To the Stars and Back: An Interview with Dr Tayyaba Zafar

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The spirit of dreaming of stars, in a city like Lahore, where you can rarely see them is in fact few and far between. Despite facing numerous challenges in STEM, with interests in astronomy—a hardly talked about course of interest in Pakistan, especially for women—Dr Tayabba Zafar pursued her dream of becoming an astrophysicist. Not only that, she also plunged into every opportunity on her way to becoming a role model for the young female scientists in Pakistan.

Dr Tayyaba Zafar, an astrophysicist, is the first Pakistani woman to be selected for the Homeward Bound Program (Image Courtesy: Dr Tayyaba Zafar)the Lighthouse

Many people would remember that in the seventh and eighth grade, there was a separate section for astronomy in the general science books. Comprising a few chapters only, this section had eye-catching pictures of exploding stars, expanding galaxies, and tiny planets revolving around the sun. Throughout the course, students would flip through these pages, musing over the pictures and asking the teacher to delve into the topic but alas, they were always dismissed. Astronomy was never discussed in the classroom despite being one of the most intriguing discourses of science. Even today, things are not very different. There are barely any institutes in the country that focus on the study of astronomy, let alone its observation. 

However, Dr Tayyaba was determined not to bend her knee so, she worked painstakingly day and night to be amongst the pioneers of astrophysics in Pakistan. Her path was full of hurdles that she had not considered initially but her unwavering passion and resolution kept her moving.  After completing her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Pakistan in Physics, she applied for PhD studies at the Dark Cosmology Center at the famed Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen and secured a scholarship. Currently, she is working as an astronomer at the Australian Astronomical Optics (AAO) Macquarie University. Her team is working on developing robotic instruments for telescopes to observe the universe. Recently, she set another milestone by becoming the first Pakistani woman to participate in an Antarctic research trip, led under the Homeward Bound program.

In this interview, we asked Dr Tayyaba about her initial struggles in the research, for she had no background in astronomy, and how she overcame them. We also asked her about her close encounter with global warming in the Antarctic and most importantly, how she would encourage our young generation to reach out for the stars.

(The interview has been condensed and edited for the purposes of clarity and brevity)

Spectra: Can you please tell us a little about yourself, your education and your passions?

Dr Tayyaba Zafar: My early education was all from Pakistan. I have done my masters from Pakistan in physics. And of course, at that time, astronomy was not a subject there. So it was pure basic physics, but I was interested in astronomy because I was fascinated by it when I was young. I used to go to the countryside and always count stars. And I thought that, can I study them? I only studied relativity and cosmology in masters and later, I taught a subject in the Geology Department at Punjab University. I also learned them myself. From then on, my interest developed more in it, to the level that I could actually pursue it as a career. I finally looked after it, in the sense that at that time, only books were available. The Internet was a very new thing. I am talking about 2006-2007. I started looking at things online and reading them. From there on, I started applying for PhD positions, and I finally got one at Copenhagen University. And that year I was coincidentally pretty fortunate because that year they conducted a written test and an interview. I sat in that written test, went to Denmark and then had an interview. And finally, I got selected.

So what inspired you to enter the field of astronomy?

Inspiration, as I said to you was that when I was young I had an interest in it and, of course, when I started reading more, it inspired me more. When I started reading more online about how star formation happens, or galaxy formation occurs, I really got fascinated with how things work and as children, everyone dreams of these big things that you cannot touch, but can only gaze and they shine a light on you. But when I started reading about it, I realized I should actually follow it as a career.

Can you briefly describe your work in Australia? How is the experience at Macquarie?

I actually started working at the Macquarie University a year or so back. Our previous organization called the Australian Astronomical Observatory (AAO) which was with the Australian government was moved to Macquarie University. The nature of my work in Australia is somehow similar to the work in Germany. In Germany, I supported telescopes and instruments and mostly was doing my research. In Australia, I spend half the time on research and teaching and other half on building instruments for big global telescopes.

In Australia, there are so many amateur astronomers and societies. If you tell the public that there is a Mercury transit (which happened last month) or a meteor shower, they will look out for it. People have an interest in sky-watching, they want to know about heavenly bodies, their movements and impact. 

So, you need to be engaged with the public as they are interested in knowing your research. Experience with Macquarie is also very different in terms that after leaving Punjab University, I was working with different research organizations but now I’m back in an academic environment. I have formally started giving lectures and working with students. It was a big change for me after 10 years. I am able to interact with students again where you get rapid responses. So this is very positive for me.

