Astrophysics from a Lebanese institution. She is keen to share her story, to highlight the opportunities available to women. Speaking at a high-level panel meeting at the UN Secretariat she raised the importance of role models, and said; “I feel it is my role, and obligation, to go back and inspire other women.” The UN’s Deputy Secretary General Amina Mohammed, Deputy Executive Director of UN Women Lakshmi Puri, Director of the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs Simonetta Di Pippo, and NASA Astronauts Scott Kelly and Sandy Magnus were among the panel members who heard her proposal.

“We need more role models,” she says. “But the research shows that for role models to work, girls need to be able to identify with them. You can be it if you can see it.

“The key thing I’m proposing here is to bring the role model back to her alma mater. The Kenyan scientist would go back to her school and university in Kenya, the Indian woman would do the same thing in India, the Iranian in Iran, and this way you have perfect engagement, girls can identify with these role models.

“We would visit our hometowns and our localities often and hold an event or two, just sharing our stories. It doesn’t have to be our science, just our stories. And imagine, if I go and talk to 20 girls every time, and there are 200 of me and we do that every year, and they go and tell their stories, think how big the network would get.”

Halabi was invited to speak at the UN Expert Meeting on Space for Women, at the UN-Women Headquarters in New York City last October. She was the only UK academic at the event, which was organised to discuss the scope and goals of the UN’s Space for Women Project. A key theme was innovative ways to empower women and girls, particularly in developing countries, to get into science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), and effective approaches for capacity building and development.

Halabi delivered a presentation to the meeting on the Institute of Astronomy’s work towards equality and diversity, and spoke about their success in achieving an Athena SWAN Bronze Award. She said “Athena SWAN is an excellent initiative because it standardises the efforts to improve representations of minorities and women in STEM. It’s currently extending pilot schemes in different countries, including Ireland and Australia, and I think people, in the US for example, thought ‘why don’t we have a nation-wide scheme like this’. It was very well received.”

Halabi has collaborated with a colleague in Washington DC, Dr Sara Langston, to create an outline of how the alumni ambassador programme will run, and is keen to secure endorsement and logistical support from the UN. She said; “If the UN can give an ambassador role to women who are successful in their fields, they will have an incentive, and feel encouraged and driven to take part.

“My involvement in the Space for Women project has introduced me to civil society leaders and experts from governments, international organisations, United Nations entities and research institutions in the public and private sectors in space and non-space fields. The fact that astronomy and space bring us all together was an eye opening experience on the role of astronomy in bettering the human condition.”

UNISPACE+50 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the first United Nations Conference on the Exploration and Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. The UN describes it as ‘an opportunity for the international community to gather and consider the future course of global space cooperation for the benefit of humankind.’ Events this week include a two-day conference, an exhibition, and a special high-level session of the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space.

A plan to build a global network of STEM ambassadors to encourage women and girls into science, put forward by a Cambridge academic to the United Nations, will be discussed at the UNSPACE+50 event this week.  

To inspire young girls to aspire, to dream, and to achieve
Ghina Halabi
Researcher profile: Dr Ghina Halabi

I am the first person to obtain a PhD in astrophysics from a Lebanese institution. This is a distinction I am very proud of, and I hope my achievements will serve to inspire other women and girls into STEM education and careers.

Astronomy, one of the oldest sciences, is engrained in the history of every culture. The rich space imagery inspires us to try and discover more about the Universe; and contextualise our very existence. Astronomy is at the forefront of scientific research, and scientists across the field are constantly setting new records by imaging the farthest stars, exploring habitable worlds, witnessing the most violent explosions and charting stellar census.

Stars are the atoms of the Universe. They play a crucial and prominent role on galactic and cosmological levels. Beyond hydrogen and helium, they create all the elements in the universe as by-products of the nuclear fusion that keeps them alive. They are also the hosts and birthplace of planets that form in their circumstellar or protoplanetary discs at or near the end of the stars' own formation process.

I research the evolution of these enigmatic objects, their interactions with their nearby companions, and the nucleosynthesis processes taking place through their lifetimes. To do that, I use stellar evolution codes that model their structure and element formation.  I also investigate the interaction between nearby stars and the implications of this proximity on their evolution and their ultimate fate.

A typical working day includes running stellar evolution simulations and analysing the results. I also chair and organise weekly meetings for the Stars group, design Astrophysics projects for Master’s students; and mentor students, providing support and guidance over the course of their studies. I supervise Mathematics students at Churchill College, peer-review papers, and engage in science communication and outreach activities.

Space is never short of fascinating topics and research projects. A key moment for me was the realisation that my research is not remote from everyday life, but that astronomy has a strong humanitarian dimension. Our theoretical exploration is inspired by observational astronomy, which plays a fundamental role in technological innovations that benefit humankind. This reaches areas like health, humanitarian aid, communication, agriculture, climate change, transportation and disaster response.

Tenacity, networking, resilience and ambition are crucial elements for success. These are some of the key qualities that have helped me along my career.  What has also shaped my journey was jumping into new experiences that were totally outside my comfort zone. To be able to do this, I had to consciously prevent myself from feeling like an imposter and own my work, my accomplishments and my journey. These ventures into unfamiliar territories helped me grow and establish myself and my reputation. I have also learned to shrug off negative messages that are tainted with gender-bias. Sometimes, you just have to fight it off with a smile and carry on.  

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