Sarah Al-Ahmed:
Finding solace in starlight. This week on Planetary Radio.
I’m Sarah Al-Ahmed of The Planetary Society, with more of the human adventure across our solar system and beyond.
This week, Sarafina Nance joins us to discuss her new book, Starstruck: A Memoir of Astrophysics and Finding Light in the Dark.
We’ll also share a beautiful poem about exploration that will soon be on its way to Europa, and let you know how you can put your name on the upcoming Europa Clipper mission to go along with it.
Then we’ll check in with Bruce Betts for What’s Up? And an update on this week’s night sky.
I’d like to send a huge thanks to Mat Kaplan, our senior communications advisor. He stepped in for me last week while I was on vacation, dancing under the starlight at a music festival for three days. And it’s always wonderful to have him back on the show.
We’ve got some happy space news this week. Spain has joined the Artemis Accords. That makes Spain the 25th signatory to the international agreement, which was set forth by NASA to establish best practices and norms for exploring the moon, and cis-lunar space. 25 signatories on the Artemis Accords. That’s really wonderful to hear.
And continuing with the moon mission hype, China also aims to land taikonauts on the moon before 2030.
Lin Xiqiang, who’s the deputy director of the China Manned Space Agency, announced last week that the agency is developing a whole bunch of things, including a new human rated launch vehicle, crew spacecraft, a lunar lander, a moon suit, other equipment, and a whole new launch site. I am so excited for this new age of human lunar exploration. It’s going to be wonderful to see people back on the moon.
And in news from the outer solar system, the James Webb Space Telescope has spotted a huge plume jetting out of Saturn’s Moon, Enceladus.
The space telescope imaged the plume of water vapor that spans about 9,600 kilometers. That’s about 6,000 miles. Enceladus is spewing water out of its icy crust at about 300 liters, or 80 gallons per second. That is just startling when you really think about it.
And the JWST image of this water coming out of Enceladus is admittedly not nearly as cool as the Cassini images of the water plumes, but the fact that we can see those water plumes all the way from JWST’s orbit near Earth is really impressive. And one more reason why we should definitely, definitely send a mission to Enceladus.
You can learn more about these and other stories in the June 2nd edition of our weekly newsletter, the Downlink. You can read it or subscribe to have it sent to your inbox for free every Friday at planetary.org/Downlink.
On June 1st, US Poet Laureate Ada Limn presented her poem about the Europa Clipper mission at a NASA event that was held at the Library of Congress in Washington DC. A few of my Planetary Society coworkers were actually lucky enough to be there. I’m just a little jealous.
Her poem, In Praise of Mystery: A Poem for Europa, will be etched on a plaque that’s going to accompany the Europa Clipper spacecraft on its voyage to the Jovian system.
Let’s take a moment and listen to Ada’s poem about one of our favorite moons.

Ada Limn:
In Praise of Mystery: A Poem for Europa.
Arching under the night sky, inky with black expansiveness, we point to the planets we know. We pin quick wishes on stars. From earth, we read the sky as if it is an unerring book of the universe, expert and evident. Still, there are mysteries below our sky, the whale song, the songbird singing its call in the bough of a wind-shaken tree.
We are creatures of constant awe, curious at beauty, at leaf and blossom, at grief and pleasure, sun and shadow. And it is not darkness that unites us, not the cold distance of space, but the offering of water. Each drop of rain, each rivulet, each pulse, each vein.
O second moon, we, too, are made of water, of vast and beckoning seas. We, too, are made of wonders, of great and ordinary loves, of small invisible worlds, of a need to call out through the dark.

Sarah Al-Ahmed:
This poem for Europa is part of NASA’s Message in a Bottle campaign. It’s going to send this plaque, along with the names of people from around the world, with the spacecraft when it goes to Europa.
Sending names to space on spacecraft is something that The Planetary Society started doing decades ago, so we’re really happy that this has become more of a common practice with spacecraft.
If you’d like to send your name on the Europa Clipper mission… And we know you do. You can find the link to NASA’s Message in a Bottle campaign on the website for this Planetary Radio episode at planetary.org/Radio.
And this isn’t just for US citizens. No matter where you live in the world, you can absolutely put your name in on the spacecraft.
You and I may never get to personally travel to space, but that’s not going to stop us from sending our name and our hearts with every space. Europa Clipper is planned to launch in October 2024, so make sure you get your name in soon.
All right. Our guest this week is Sarafina El-Badry Nance, the author of the newly released Starstruck: A Memoir of Astrophysics and Finding Light in the Dark. It was released on June 6th.
Sarafina is an astrophysicist, but she’s also an analog astronaut, a science communicator and a woman’s health advocate. She got her undergraduate degree at the University of Texas at Austin, and is currently working on her PhD in astrophysics at UC Berkeley.
Hi, Sarafina.