Dr Tayyaba, a former lecturer of Punjab University, Lahore, is currently teaching at the Australian Astronomical Optics, Macquarie University (Image Courtesy: Dr Tayyaba Zafar)

What exactly was Homeward Bound Programme and how did you come to be a part of it? Did you discover any correlation in your astronomical experience and this trip?

Homeward Bound is a project to develop leadership and strategic capabilities in women in science. The project also sharpens leadership capabilities of women and makes them aware about climate change. It is an international program with a beautiful blend of all these skills. The project aims to be not only ruled by the west but be very diverse, where women from all traits and all territories should be a part of it. When I applied for it, I already had an idea that because of the diverse background, I had a fair chance of getting it. When I started the year-long programme and went to Antarctica, it actually changed me. Homeward Bound was not just about astronomy but all walks of sciences. We have been trained in skills such as strategy mapping, how to engage the policymakers, etc.

When you are already excelling in your field, then it’s time to go a step further.

Today, everyone has accepted that climate change is not something fictitious, rather the most demanding issue of time. Lahore is also facing the issue of smog these days. So how much more magnified are the climate change effects in the Antarctic and why so? What did you learn?

The project was designed to go to Antarctica and if you know the geographical location of Australia, Antarctica is right under it. From Hobart you can land straight to Antarctica. But we went through Argentina to Antarctic Peninsula (in the west) which is more affected by climate change due to ocean heating. We visited various stations, which are hosted by different countries and there the researchers were telling how marine life is affected, how glaciers are melting, and how ecosystems are collapsing.

Antarctic ice shelves are melting causing seals to fight for air and penguins to give up on their young ones. Whales are also affected because they can’t find enough food. The squids and krills that penguins and many of the whales eat are declining. 

At Argentinan Carlini base, a researcher working there for 10 years said that he has seen the glacier in front of him receding a kilometer in this time. The Arctic is already melting and imagine if big chunks of ice in Antarctica will then in 20 years, Maldives will go under water. We are hearing that many big cities will go under water within this century. After melting the glaciers and making all the fresh water reserves salty, the next war will be over water and land.

What challenges did you face during the program? Also, does the physical fitness and health counts in?

The challenges were more psychological as you need to embrace your fears. Of course, it was all kept confidential. You were not treated bad or being discriminated about your background or on the basis of your past experiences. So that was a big challenge that you reveal your fears which you otherwise wouldn’t have said to any other person. Usually we pretend to be flawless in front of other people to not been looked down. You have to be physically fit and have no serious illness. We had been asked to come with some safety gears to help toward landings.

In Pakistan, we barely see any hype regarding climate change—neither authorities nor the general public seems much concerned about it. Don’t you think it’s the responsibility of our scientific community to ponder on the issue, after all, they are the ones who know what a calamity it can become? 

Yes, it is not a concern of a large fraction of people. Even in Australia, there is a divide. For some people bushfires happened in the past too and this is just a bad year. It is spring in Australia and so, many hectares of land have been burned.

Scientists always follow facts. They don’t go with old stories but numbers, facts, and research. So if our environmental scientists are warning us then we should spread the word. We should tell it to the public in simple language which they otherwise cannot understand… ‘Yes, it is a big issue and we need to look at it’. It’s the job of the government to avoid energy generation from fossil fuels and protect our environment. A layman cannot understand about carbon emissions and its impact. It’s our duty to tell about the impact of plastic usage, disturbing ecosystems, cutting down trees, and pollution. Take care of your environment and adopt a healthy lifestyle. For example, in Pakistan, it’s very common to use more motorcycles and cars instead of walking for a couple of kilometres that is good for your health too. I think the scientific community has to take action. We are few in numbers but we should start our movement from our houses, neighbours, relatives, and then try to expand it to greater circle.

Moreover, it’s not only the scientific community, media also has to spread the awareness.

Because if we can’t tell how alarming the situation is, common person will not understand. Together we can make an impact.

Do you think that a movement or protest for climate change in our country could one day have the same impact as that of the young activist Greta Thunberg?

Well, if we already have Malala then why not someone for climate change. Why are there no youth activists coming out and telling us about smog? When I was young, there wasn’t any smog. This just happened in past years. Why is no one raising their voice or have we accepted it as the new norm? I think it’s also because our education system is designed in a way that we put too much burden on our kids that they can’t think beyond the boxes. A young mind is more adaptable to change than a mature mind. We kept our kids so busy with formal education cycle and parents never gave them enough chance to explore nature so now have no idea what is happening.

Also, we (as adults) are not taking action on climate and keep throwing litter on the streets, so our kids never learn. So it’s also our fault that we haven’t raised our kids in this way. There are now some people coming up and raising awareness but yes a youth activist is needed.


