Photograph courtesy Munazza Alam
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Munazza Alam at Chile's Las Campanas Observatory

Photograph courtesy Munazza Alam

Finding Clarity in the Stars

Munazza Alam's search for possible extraterrestrial life was shaped by Earth-bound horrors.

Astronomer Munazza Alam is finding clarity, and a sense of purpose, in the stars.

The daughter of a Pakistani father and Indian mother, Alam was frequently conflicted, balancing two cultures, languages, and continents as a first-generation American. And though she was raised as a Muslim, she attended Catholic school for 14 years.

“The only thing I was absolutely certain of was my sense of otherness,’’ she says.

Her future began to crystallize during her senior year of high school, when she watched Saving Face, the 2012 Oscar-winning documentary about the surreptitious acid-throwing attacks on scores of women in Pakistan.

“I was fortunate enough not to worry about such problems,’’ Alam says.

Angered by a patriarchal Pakistani subculture that undermines strong, educated women, Alam says Saving Face was a defining moment in her life. Exceptional in math and science—she was class valedictorian—she decided her college major would be physics, a field she describes as unfettered by puritanical interests.

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Alam (center) is pictured with Sara Camnasio (right) and Haley Fica at the Magellan 1 Baade telescope.

Last spring, Alam graduated from Hunter College of the City University of New York with a near-perfect grade point average—her lone B was in a lower-level introductory economics course. She's now pursuing a graduate degree in astronomy and astrophysics at Harvard University.

“My interest in a male-dominated field speaks volumes to the gratitude I feel for the freedom to pursue my interests,’’ says Alam, 22. “If I could make it, I could help others do the same.”

At Hunter, Alam began working with researchers studying brown dwarfs. The failed stars aren’t massive enough to sustain hydrogen fusion and eventually cool and fade to resemble giant gas planets.

“For the first time, I was working on a real problem to which no one had an answer,’’ she says. “I realized that my work might be valuable to a greater community beyond me. I felt like I belonged and was eager to continue contributing.’’

Her goal is shared by other astronomers: to better understand exoplanets, their physical properties, and whether they contain the right chemical balances to support life. “Long term, my goal is to characterize the atmospheres of the first Earthlike planets,’’ she says.

Next-generation telescopes—such as the James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled for an October 2018 launch—and new, extremely large ground-based telescopes could provide a wealth of knowledge. “I’m excited a lot of this will happen during my time as a graduate student and early career as a scientist,’’ Alam says.

To date, the National Geographic young explorer’s favorite research has been in the field. She’s used telescopes at Arizona’s Kitt Peak National Observatory, Hawaii’s Mauna Kea Observatories, and the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile, where Alam used state-of-the-art equipment to master observing techniques for probing the atmospheric and physical properties of brown dwarfs.

Alam is also mentoring high school students and grade-schoolers and encouraging girls to pursue careers as scientists. “I love using my skill set to help someone else figure out what to do,’’ she says.

The empowered former Catholic school student goes nowhere without a head scarf.

“College was the first time where people just knew me for me,’’ she says. “Faith is an important part of my life. It’s a defining characteristic that makes my identity unique, and I want people to know.”

National Geographic produced this content as part of a partnerships with the Rolex Awards for Enterprise.