Sarafina El-Badry Nance:
Hi. Thank you so much for having me.

Sarah Al-Ahmed:
It’s wonderful to finally actually get to speak to you, because we’ve had a few brief conversations on the internet. Speaking with you in-person is something that I’ve wanted to do for a long time, so thanks for being here.

Sarafina El-Badry Nance:
Right back at you. I’m super excited to be here. Long-time fan of The Planetary Society.

Sarah Al-Ahmed:
I feel like our life experiences are very unique, but here we are, both of us, Arab American astrophysicists who went to UC Berkeley. So, small world.

Sarafina El-Badry Nance:
Extremely small. I feel like the sample size is right here in this conversation.

Sarah Al-Ahmed:
It’s true. How close are you to graduating?

Sarafina El-Badry Nance:
Six months is the, fingers crossed, timeline.

Sarah Al-Ahmed:
Woo!

Sarafina El-Badry Nance:
Yeah, December or May is the plan.

Sarah Al-Ahmed:
Well, good luck. It’s a big moment.

Sarafina El-Badry Nance:
Thank you.

Sarah Al-Ahmed:
And it’s funny, because not only do I relate to your time at UC Berkeley, but just so much about… I mean, not just carrying Harry Potter books around as a kid like they were a security blanket, but about space and the way that you use it to contextualize your life.
And that’s really what this book is about, it’s about your science journey. But more so, it’s about how space can be a vehicle for our mental health, and our understanding of self, and how we connect to other people.
So how would you describe Starstruck?

Sarafina El-Badry Nance:
I think you just nailed it. I mean, to me, this is a book about the inevitable obstacles that come up in one’s life, and the way in which the night sky, and my passion for the universe really provided the perspective and the impetus to be able to overcome those obstacles.
There are unique experiences to me obviously, in the book, but there’s a universality to that notion that we all experience hardship and we all try to find something to help us endure. And for me, my love for astronomy and for the night sky was that.

Sarah Al-Ahmed:
I often think about writing a book about my life, but it requires a willingness to be vulnerable that I’m still working on.
And you say that writing this book was part of your healing process when dealing with all the things that you’ve encountered in your life, which you lay out so thoughtfully and so openly in this book.
And we’re recording this interview a few days before your book comes out to the world, so what does this moment feel like for you?

Sarafina El-Badry Nance:
Extreme anxiety. There’s something incredibly special and precious about this moment in time in that, I get to share myself so authentically and transparently with readers.
I’ve existed a lot online, and there is this flattening of a person online. And I think social media can be an incredibly powerful tool to connect people across the world but ultimately, you see what you want to see.
I am really looking forward to making that picture a little bit more three-dimensional and really bringing my full self.
And of course I’m terrified. I think any author going into pub week is probably going to be terrified, but there’s something really exciting about it, too.

Sarah Al-Ahmed:
Anybody who’s willing to put themselves out there like that and be so open about what it means to be human… I’m just so proud of you, because it’s a tough thing.

Sarafina El-Badry Nance:
Thank you.

Sarah Al-Ahmed:
And Starstruck’s format does this kind of interesting thing, where it opens each chapter with information about the universe. The formation of stars, black holes, the death of the universe, all of these interesting space factoids. And then you follow up with moments from your life.
How did you make the decision about what things about space to share, and how do they relate to the stories that come after?

Sarafina El-Badry Nance:
The format was something that felt really important to me when I was brainstorming how I wanted to write this book. I have always felt that science is fundamentally human, and when we communicate science, when we talk about science, when we do science, we are bringing our humanity to the subject.
So this book was an exercise in me weaving those two together. So I sort of trace the universe’s evolution in parallel with my own evolution as a human. And I tried to choose topics that relate to each chapter, but also, of course, relate to the broader evolution that takes place in the book.
There are some analogs I think that work better than others. But overall, there’s this really interesting exploration through the universe up there and the universe within oneself.

Sarah Al-Ahmed:
You kind of used space as a coping mechanism throughout your life, a tool to get through these traumatic moments by putting yourself in the context of the cosmos.
But how has your understanding of space helped you process your life experiences?

