Imagine traveling to Chile to use the observatory and spending free time with burros (donkeys) in the mountains. Munazza Alam, a second-year graduate student in the Department of Astronomy at Harvard University, had that opportunity. Munazza spent one week at the Las Campanas Observatory in La Serena studying signatures of youth in nearby low-mass stars and investigating the atmospheric properties of “unusual brown dwarfs (astronomical objects that form like stars, but cool and fade over time to resemble gas giant planets like Jupiter).” Her trip was founded by a National Geographic Young Explorers Grant (read more about her trip here: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/10/munazza-alam-explorer-moments-dwarf-stars/).
When she is not exploring space from the observatory in Chile, Munazza characterizes exoplanet atmospheres from her home institution, Harvard. In her own words, “My research involves characterizing the atmospheres of ~20 nearby, bright exoplanets. I use data from the Hubble Space Telescope taken when these planets [pass] in front of their host stars. I investigate changes in the size of the planet as a function of wavelength to infer the presence of atoms and molecules in the atmospheres of these planets. Exoplanet atmospheric studies can unveil the formation and evolutionary histories of these planets in addition to revealing information about their present-day climates.”
Her research has taken her to new places, but when she is not contemplating the cosmos, she likes to read, try new ethnic foods, and learn new languages. She reflects, “It’s hard to find a work/life balance when you really love what you’re doing because that’s when work becomes play. But it’s important to take a step back from research (although it may be hard at times to stop thinking about some of the things I’m working on!) and just take some time for myself. I find the best way to separate myself from research and focus on other non-academic activities I enjoy is to put my laptop away and go outside! Each time I do so, I always return to research with a clear mind and a fresh perspective. It definitely pays to step away for a bit.”
As she grew up, Munazza had the support of her father as she continuously asked “why?” questions. He recognized her desire to learn and encouraged her to ask questions. “This [was] really important to me, since I come from a culture where asking “why?” is looked down upon. As a child, I was often reprimanded by others for asking such questions. But I never lost the habit, and it’s exactly that question of “why?” that drives my research today.” This probably explains her enjoyment of her first laboratory experience in sixth grade. Her class learned about different aspects of astronomy, geology, biology, and chemistry. The labs answered several “why” questions and included experiments such as testing blood type, dissecting earthworms, and identifying rocks and arthropod species. Munazza says, “It had me hooked. That was the first experience that spawned my interest in science.”
Her passion for science continues today, as evidenced in her graduate studies. She reminds others to remain inquisitive and assertive, “If you’re curious, don’t be afraid to ask “why?” Try to find good mentors/advisors early on - people who will support you and your interests. Don’t be discouraged if something seems intangible. Always remain interested and willing to learn…To me, being a scientist means working on the “known unknowns” - tackling an issue to which no one yet knows the answer. Research is like a thousand-piece puzzle where everyone is trying to fit the pieces together without knowing what the box looks like. This means we all need to work together to make sure we get the picture right.”
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