At just 18 years old, Zainab Azim is the World’s Youngest Future Astronaut. She’s also an international inspirational speaker, a Role Model and Mentor for the United Nations Space4Women Network, and Founder of the Global Initiative & Vision for Education (GIVE). We asked her about her road to the rocket and advocating for diversity in STEM.
What sparked your interest in astronomy?
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 than myself is what sparked my passion for astronomy.
What’s been your favourite experience as the World’s Youngest Future Astronaut?
There have been many special moments on this journey that have shaped who I am, but the most powerful moments have been when young women from all walks of life have reached out to me, in person or virtually. Be it the beaming 10-year-old girl at a conference I spoke at in Italy or the 18-year-old aspiring astronaut from Bangladesh, who said, “The world told me ‘you can’t’ but I believe I can because I see myself in you and that is enough for me to keep on trying,” just as I see myself in so many of the women before who have paved the way for me to be here right now doing what I am doing.
What about your favourite experience as a Role Model and Mentor for the UNOOSA Space4Women Network?
I am also deeply grateful for the opportunity to use my power to empower others through the mentorship program where I have the privilege of being able to support young women from across the globe in actualizing their dreams by connecting them with industry experts, helping them navigate their studies, and so on. But at the end of the day, I believe I have learned more from these amazing young women than they probably have from me. I have continued to learn what it means to turn a dream into reality, to hope, to persevere, to believe, and to just go for it.
The vulnerability it takes for these young women to reach out to a stranger like myself and share their feelings or to ask for help is the definition of true courage. I carry these lessons with me each day and they are what drive me to keep on going.
Why is it important for Canada’s youth to become involved in the STEM fields?
It’s important for Canada’s youth to get involved in STEM fields because the solutions to the issues facing our present and our future, such as climate change and growing inequality, not only lie in STEM, but they also require innovation, creativity, and collaboration — which are all skills that are gained through working in these areas.
How can we better support youths’ STEM interests and education?
Challenges that we face in getting more Canadian youth involved in STEM and supporting them on this path include the disparity in access to educational resources between lower and higher socio-economic groups and how STEM is taught in schools in general.
Instead of allowing students to wonder, ask questions, innovate, create, and collaborate, we give them pre-written instructions and curricula to complete in order to receive an arbitrary number with no room for creativity or interdisciplinary thinking, which can often discourage young people from pursuing STEM, even though how it is taught in schools and how the industry works in real life are nothing alike.
That spark of passion that I felt for astronomy as a kid could have very easily been dissipated through school if my parents had not nurtured it at home. STEM education, done properly, can allow for younger generations to create solutions to these issues which impact all of our futures, and I hope to support Canadians and beyond by developing these necessary changes in the education system and making sure everyone has access to the highest quality of education through my work at GIVE.
What advice do you have for young girls who are interested in pursuing STEM?
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 are 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 are driven by a sense of meaning and purpose, anything and everything is possible. 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.”