INTERVIEW: Astrophysicist hopes her story resonates with Egyptian women

Ashraf Amin , Monday 29 May 2023

In her new book, Starstruck: A Memoir of Finding Light in the Dark, astrophysicist Sarafina El-Badry Nance links her knowledge of the universe to her journey as a child of immigrants who witnessed 9/11 and tried to integrate into white Texas society in every chapter.

Sarafina El Badry
Astrophysicist Sarafina El Badry Nance pose for an image before the interview.


Born in the US to an Egyptian mother and Albanian-German father, Nance is a PhD candidate at UC Berkeley and a science communicator who makes complex subjects fascinating and accessible. She has been named in Forbes' 30 Inspirational Women and 30 under 30 lists, as well as the Arab America Foundation's 40 under 40 list.

In her book, Sarafina recounts the arguments she had with the priest at her school in St. Andrews when he described the Red Sea being red because God punished Pharaoh, who did not repent and persecuted Moses' people.

She talks about how divided she was between her family in Egypt, who love her, the sea, which is not red, and what she was taught at school.

In the following interview, Sarafina talks about her journey as a scientist, the surgery she had to go through after finding out she had an 87 percent chance of getting breast cancer in her lifetime and the journey of sharing science on social media.

Ahram Online: Why did you write this book? And why now?

Sarafina El-Badry Nance: I noticed that there is a lack of women in science and engineering and stories like mine are not the norm. I wanted to give a sense of belonging to other people who are pursuing dreams like mine. The book was an exercise in sharing the heartbreak and joy of what it means to carve out a place in science that is not historically made for someone like me.

I had a major surgery four years ago, a preventative double mastectomy because I found out through genetic analysis that I had an 87 percent risk of developing breast cancer. While I was recovering from the surgery, I thought about how this process related to other parts of my life and finding my voice. I used research to advocate for myself. There were a lot of similarities between the way I approached the surgery and the way I have carved a path for myself as a scientist and science communicator. I felt it was time to put it all together.

The format of the book is really interesting because I wanted to relate my understanding of the universe and the things I find cool in physics to my own personal development. So each science section is paralleled by the pros that follow. At the end of the book I talk about the idea that my goal as an astronomer is to explore the universe, but I also explore myself and my inner universe.

AO: In the book you talk about how as a child you avoided looking different from your blonde peers by straightening your curly hair and avoided speaking in Arabic in public, can you elaborate on that?

SN: It is really sad when I look back on those chapters of my life and remember what it was like growing up in Texas, an extremely white state. I was in third grade when 9/11 happened. There was a backlash against Middle Eastern people in the US, especially in conservative white states. I am very sad that my reaction at the time was to hide a part of me to fit in.

I also believe that this is a very common experience for children of immigrants who want to fit in and hide their otherness in order to be liked and accepted. I think things are much better now with social media and cultural discussions about valuing diversity in American society.

As an adult, I am very proud to be half Egyptian and I feel very connected to my family in Cairo. I have not returned there since the Arab Spring, but I would really like to go back. For me, Egypt is the origin of who I am in many ways. I feel very connected to the country and hope that my story resonates with Egyptian women.

AO: Why did you decide to share your breast cancer story on social media? And what was the reaction of your audience?

SN: When I was applying for my degree, my father was diagnosed with stage four prostate cancer and shortly after I discovered that I have the same genetic BRCA mutation and have an 87 percent chance of developing breast cancer. I decided to have a preventative double mastectomy and felt it was important to share my story for a number of reasons. I was scared of the surgery and felt less alone when I talked about it. I found that it was well received by others. Everyone has a story of a relative or themselves affected by cancer or a chronic illness.

It is important to talk about big issues like life and death and how to give meaning to your life. I do not think we talk about these topics much because they are scary and difficult, but they are rich and valuable and are meant to speak to people on a deeper level.

Another point: in the US it is often taboo to talk about women's bodies and there is no open platform to talk about an issue like the one I experienced. In the US there are people who want to control women's bodies. Women and girls are increasingly restricted in their sexual and reproductive health. I am a big advocate for breast self-examination and there is an initiative called "Feel it on the First" on social media to raise awareness about the importance of early detection. It is universal health care.

So there was something very encouraging when I shared my story and I got an incredible amount of support. I hope that I have encouraged others to get genetically tested and talk to their families about their hereditary risk and learn more about their health. I also received negative feedback for putting my femininity aside. But I felt so confident in the choices I had made and the negativity was drowned out by what I felt was meaningful.

AO: Did you decide to have the operation because you believe in science, or was it pure instinct?

SN: The science was very clear to me: I had an 87 percent risk of developing breast cancer in my lifetime, and the double mastectomy reduced that risk to less than five percent. That was the right step for me. Everyone has a different risk from the gene mutation depending on their family history. Everyone weighs their risks differently. Personally, I suffer from severe anxiety and was not comfortable carrying the high risk of breast cancer for life. I wanted to regain a sense of control and power over my future and I knew that this decision would help me do that. The science agreed with what my heart and mind were telling me I needed to do. I do not pretend it was an easy decision and I understand how difficult it is for everyone. After three surgeries, I went through a challenging journey. I also decided to become a model, just to feel stronger and to love myself more.

