Per aspera ad astra: Through Hardships To The Stars

    A student profile of Yumna Majeed who found and pursued her passion in space sciences, against all odds.

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    Peeking at stars at night; running medical tests in the day; Yumna runs a busy life.

    Yumna Majeed is not someone who would come to your mind when you think about science popularization and science communication. With a frail body and glasses atop her nose, she presents the look of a studious and nerdy student. But rather than being buried in her books, you will often find her gazing at the stars or excitedly teaching little kids about the worlds far away. While she is formally studying Medical Laboratory Technology at Allama Iqbal Medical College Lahore, she has dedicated herself to science communication and astronomy.

    Due to efforts of Yumna, ‘Science For All’ sponsored a science outreach session at Shaukat Khanum Cancer Hospital in which artwork created by young cancer patients was used to decorate a spacesuit. While a number of such suits are provided to space travelers every year, this was the first instance of artwork from Pakistan being included.

    The ambition of becoming a space explorer had always been inside Yumna. It was born when as a young school-going kid, she passed by Pakistan Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (SUPARCO) building and was immediately awed by it. Her interest was further piqued when she was told that SUPARCO and other space organizations — such as NASA and European Space Agency — probe the depths of the galaxy in a bid to understand the universe we live in. Her affinity for astronomy and space exploration continued to grow throughout her school years. While almost all of her friends were aiming for medicine, Yumna was certain that she would choose an engineering major and would eventually become an astronaut. But alas, it was not to be!

    On April 4, 2011, it was Yumna’s first day in Grade 9. In a class of 70 odd students, without a friend, or even a foe, insight, she was timidly seated on the right-most bench, silently dreading that she would be the first student to be asked to introduce herself. Much to her chagrin, the teacher, after a cursory glance around the class, gestured her to start speaking.

    “I am Yumna Majeed. My previous class was 8-D, I have two brothers and one sister,” she paused to catch her breath and then continued proudly, “and I want to become an astronaut. ”

    While her face was glowing with pride, the rest of the class suddenly became quiet and slightly tense. Eventually, a murmur broke out as the students started looking at each other in bewilderment. Astronaut? Yeh kya hota hae? [Astronaut? What is that?]” Even the teacher forewent her relaxed posture and sat upright, and with a look that was equal parts disbelief and horror, addressed Yumna in a slightly demeaning tone, “You want to be an astronaut?” “Yeah, I have always wanted to be an astronaut,” Yumna replied, slightly shaken by the response but still super proud of her ambition. Meanwhile, the murmur in the class had morphed into laughter, prompting the teacher to thump the desk and yell “SILENCE!”. “Do you know what astronauts do?” “Yeah, they travel to space, out of the planet Earth.” The teacher slightly shook her head and continued in a demeaning way, “Yeah, but what will you do?”. Visibly shaken and suddenly becoming conscious of the fact that her classmates were laughing at her, the confidence in her voice dissolved away and turned into uncertainty. In a lengthy, largely one-sided exchange, the teacher managed to quash her dreams and slowly fill her assured self with doubts, finally convincing her that her ambition was untenable. This, combined with the fear of mathematics, led Yumna to choose biology over mathematics and shut the door on a professional engineering career.

    But dreams have a way of coming back. While the fire of her ambition had been dimmed, it had not yet extinguished. Towards the later parts of the 10th grade, Yumna became familiar with Google. Even when she was not fully aware of Google’s amazing prowess or its usage, she kept searching about astronomy, learning new things and looking for inspiration. With every search, her belief that astronomy was her passion became reinforced; however, she was not able to break free of shackles put on her by her 9th-grade teacher. It was then that she found the Gmail profile of Rooshan Bukhari.

    The thing that really struck Yumna was that Rooshan’s profile read ‘Medical Student – Amateur Astronomer’ giving Yumna the belief that even though she might have forgone mathematics, she did not have to abandon astronomy and could continue to practice it even if she had already entered the medical field.

    Though her attempt to connect with Rooshan, then Vice President of Lahore Astronomical Society (LAST), failed at the time, discovering him gave her enough belief to continue searching about astronomy and silently loving it even though she was “Yumna: the medical student” for the world.

    During her college years, while everyone around her was frantically studying for admission in MBBS, Yumna did not fret about it and continued to explore different programs and opportunities about astronomy and space exploration, and bookmarking the interesting ones. During this period, she developed two key skills: becoming the power user of Google and developing a large international network of friends who shared her enthusiasm for astronomy and space exploration. These friends have become an integral part of her life and have repeatedly provided her with inspiration, motivation, and support.

    Her renewed interest in astronomy meant her interest in academics dwindled. Yumna did not make the cut for an MBBS program, but she was not hugely disappointed either. She took admission in Medical Laboratory Technology at the Allama Iqbal Medical College. Around this time, she was finally able to connect with Rooshan Bukhari through an online astronomy group of the US community. Rooshan brought her into the fold of Lahore LAST which routinely conducts sky observations and various other science communication and outreach activities. Through LAST, Yumna realized that a productive way to channel her passion for astronomy would be to impart that same passion to other younglings.

