Interactions: Ghina M. Halabi

Ghina M. Halabi is an astrophysicist and social entrepreneur, whose work lies at the intersection of science, entrepreneurship and education. During her PhD and postdoctoral work, her research was on internal structure and evolution of stars.
Published in Physics
Ghina Halabi

Now, working at Cambridge Judge Business School Entrepreneurship Centre, ​she creates and leads​ impactful opportunities for scientists and academics to thrive beyond the lab. The first person to gain a PhD in astrophysics from a Lebanese university, she is a strong advocate for public engagement, particularly through storytelling. In 2018, Ghina founded She Speaks Science, a multilingual social enterprise for public engagement. Since 2020, she has been a mentor on the United Nations Space for Women Network.

Could you tell us a bit about your research?

There is hardly any region in the Universe less accessible to human investigation than stellar interiors. For more than a decade, my work probed exactly that: the interiors of stars, vital regions of our Universe and the seed to human life. My research looked at the evolution of these enigmatic objects, their interactions with their nearby companions, and the nucleosynthesis processes taking place through their lifetimes. I developed computational codes to model stellar evolution, by tracing the progression of a star’s properties throughout its life cycle and model its structure and element formation. This allowed me to predict the abundances of chemical elements on a star’s surface.

What inspired you to become an astrophysicist?

Unlike many astrophysicists who start marvelling at the mysteries of the cosmos from a very young age, I never thought I’d become one. In the small mountainous Lebanese village where I grew up, an urban legend has it that counting stars causes warts on your fingers. As any child would, I counted stars all the same but not without a creeping sense of thrill and apprehension of the curse that might befall me. The only affliction I ended up with instead is an unshakable spell of always seeking a good challenge.

Born in the 1980s in a country riddled with a raging civil war, the sounds of artillery, missiles and sonic booms were almost a daily reality. I was intrigued about flying, and as a teenager, I wanted to become a fighter pilot. However, to a 15-year-old with no role models breaking clouds, this path seemed cordoned off and even trying seemed like trespassing.

Perhaps when reality disappoints and limitations shackle one’s dreams, defiance becomes a life-affirming act. So I dismissed the thought of becoming a fighter pilot, but not the skyward dreams. I took to studying physics which seemed like a hearty challenge, then worked hard for a PhD in astrophysics. One would think it can only get easier from there. However, no one had attempted that degree in Lebanon before so there was no clear path to tread or role model to aspire to. I had to blaze that trail myself, yet another challenge I daringly accepted.

What was the motivation behind She Speaks Science?

My own experience and the barriers I faced fuel my work on broadening access so that young people don’t miss out on becoming engineers or pilots or astronauts because of lack of mentorship or role models. So I founded She Speaks Science in 2018. Our work aims to promote women and minority scientists in STEM, and create a positive STEM identity among young people.

Why is the idea of storytelling important to you?

My consultancy work in science communication made me realise that not every role model inspires, and not every outreach approach works to promote STEM. On She Speaks Science, we take a storytelling approach for three reasons:

  1. Stories featuring characters, change, struggle and adventure spark imagination and motivate girls and young women to explore science. Girlhood is changing, being an 11 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 impact, they want to change the world. Our stories show them how through science they can do that.
  2. 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”. Our stereotypical role models seem to have enforced a normative idea of who does STEM, overlooking struggle and resilience as essential aspects of being a scientist. A study published in 2016 in the Journal of Educational Psychology finds that students who are exposed to scientists “struggle stories” recorded higher science grades and levels of motivation than those who weren’t. 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.
  3. 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 features writing in many languages, why is that important?

She Speaks Science’s readership now spans more than 180 countries across 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 shouldn’t 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’s what we’re trying to do through our team of dedicated translators.

We will also soon be offering our stories in audio format, as a podcast initially, for an even wider accessibility and inclusivity.

Could you tell us a bit about your involvement in the United Nations Space for Women project?  

It all started in 2017 when I was invited to the UN Headquarters in New York to participate in the Expert Meeting on Space for Women. A key theme of the meeting was to explore ways to empower women and girls, particularly in developing countries, to get into science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), and to devise effective approaches for capacity building and development.

Inspired by the discussions and conversations during the meeting, I proposed to establish the Space for Women Network as a solution for the lack of STEM role models. The UN Office for Outer Space Affairs adopted the recommendation and established the network in 2020. I am now a mentor on this Network working with young girls across the globe from Australia to Egypt and the United States to help them pursue a degree and a career in space.

What is a development you’d really like to see within astrophysics in the next ten years?

I find the search for signals from an intelligent life in the Universe both thrilling and of profound consequences. Ancient civilizations at the times of Aristotle and Ptolemy thought that Earth was the centre of the Universe around which the Sun, stars, and planets orbited. Heliocentrism then replaced Earth with the Sun as the centre of the Universe. Then we discovered that the Sun is merely one of billion stars in an ordinary galaxy. We then realised that billions of galaxies exist, and just as many planets in our galaxy alone. What if one of those is harbouring life, not the bacterial life that we’re looking for now, but one that is smarter than we are?

If we are the only species in the Universe, it’s not only an awful waste of space, but as a satirist would reasonably argue “the Universe aimed rather low and settled for very little.” If we are not, that would challenge our own identity and put our anthropocentrism to the test.

Can you share a piece of advice you’d give to a young person interested in astrophysics?

Dare to take up space, literally and figuratively. Space is for everyone and we need the young talent and enthusiasm to get us safely to Mars and beyond.

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