Sarafina El-Badry Nance:
I have struggled with anxiety since I was a kid, and I think I really sought out the night sky from a very young age, as something that could ground me, and could bring me joy, and peace and curiosity, and really put sort of everyday life into perspective. In some ways, it was a survival mechanism. I needed something to calm me down or give me some sense of perspective, and space was that for me.
One thing that I love about the night sky is that it’s accessible, more or less, no matter where you are in the world. I mean, all you have to do is walk outside and look up, weather abstaining.
So I think for me, that was an incredibly powerful tool. It was always there, and there’s something really comforting about that. And I think every single time I look up, I am sort of blown away by how small we are in the grand expanse of the universe. And there’s something that really grounded me in that notion throughout my entire life.

Sarah Al-Ahmed:
How did you first fall in love with space? I mean, you were a very young kid. And you talk in the book about loving to listen to radio shows about space, but what started it all?

Sarafina El-Badry Nance:
I remember two things about being a little kid. One is, I would stargaze with my dad at night. We lived in suburban Austin, Texas, and the stars are really bright in Texas. We would grab a pair of binoculars and just look up at the moon and various constellations.
And I think it was really special, because it was a time for me to bond with my dad. But it was also a way for us to share something really beautiful together. That started when I was four or five years old, and a spark was lit in that moment.
And then, the other thing that I remember is listening to NPR StarDate Radio on the way to school, when I was in preschool. And I was probably the biggest nerd in my preschool class, because I would ask my mom to go to NPR, and we could listen to it in the car rides.
I probably didn’t understand everything that Sally Wood was saying on the radio, but I loved the music, the sort of ethereal vibe that, I think, was really calming. I loved thinking about Venus, and that was something I could see with my naked eye.
And again, there’s that accessibility factor, where even a five-year-old can get so much excitement and joy out of it.

Sarah Al-Ahmed:
Yeah. I remember feeling kind of… Not outcast, but very different from my peers as a little kid, because I loved space so much and I would just be reading those books all the time.
And, how do you convey that to the other kids around you that haven’t met the joy of space yet? That’s a really difficult thing.

Sarafina El-Badry Nance:
I remember when I was in high school, a lot of kids were going out, going to parties. And I, instead, would ask my friends to come hang out with me on the nearest golf course and we could lay out and look up at the stars.
That was just how I got joy, and I think my closest friends did too. But there was definitely sort of a difference between my experience than maybe the more common one.

Sarah Al-Ahmed:
A great way to make friendships, “Let’s go check out the Leonids.”

Sarafina El-Badry Nance:
You know what? You say that, but it is. You find your people very quickly.

Sarah Al-Ahmed:
Something I was thinking about, kind of in the way that you use space to contextualize your life in this book, is that it’s not all one-sided. It’s not just, “The universe is so big that my problem seems small.” You also use it to make you feel close and connected with the people on earth.
And I’m thinking specifically about the section where you talk about the 2011 Egyptian revolution, which impacted your family deeply as an Egyptian American. And I, myself, was actually in Cairo just a few months before that happened. So I had a similar experience watching it unfold on TV the way you did.
I remember you saying that, in that moment you were thinking about your family and how distant they felt. And how you couldn’t be there with them, but that you were all on the same planet together, and that made you feel closer to them.
And I think that kind of duality of the way that people think about space is so interesting, and often people fall lopsidedly into the side that’s like, “We’re small and insignificant.” When there’s so much more to it.

Sarafina El-Badry Nance:
We are so small. The universe is so big. And, we are on a very precious planet, and we are all connected as a human species on this planet. And there is something fundamentally beautiful about that.
When we talk about space exploration, or when we talk about anything as a human-wide experience, I think it’s really important to remember that connection. Because for me, that is grounding. Understanding, or thinking about the importance of our place here in the universe, that’s where it all starts and ends. We are all part of the same universe.

Sarah Al-Ahmed:
There’s so many moments in this book that I wish we could go over. We could literally talk about it for hours, but I don’t want to spoiler it for all the people that are about to read it.
There’s so much that you had to overcome, not just being a woman in science, but also being an Arab American. And you talk in the book, about the racism that you and your family faced after the September 11th terrorist attacks in the United States.
And I obviously had the same racist insults hurled my way after 9/11. And I’ve just got to say, especially in the context of what you just said about all of us being here on earth, bigotry just seems so small in the scale of the universe.

Sarafina El-Badry Nance:
It does.