    Yumna always felt that she never had the right guidance in her formative years in school and college. Being the tenacious soul that she was, she wanted to do something about that.

    For her first science outreach activity, she went back to her own college and delivered a lecture on ‘Solar System; Breaking Space Myths’.

    This was the beginning of Yumna’s adventures in science outreach and science communication.

    Leveraging the array of opportunities that she had bookmarked in her browser during her FSc years and her network of international friends, Yumna also became a student ambassador for various international science outreach organizations as she focused on astronomy and space exploration. One of these organizations was Universe Awareness which she joined in 2016. It required her to submit reports of her various science outreach activities. While Yumna diligently followed the protocol in 2016, she became sluggish in 2017. Towards the end of 2017, Universe Awareness invited applications by its volunteers from around the world for a competition where the top 10 candidates were to be given telescopes sponsored by Bresser, a telescope manufacturing company, and Stars Shine For Everyone (the organization that conducted the competition). Yumna applied, and forgot. She knew she had been sluggish in report filing lately and did not expect to win a worldwide competition. However, in December 2017, while she was hurriedly moving from one class to another, her phone rang. She had a message from Universe Awareness contact person, “Your telescope will be arriving in your city in 2 weeks”. Yumna was taken aback. “Which telescope? I did not order any!”. “No, you won this telescope through our competition.” Yumna was immediately filled with joy. These telescopes were to be shipped from the European Space Center, and NASA Astronaut, Scott Kelly — one of the people who inspired Yumna — was there to deliver a lecture. Mr. Jean, a member of Stars Shine For Everyone’s knew Yumna and was also aware of her fascination with Scott Kelly. On his request, Scott Kelly signed the telescope and also wrote ‘For Yumna Majeed’ on it. Incidentally, this whole scene was captured by a local TV cameraman and Yumna later got that video footage too.

    Scott Kelly signed telescope awarded to Yumna.

    While a telescope personally signed by Scott Kelly is awesome (to say the least), the journey itself was no plain sailing for Yumna. Securing permissions from her parents to go to faraway schools for science outreach was not always easy. She ultimately struck a deal with her parents: she would stop hanging out with her friends if she was given full permission to pursue her science communication journey. Even now, she is often denied permission if the place is far away or if her family feels that the journey would be unsafe for her. While irked about this, she acknowledges that her parent’s concerns are understandable as, in her own experiences, the society at large is still unfriendly to the free movement of girls. Apart from the typical heckling, Yumna also had to face sexist treatment and vitriolic comments at the schools she has visited. During an outreach, a headmaster of the school remarked that she should only deliver her lecture to the female students because she may not be able to manage the male students alluding to her young age and inexperience. In another instance, she was taunted by a school headmistress. Yumna describes the incident herself, “I just asked her to give me one session with students but when she said, ‘Khud to ap medical kar rahe hain aur hmare bchon ko behkane a gye hain [You are pursuing medical education yourself but are here to mischievously misguide our students].’ This shocked me to the core and I ended up crying when I got home.” Yet, despite all of these hurdles, Yumna has been steadfast in her efforts.

    “My Facebook friends from the USA and Europe and the world over are my best support system. Whenever I end up feeling low, I talk to them and they uplift, motivate and tell me, ‘You can do this!’”

    One person who had a transformative effect on Yumna was Lalah Rukh, the founder and CEO of ScienceFuse. ScienceFuse is a science communication startup with the objective to teach science — generally considered dull and boring — through interactive and fun experiments. Lalah was aware of the various struggles that Yumna had faced on a daily basis, and not only became an inspiration for her but also mentored actively and taught her various tricks of the trade. This eventually helped Yumna in her transformation from an amateur science communicator to a professional one.

    In 2016, Yumna founded her own organization ‘Exploration’ to consolidate her science communication activities. Named after a  spacesuit, the name perfectly encapsulates the spirit of Yumna and her organization.

    For a long while, Yumna was the sole member of Exploration and used to save money from her own pocket money to fund Exploration.

    Now, Exploration organizes paid summer camps and workshops and the money generated from these events is used for organizing similar events for underprivileged students.

    Yumna working with Lalah on an experiment for a sciencefuse session.

    During all this, Yumna still has not abandoned her dream. “Every space mission includes medical professionals, so, yeah chances are slim but fingers crossed. After all, where there is a will, there is a way,” she remarks nonchalantly. Yumna has also discovered research interests in the areas of space physiology and space genetics which investigate the effects of space travel on human physiology and genetics. So what is next for her? “Not sure,” she says. “Life is uncertain. I don’t make plans or set long-term goals. I am getting to the point where I might have to choose between my career and community service. I don’t know which way I will go. Maybe I will be able to keep doing them both. Let us see. As I said, life is uncertain and full of surprises.”

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