Meet the woman searching for planet Earth's twin

Munazza Alam didn’t grow up gazing at the stars. But an inspiring teacher and a passion for math led her to dive deep into the hunt for habitable planets.

ARE WE ALONE in the universe? It’s a question that often sparks debate. For a young woman named Munazza Alam, it sparked an entire career path.

Alam wasn’t always interested in the cosmos. “Growing up, I was not a space nerd,” she says. There was no telescope in her backyard, and trips to the museum centred on dinosaur exhibits. As a kid, she preferred playing outside and riding around on her bike to gazing at the stars.

But by her freshman year in college, she’d fallen completely under astronomy’s spell.

Field of view

Alam, 24, is bright in every sense of the word. She is intelligent and vivacious, and her voice radiates warmth. She can discuss the merits of condensed matter theory as comfortably and clearly as her feelings about her family background.

"Both of my sisters work in science as well," Alam says. In this photo, taken in 1995 at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, one-year-old Munazza sits in a stroller while her father, Mubasher Alam, stands with her sister Abeeha (right) and Bareah.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MUNEERA ALAM

A first-generation Muslim American, Alam grew up on Staten Island, a borough of New York City that is predominately white. Her mother was born in Hyderabad, India, and her father is from Lahore, Pakistan. “I always had this sense of otherness, this idea of questioning belonging,” she says. For one thing, her relatives on the Indian subcontinent viewed her and her two older sisters as Americans, while “here we were viewed as not American, because our parents are immigrants,” she says.

Adding another dimension to her experience, Alam and her sisters attended Catholic school from kindergarten through 12th grade. A cousin had done well at the school, and her parents wanted their daughters to get the best education possible, so they enrolled all three girls. “It was a great way to learn to foster these ideas of acceptance, being among different groups and just learning how to understand what other people believe and the ethics that they live by,” Alam says.

Catching fire

Her attraction to physics began in high school, thanks to an inspiring teacher with infectious enthusiasm. Alam had always enjoyed math, science, critical thinking, and problem-solving, but this teacher’s passion for physics and her ability to break down complicated concepts stuck with Alam.

Her teacher was also inspiring on another level. “She moved from Israel as a little girl to New York City,” says Alam, who adds that she felt they shared a “kind of overlapping identity: She was first generation, and she loved physics, and was a minority student when she went through graduate studies as a woman.”

By the time she began her freshman year at CUNY Hunter College in Manhattan, Alam had settled on physics as her major. She soon began her first research project on the low-mass objects known as brown dwarfs, and by the end of the year, she had a chance to visit the Kitt Peak National Observatory near Tucson, Arizona.

“I was 19,” she says, “and it was the first time I had ever seen the Milky Way.” The sight solidified her decision to pursue astronomy long-term. It also reminded her of how far she’d come: “I mean, I grew up seeing a handful of stars at a time at best,” she laughs.

Rising star

Alam, who is a National Geographic grantee, is now earning her graduate degree at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her current research focuses on a category of large, bright exoplanets called hot Jupiters.

EXOPLANETS 101
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Using data from the Hubble Space Telescope, she "constructs spectra of planet atmospheres to infer what they are made of and if these planets have clouds and hazes," she says. She follows up these observations using ground-based telescopes in Chile to then figure out how these celestial bodies formed and evolved over time.

One of Alam’s dreams is to discover an Earth twin, a planet beyond our solar system that has a climate like ours with the potential to host life. This kind of research is like a puzzle that doesn’t have a picture to follow, she says. It requires collaboration to figure out how the pieces fit together.

Women wanted

Alam also hopes to inspire other women like her to join the field. “I don’t have any role models who look like me or have overlapping identities with me,” she says. “I want to be that for other girls who have a similar cultural background.”

Statistically speaking, gender equality is better in astronomy than in other physical sciences, “but it’s still not great,” says Alam. Her program at Harvard has 52 students, and fewer than half of them are women. Despite this disparity, Alam counts several strong female influences in her life, from her mother to her PhD thesis advisor.

And though her particular projects may seem esoteric, she insists that astronomy is for everyone. “There is something so human and so natural to gaze up at the stars and contemplate the cosmos.”

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