We spoke with Co-Founder of G.I.V.E and Youngest Member of Virgin Galactic’s Future Astronaut Program, Zainab Azim to learn more about how she got started in the industry and her goals for the future.
What inspired you to establish the Global Initiative & Vision for Education (GIVE)?
There are many reasons. For one, I deeply believe in the importance of education on a personal, local, and global level. Many of us reading this are fortunate to have access to school and security, while millions do not have that same privilege. Access to education should be a guaranteed right. I wanted to ensure that every child had a chance, the opportunity to fulfill their potential and their promise.
However, I recognized the prevalent issues within our current schooling systems. Even those with access to schools are not receiving quality education due to how we do schooling in North America — schooling models that we then export to developing areas. For example, we put more time and resources into measuring our children’s potential rather than developing it.
Secondly, as a neuroscience student, I’ve studied the growing mental health epidemic amongst young people and know that we need a better way to provide education that doesn’t just address the intellect but the whole human being to develop a sense of meaning and purpose as the foundations for fulfilling their potential. And finally, the world is facing many pressing challenges, including climate change. To address these issues, we need innovative, equitable solutions which require creativity, curiosity, and character, not conformity and redundancy — skills that schools can aid in fostering rather than limiting.
What kickstarted your ambition to become an astronaut?
My fascination with astronomy started by simply paying attention to life — by observing the world around us, looking up at the night sky, and noticing all the little wonders of our universe, from our human selves to the flickering lights in the infinite cosmic abyss. This awareness of the connectedness between ourselves and the universe, the excitement of the unknown, this sense of wonder, imagination, love of learning, curiosity, and feeling like I was a part of something much greater is what sparked my passion for astronomy.
How important is representation in aerospace to you?
Diversity in STEM and aerospace matters deeply in all areas because it allows for a multitude of perspectives, interests, and needs to be represented rather than being dominated by one group, as we have seen throughout history and the present. As such, without diversity, we may not all reap the benefits of innovation in the aerospace sector, leaving the fruits of progress to be hoarded by a few people instead of being distrusted equitably.
Furthermore, diversity allows people from different walks of life to gain access to STEM and space-related fields so that they can create access and opportunity for others to follow and ensure that everyone is able to benefit from these advancements while also having a part in building our future.
What advice would you give to young girls aspiring to have STEM careers?
Don’t limit your life based on someone else’s limited imagination. We must remember that the sky is not the limit and that although the path may seem difficult, as long as you know your why and your worth, the how will come, and you’ll overcome any challenges in your way. It can be difficult to succeed on your own, so don’t be afraid to ask for support and guidance, especially from those in the field you’re interested in.
The majority of people would be very grateful to mentor you, but if you don’t ask, the answer will always be no. And finally, when in doubt, remember that if you’re driven by a sense of meaning and purpose, anything and everything is possible. So make sure to start with your why — know what you value, what you care about, what impact you want to have, and why. Then ask how you can develop and use your skills to practice your passion for STEM in the service of others. As David Viscott said, “The purpose of life is to discover your gift. The work of life is to develop it. But more importantly, the meaning of life is to give it away.”
What are your goals for the future?
Well, there’s a lot to do. We probably couldn’t fit all of my goals into this Q&A, but what I hope for most, and what I’m working toward on a daily basis, is using the research and community organizing we’re doing at GIVE, UNOOSA, and other organizations to effect change in education policy so that more young people, especially equity-seeking students, have the chance to use their care to change the world for the better. “To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition” — R.W. Emerson.