Dr Tayyaba hopes to see more women build prosperous careers in STEM (Image Courtesy: Dr Tayyaba Zafar)

You said in an interview that you want more students, especially girls, to enter the field of science. In matric, when one has to declare their major, science is always the first priority. Parents want their children to opt for it regardless of their personal interests. Yet we see no major developments in the field of science. What do you think is the loophole here?

The problem in our system is that parents push to choose science as it’s considered modish. Few students pick science because of their own interest. Mostly girls after masters quit science and marry and we lose a big fraction of asset that we produce in universities. I say frankly to girls in universities that if you are going to waste the science seat let a boy benefit from it to build his career. This sounds bad as I am also a woman but we need to see that we cannot keep wasting the opportunities which our country badly needs.

Girls have the capability to run both family and professional life in parallel. Please don’t waste the seat which you got competitively.

Even today, there aren’t any proper institutes in Pakistan to focus on astronomy. Back in your time, it must have been worse. Weren’t you ever demotivated to continue with the subject or felt like giving up on it?

There is now one proper astronomy institute, the Institute of Space Technology, Islamabad. And there is SUPARCO of course, mostly technology-based. Astronomy is pure research where you build telescopes and their instruments and through them gaze at the sky to reveal its mysteries. 

In my time, astronomy wasn’t taught as a subject but I never found myself demotivated because I had the plan that I will do a PhD anyway if not in astronomy then particle physics which is also linked to astronomy in terms of dark matter. However, fortunately, I ended up doing a PhD in astronomy.

Tell us something about your PhD studies at the DARK Cosmology Centre of the famed Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen.

Astronomy is observational, theoretical, and technology-driven (e.g., instruments). During my time at the Dark Cosmology Centre, I was doing research on the observations of neutral hydrogen systems and Gamma-ray bursts, massive stars exploding at the end of their lives. My research was on studying dust, yes, you read it right, dust. Stars form dust in their environments that are tiny particles (or compounds) created from the elements that star form in their cores. These dust particles are building block of everything in the universe: planets, meteorites, stars, and even galaxies. I studied for the first time a spectroscopic sample of gamma-ray bursts to study dust and its effects in distant environments.

I was also very lucky that my thesis defence was in the same room where Neils Bohr used to give his lectures.

His old photographs were hanging over the walls giving me more strength during the time defending my thesis.

During the research, there come several instances when it feels like you have hit a dead-end or your work is futile. Or you have fought so many people to be here but there isn’t anything substantial you’re doing. Did you experience such moments, if so, what used to be your motivations?

It happens many times that you are working on something and you get stuck. For example, during my PhD I was originally supposed to work on something else and learned the tools and background of that field. But the instrument got delayed so I had to shift and still I finished my PhD work in the remaining two years. There are many other experiences too, both personal and professional, some discriminations I faced because of being a woman and some because of my origins. 

One has to be ambitious, innovative, and motivated to keep sailing through harsh waters. In research, no result is the result. So you never feel demotivated as you are solving a piece of a puzzle. You are finding something that has never been looked at and innovation is the driver there.

You will hit a dead end when you start following old ideas and old thoughts.

Fresh ideas and their fostering keep you motivated.

You might know about India’s space mission recently, and it has motivated us to look at the sky too. Fawad Chaudary seems to be making big claims about landing on the moon in the near future. What do you think, how realistic is this plan?

As I said before, no result is the result, so India learnt from this experience and will be able to land on the moon soon. India has space scientists, astronomers, optical radio telescopes. They are part of large collaborations, technologies and surveys. We lack there. We need to work on infrastructure and investing in our people. It’s also possible for us but not in the near future. Technology is our strength and we need to push a little there, expand our funding towards science, build our man power by having more astronomers and space scientists.

The mission to moon should not be to chase India but to what science mysteries we can solve with it.

If we do not set our targets and do not properly plan and keep going with the current pace, the moon mission will be in the far future.

Lastly, what message would you like to give to young people who would like to follow your path?

My message will be that I am an astronomer, but you should choose a career you like. Take your studies seriously and see where you interest is. Read more books to develop your interest in a particular discipline.

You should be ambitious, aiming higher to reach the satisfactory targets, and keep yourself motivated through the course.

A message for young girls is that if you want to be a scientist, please stay in science. Our country needs equivalently bright girls like you.

Every single person can dream but only a few work hard to pave their way to that dream. Never let go. Never give up when you are following your dream.

The interview was conducted by Fatima Perwaiz and Iqra Naveed.

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Iqra Naveed is a sophomore in computer engineering at University of Engineering and Technology, Lahore. She is interested in undertaking science-art projects. Her hobbies include painting, sketching, reading and playing the guitar.
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