Sarah Al-Ahmed:
Doesn’t that really just drive you nuts?

Sarafina El-Badry Nance:
No, it does. And I think two things can be true. It’s, “Why are we wasting our time doing that?” But on the other hand, the impacts and the harm that it causes are very real.
Yeah, I think it’s really hard to contextualize and move forward. I’ve spent a lot of my life trying to understand why I felt other for a lot of my life. And still to this day, there are times and moments where I do feel that way.
And I think trying to understand all the different threads that contribute to that feeling, that understanding hopefully leads to a place of… I don’t know, peace is a big word. But at least a sense of acceptance of, “This happened, and I am okay. I am myself and that is all I could ever want to be.”
Those slurs and those racist actions cause a lifelong impact.

Sarah Al-Ahmed:
There’s a lot of this feeling of trying to push through that intense feeling of being an outsider, not just because of your heritage, but over multiple moments in this book, people tell you that astronomy isn’t for you.
And unfortunately, beginning with an astronomer at your science camp as a kid, I’ve probably lost count of the number of times someone has said something similar to me.
But I’m wondering if you have a similar experience, which is that, every time someone comes my way and says, “This isn’t for you.” I get more and more feisty, more stalwart in my conviction to try to prove them wrong.
Did you experience a similar thing?

Sarafina El-Badry Nance:
I love that. You know, I think I do now, to some extent. But I think as a kid, I was so impressionable. I deferred a lot to my elders. I think part of that is being a kid, part of that is especially being a kid of an immigrant. Your parent is sort of the godlike figure in your life and you really defer to them.
And I have spent a lot of my life trying to untangle what messaging is useful and what is not. And I can choose to agree and… I don’t know, accept it or not. And that is where the agency comes in. That’s where you sort of reclaim that control over your actions and what you decide to do with your life.
But as a kid, it’s incredibly difficult. And I was just writing about this earlier today, those statements can create entire lives out of it.
I’ve done quite a few interviews over the last couple of weeks, and there’s actually been this really common thread in almost all of them. In that, every single interview that I’ve had, the host has said, “I have also been told this in my life.”
And for a lot of them, the host, if it’s a female host… Which, there have been quite a few. Have said, “I wanted to go into physics. I wanted to go into math. I wanted to go into astronomy. I was told that I wasn’t cut out for this and I didn’t pursue it. I changed my mind.”
And of course, changing your mind is okay. But there is, again, this sort of ubiquitous experience of women and people of color being explicitly and implicitly told that they’re not cut out for something, and that they don’t belong. And that is impactful and it changes people’s lives.
For me, not only… I wouldn’t say I got feisty about it. I wish I had at that age. But I think what really happened is, I internalized it and it became this subconscious messaging that I told myself. And it impacted the way that I showed up in my physics classes, in my math classes, where I constantly felt like I was a fraud or that I didn’t belong.
And I think a lot of my progress in my career, first through undergrad and then through grad school, has been showing myself that, “I am capable. I can do this.”
And as recently as a couple of months ago, I had this moment where I gave a talk. And afterwards, I was like, “Wow, I can do this. I am good at this.”
I had to prove it to myself, because I carried that belief from a very young age that, “I’m not good enough to do this.”

Sarah Al-Ahmed:
It’s a hard thing, because… You managed to power through it, and then you finally begin your degree.
And I think this is something that not enough people really talk about. That experience of finally getting into the astrophysics courses and suddenly feeling like, “I hate physics.” Or, “This isn’t coming naturally to me.” Or, “I’m afraid to ask questions, because I don’t want to seem unintelligent or unworthy.”
And so many people have this experience, and they imagine that everybody else around them totally has it and they know what’s going on. But in reality, we’re all just flopping around. Physics is hard.

Sarafina El-Badry Nance:
Physics is hard. My very first physics class in college, I felt like an idiot. I did not understand anything that was going on. I would study for hours into the night and I wouldn’t feel like I was making any progress.
And interestingly, I got better and better at physics the longer I took physics classes. So by the end of my college career, I was taking the ostensibly hardest classes that the university had to offer in physics. And yet, I was excelling at them in a way that I did not excel in my first physics classes.
And that’s because I had finally built up this intuition, or this understanding of, “Okay, this is what physics really is.”
And I wish someone had told me that. Because it’s ultimately not about forced diagrams, or… It’s about how to think about problems, how to break them down, how to use the tools at your disposal to solve them.
That understanding didn’t come to me until I was basically done with my degrees.

