World’s Youngest Future Astronaut, Zainab Azim discusses her passions for astronomy, why diversity is so important in STEM fields, and how we can better support the next generation of female explorers to ensure their success.
What initially sparked your interest in space exploration?
My fascination with astronomy and space exploration was sparked by something as small as paying attention to the world around me, which made me more aware of the world within, too. I used to look up at the night sky and notice all the little wonders of our universe, from the flickering lights against the background of an infinite cosmic abyss to the very rich life on earth itself, helping me reflect on our own existence. Growing up, instead of bedtime stories, before bed I would read and watch things like Carl Sagan’s The Cosmos. The questions only grew from there. Learning about Space filled me with this sense of wonder, imagination, curiosity, and most of all, a love of learning. The possibility of the unknown was exciting to me. And I felt this deep connection between the universe out there, within myself, and between each of us – for I felt we were all a part of the universe and it was a part of all of us (quite literally in that we are made of stardust after all!) Space helped me realize I was a part of something much greater than myself – ultimately, this is what sparked my passion for astronomy.
As a Role Model and Mentor for the UNOOSA Space4Women Network, why is it so important to encourage youth to get involved in STEM?
Beyond the inspirational role, STEAM has to play in developing a lifelong love of learning, I believe it’s important for young people to get involved in STEAM because it enables us to have a hand in shaping what the present and future of our world will look like. The solutions to many of the issues facing our world and our generation such as climate change and growing inequality not only lie in STEAM, but also require skills like innovation, creativity, outside-the-box thinking, and collaboration – all of which STEAM fields help to foster.
What challenges have you faced as a girl in STEM, and how have you overcome them?
I am extremely privileged to have been born where I was born and to have grown up with access to education, safety, security, and opportunity. At the same time, being a young Muslim woman who is a child of immigrants, there are societal and systemic challenges that exist and that I continue to face as a result of my identity, such as constantly being underestimated and overlooked due to subconscious biases people may hold or that I may have even internalized towards myself. In other moments, there’s outright misogyny, Islamophobia, xenophobia. You have to work harder at times to be taken seriously and actively make and take up space when others are not so welcoming. There was a moment not too long ago when I didn’t feel like I belonged in STEAM, especially the space sector, but it really is the principles learned from my family and the support of amazing mentors along the way that have allowed me to develop a greater belief in my abilities and the right to exist in this space as I am. So while society and systems might make my existence a little more challenging than it needs to be, I no longer see my identity as a challenge in itself – to me, it is one of my greatest strengths because it truly has made me stronger, more compassionate and emphatic.
How can we better support girls in STEM to ensure their success?
I believe one of the most important things we can do to support the success of girls and women of color in STEM is by investing in them through investing in their education and the systemic reforms necessary in our education system. For instance, having the curriculum reflect the contributions of women to STEM and other fields so that girls can see themselves represented, as well as actually representing these young girls in who is developing said curriculum. Such educational reform is essential for both girls and boys because school is a time where fundamental ideas about who we are, what we can do, where we belong or don’t belong are being developed, and these students are our future leaders, future policymakers, future board members and decision-makers. The education that they receive must present a holistic worldview if we are to prevent societal and personal biases from pervading that often contribute to holding girls back. We are currently working on developing such reforms in the education system based on research and a policy-centered approach allowing the fruits of progress to be distributed more broadly through the organization I’ve founded, the Global Initiative & Vision for Education (GIVE).
As well, supporting women already in STEM fields is essential to this work of being able to better support future generations of women pursuing STEM. A Microsoft study found that girls who know a woman in STEM were far more likely to say they understand the relevance of STEM and know how to pursue a STEM career. However, be it in academia or in the workforce, women still face obstacles and barriers like the gender pay gap that can lead to them leaving, creating a cycle of a lack of female mentors and representation. It is therefore essential to support women and girls in all areas and at all stages through systemic reform.
What would you say is the most important lesson you could offer to girls interested in pursuing a career in STEM?
Do not be afraid to ask for help! It can be daunting and difficult to pursue STEM on your own, and none of us get to where we are all by ourselves, as much as some inspirational stories make it sound. Ask for support and guidance, especially from those in the field you are interested in. The majority of people would be happy to mentor you, but if you don’t ask the answer will always be no. So do make use of mentorship programs such as UNOOSA’s Space 4Women Network!
And a reminder: the sky is not the limit. Although the path may seem difficult, as long as you know your why and your worth, the how will come and you’ll be able to overcome any challenges that arise. I always look back at this quote to keep me going: “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 is up next on your journey as the World’s Youngest Future Astronaut?
Well, I’ve said this before but as much as I may love Space, my dream isn’t really to go to Space. Truly, my dream is to ensure every child has the chance, an equal chance to make their own dreams come true. This is my driving force in continuing to volunteer as a mentor with UNOOSA to advance this mission of creating greater accessibility to space & STEM for more people, while also working at GIVE to ensure that the systemic changes needed in our education system are developed and implemented allowing not only girls, but all children the opportunity to thrive and have access to their future.