AO: In your book, you talk about Star Date, a radio programme you used to listen to. How did this programme shape your future?

SN: Star Date was my first exposure to science and astronomy. I was enchanted by this five-minute programme that explained the universe in simple language to a general audience. I could not believe there were so many things to learn by looking at the night sky. I fell in love with all this information at a young age. Because of this programme, I decided to become an astrophysicist. I think it is a tragedy that science journalism is not valued nowadays. We need to help journalists and scientists communicate better with the public, especially about urgent issues like pandemics, climate change or other threatening topics. I also believe that scientists have a responsibility to share their findings with a wider audience.

AO: How do you manage your time between research and creating scientific content on social networks?

SN: Most of my work as a scientist is 95 percent coding and analyzing how we envision the universe. For me, what is exciting about working with physics and astronomy is the perspective it offers and the reminder that I am working on interesting topics like studying stars and black holes and all the fascinating phenomena in our universe. One way to get in touch with these ideas is to talk about them on social media. I think it is imperative that scientists share the magic of what they learn with the world and that people care about and invest in this scientific enterprise. In general, my audience is made up of 20 to 40-year-olds who are of the same gender and interested in learning.

AO: How different is the content you produce for every social media platform?

SN: Compared to the other types of content I create for social media platforms, making a YouTube video takes a lot of work. A five- to ten-minute YouTube video takes me about eight hours to complete. TikTok content allows me to explain scientific information in 30 seconds, which is much more manageable for my schedule. I likewise found it critical to share the reality of living behind the science, so I moulded a great deal of my substance on Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok discussing uneasiness or my different interests.

It was essential to break the common misconception that scientists are only interested in conducting research on their field and not other aspects of life. I was able to produce regular videos and scientific content on my social media platforms in a few years, including my YouTube channel with over 50 million views per month, my Twitter account with 132,700 followers, my Instagram account with 41,500 followers, and my TikTok account with 91,400 followers. I hope that I have inspired other people to enter the scientific field.

AO: What did your audience teach you?

SN: When I first started using Twitter, I wanted to write a lot of science-related content. Over time, I realized how important it is to include human stories and voices. Additionally, I began to share a portion of my life and health journey. I discussed my difficulties in math and physics classes. I think individuals resounded with that kind of content. Individuals need to see what you are battling with, in addition to the examples of overcoming adversity. People are encouraged to believe that they are not the only ones struggling with science by this content.

My skills as a science communicator are constantly developing; I am always looking for new approaches to science-based concepts and better ways to tell my stories. You are aware that science is not a belief; rather, it is a collection of data that leads you to a particular conclusion, and I believe there is a fundamental misunderstanding regarding what science is. Explaining how we arrive at evidence-based theories about the world is crucial for this reason.

AO: What projects are you working on now?    

SN: I am presently chipping away at my thesis at UC Berkeley. I am attempting to measure the rate at which the universe expands in my paper, which is about looking into supernovae stars. I have spent the past few years putting a lot of effort into this research, and I hope to receive my PhD in December. I will also launch my new book, Starstruck, a memoir about astrophysics and finding light in the dark. I would not want anything more than to work in the space area. Additionally, I want to continue discussing the universe with others.

AO: Do you intend to work as an astronaut?

SN: That is an objective of mine, this is one of my fantasies since I was a small child, obviously the chances are exceptionally low. It is very difficult to become an astronaut and only a few people are selected annually. Even if I do everything I can to get all the training, I might not be considered. I took part in the simulation of an astronaut on Mars. In zero gravity, I flew. In the hopes of one day becoming an astronaut, I am learning to scuba dive. I want to put myself in the best possible position. Having said that, I believe that the thing that is more important to me right now than becoming an astronaut is to continue to learn and to be open to new experiences as I develop and discover meaning in my journey.

AO: What advice do you have for Egyptian women considering a career in astrophysics?

SN: I think as a rule ladies are informed that they are not equipped for following through with something and I encourage anyone who gets that message to say I am skilled and it is not possible for anyone to let me know what I may or may not be able to. Find people who would support you in pursuing your dreams, elevate your voice, and encourage you if you want to do something. Find your mentors and social media figures. I experienced exactly what you described. Without the assistance of my mentors and the people in my community, I would not be where I am today.

Finding your idols is one aspect of being online. I was able to reach women in astronomy whom I have never met before. I think we as a whole had this general insight of feeling awkward, like a sense that the world was not designed for us. A wide range of experiences enriches science. Additionally, I believe that women, particularly those from Egypt and the MENA region, are underrepresented in the fields of astronomy and space studies.

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