Sarah Al-Ahmed:
Same. And it broke my heart. Because years later, I was teaching a field trip, and this little girl came up to me and she goes, “I’m just bad at math.”

Sarafina El-Badry Nance:
And I think that’s where it gets really sad. I had a truly great teacher, who I write about in the book, who ultimately said, “Girls just aren’t cut out for math. It’s not unusual that Sarafina is struggling in math, because that’s a common experience for girls.”
And there’s this institutional patriarchy that says, subliminally, that women aren’t cut out for these more technical fields. And it impacts all genders.
And so, you end up with kids being told from teachers, from parents, “Oh, I’m just not good at math.” And then the kid internalizes that. And that’s really sad, because oftentimes the math hasn’t being taught in the right ways.
Not that there’s a right way, but in the most accessible way. I mean, everybody’s learning styles are different. And oftentimes, it’s not about the child’s intelligence or capability, and it’s far more about the way that it’s being taught.
Yeah, that really grinds my gears.

Sarah Al-Ahmed:
I know, right? I tried to explain it to her kind of like, “Have you ever tried drawing? The first time you tried to draw a picture of a flower, did it turn out looking like a flower?” No, it took a lot of repetition, and practice, and understanding.
I hope that little girl came away with at least a little bit of kindness to herself, because it’s a hard one.

Sarafina El-Badry Nance:
Yeah. I love that you just said kindness to yourself. I think anything requires you to be okay with being bad at it, until you become more comfortable, until you get the tools and the skills to start to become better at it.
In physics and math, it’s interesting, because… Especially in math, from those earlier courses, you get a right answer or a wrong answer. You have to learn to be okay with failing.
And then later on, I think you start to learn that it’s actually not about the answer, it’s about how you get there. And that’s where the fun is. That’s where it gets interesting. But the path to getting there can be really uncomfortable.

Sarah Al-Ahmed:
I once got a pretty good answer on a question in college, but I was still 41 orders of magnitude off on my calculation, because I think I divided instead of multiplied or something. It’s really easy to make mistakes, so be kind to yourself.

Sarafina El-Badry Nance:
Yes, it is. Yes.

Sarah Al-Ahmed:
But it can be really hard when you then get into your classes, and you’ve finally made it, you’re dealing with this kind of imposter syndrome feeling. And then you’re encountering this inbuilt misogyny from your professors and your classmates as you go along.
Just in case you or anybody else needs to hear it, I’m so proud of you for ignoring them and doing what you love anyway, because it can be hard to power through that.

Sarafina El-Badry Nance:
Thank you. Yeah, I think it’s a really lonely and isolating experience when you’re one of the few women in your class. And you experience this sort of outright sexism and misogyny that makes what’s already very difficult, which is physics and math, exponentially more difficult and uncomfortable.
It made me not want to go to class. It made me not want to be around those people. And that’s really, really upsetting and sad. That’s a stolen moment from my life, and I’m sure from many others.

Sarah Al-Ahmed:
Do you have any wisdoms that you would give to people who are grappling with that kind of situation right now?

Sarafina El-Badry Nance:
I wish I had a perfect answer, but I don’t. I think community is incredibly important.
So, I found one of the only other women in my physics class freshman year and basically asked her to be my friend, asked to study together. And there was a camaraderie that came out of that that saved me, I think, to be able to survive those sort of uncomfortable classes.
So I think community is incredibly important. And I also think, of course, if there’s something really wrong, report it, assuming that you can do that safely.
Unfortunately, people with power tend to abuse that power. And finding allies and community members who can support you as you go through something, is really a lesson that I’ve learned. That’s been really useful in my experience.

Sarah Al-Ahmed:
We’ll be right back with the rest of my interview with Sarafina Nance after this short break.

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Sarah Al-Ahmed:
I’ve heard the same thing from so many of the women I’ve spoken to in astrophysics, either the ones that come on the show or just the people I’ve met in general. The message is always, “Friendship is magic.” Right?

Sarafina El-Badry Nance:
Yes.

Sarah Al-Ahmed:
Find your friends, and whatever trouble you’re going through… Either the physics problem you can’t solve, or that professor that just will not give you the time of day, those friends will power you through this.
And that’s very evident from your story. There are some people that really helped you through these times, and it was beautiful to see.

Sarafina El-Badry Nance:
Thank you. Yeah. I wouldn’t be here without my community, my mentors, my friends, my parents. I attribute so much of where I am today, to them.

