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Reaching for the Stars

Munazza Alam was raised in the Muslim faith but attended Notre Dame Academy, a K-12 all-girls Catholic school on Staten Island. She says the entire experience, particularly the daily theology classes taught from a Catholic perspective, “shaped me into a more open-minded individual.” It was at Notre Dame that she also discovered a love for physics. And when she won admittance to Hunter’s Macaulay Honors College, she already knew what her major would be.

What she didn’t know but soon learned from her Macaulay advisor, she says, is that in a field so challenging and complex, even first-semester freshmen “should have an idea of what physics subfield you want to pursue.” Fortunately, the advisor introduced her to Hunter astronomer Kelle Cruz, head of a research group at the American Museum of Natural History. Women are in the majority on that team, “something still rare in astronomy,” Alam acknowledges. “They were such an inspiration!”

She was inspired to do research on brown dwarfs – celestial bodies too large to be planets and too small to be stars – for which she won a National Geographic Young Explorers grant in her junior year. With that grant, she traveled to the Carnegie Institution for Science’s Las Campanas Observatory in a remote area of Chile, a site known for having the best telescopes and clearest skies.

Back at Hunter, Alam also found great teachers and mentors in the John P. McNulty Scholars Program, where the goal is the advancement of women in all STEM fields. At commencement last year, she was surprised and delighted to be presented onstage with the Rosalyn S. Yalow Achievement in Science Award – named for the Nobel laureate and first Hunter student to major in physics.

At Harvard she is part of a diverse, inclusive community of scientists – an environment she realizes is still hard to find. “I knew when I visited that I fit,” she says. With astronomer Mercedes Lopez Morales of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, she studies the atmospheres of hard-to-detect planets outside our solar system.

Now a mentor herself, Alam has organized a Harvard chapter of Open Labs, an outreach program in which graduate students inspire 6th through 12th graders by organizing “science cafés” and visiting local schools. She hopes her future holds a university career in teaching and research, and the discovery of more planets in “Goldilocks zones” – where the conditions are just right for some kind of life.

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