Sarah Al-Ahmed:
It’s easy to see astrophysicists and other great scientists as these powerhouses that delve into the mysteries of the universe, and just pull out great wisdoms that they pluck from the ether, right?
But in reality, we’re all humans and we’re all going through these very human struggles. And you and your family have been through a lot of hardships, because of a genetic predisposition to certain forms of cancer.
Would you mind sharing a little bit about that journey and how it impacted your dreams to become an astrophysicist?

Sarafina El-Badry Nance:
My grandmother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and ultimately passed away from pancreatic cancer when I was in fifth grade.
And I think even then, I sort of always knew that cancer was going to be something that I thought about in my family. It wasn’t until my dad was diagnosed with metastatic… So, stage 4 prostate cancer, when I was 23, that it really became this crystallized reality that I was living in.
Shortly after his diagnosis, he got genetic testing and learned that he carries the BRCA mutation, which increases his risk for prostate cancer, which is what he was ultimately diagnosed with. And was inherited from his mom.
I got genetic testing shortly afterwards and learned that I too, carry the BRCA mutation, which increases my risk of breast cancer to 87%, and my risk of ovarian cancer to about 30%.
Yeah, I mean, that’s a really sobering thing to learn about your life and about your body. And I think there’s something actually really beautiful about understanding why your family is the way that it is, and seeing how your lived experience is actually mirrored in the generations before you.
For that, I’m really grateful. I will always feel extremely close to my dad and my grandmother because of this.
But of course, it’s not something that anybody wants to experience or endure. And that’s why I made the decision to get a preventative double mastectomy when I was 26. And that reduced my risk of breast cancer from the original 87% to less than 5%.
So that was me basically seeing this lineage before me and saying, “I am going to choose not to do this, and reclaim a sense of control and power over my own life in doing so.”
And my grandmother, going back to your question, she was a computer programmer when she was younger. And she loved to do puzzles. And she built actually, tangrams, which are these sort of three-dimensional puzzles that you get to play with.
And I remember doing those with her when I was a kid. And it’s only now, as an adult, that I realized she was sort of training me to solve problems, and to do math or geometry, I guess.
So that’s another tie that I have to her. These sorts of inherited traits, both on the DNA level, but also on the psychosocial level.

Sarah Al-Ahmed:
I think it’s really cool that science has given us more tools to have this understanding, and to have power over our futures. Without that genetic testing, you wouldn’t have known about this potential for your future. And through that, you had the ability to do something to change it.
And once more, I feel like I’m just so grateful that that science is a part of our lives these days.

Sarafina El-Badry Nance:
I couldn’t agree more. I mean, my dad, when I was diagnosed with BRCA, he felt really guilty because he knew that the gene mutation came from him. But, he didn’t have a choice. This test didn’t exist when he was my age and having kids.
But, I have the choice now. I don’t write about this in the book, but something that I’m doing is genetic testing of my embryos, so that I can screen out BRCA carriers, to ensure that this sort of lineage ends with me.
And that feels like an incredible gift from science, that I am able to make that decision, and protect my future child and break the cycle.

Sarah Al-Ahmed:
That’s such a kind thing to do. And I love that you can do that. That makes me so happy for you.

Sarafina El-Badry Nance:
Science is really cool. I feel very, very grateful for it.

Sarah Al-Ahmed:
Something that I thought was really interesting. In the chapters when your father was grappling with this cancer, you continuously come back to space as a way of contextualizing your own life.
But there’s a moment when he actually says that he’s grateful, in a way, that he got cancer, because it helped contextualize his life and teach him what was most important.
Do you feel like your experiences with cancer and with space have helped you, similarly, understand what’s most important to you?

Sarafina El-Badry Nance:
Definitely. That’s one of the things that I admire most about my dad. He was faced with this life or death experience, and it faces every day. I mean, he has to wake up every day with that knowledge that he is stage 4, and gets to choose what he does with his life.
I was actually just talking about this with my therapist. I admire that so much. I mean, there’s something so empowering about… You know, it’s not just the bucket list, but it’s about how you actively live every single moment of your life and cherish every moment you were breathing.
And he completely changed his entire life after his diagnosis. He was this sort of businessman who really prioritized providing for his family, and he worked a lot.
And after his diagnosis, he quit his job, he moved to Mexico. He started doing yoga and meditation and built this beautiful community with friends that he, I think, didn’t have previously. And I think was really able to recenter himself, and what life meant to him, and what was important to him.
He is so fulfilled now. I think there’s something really beautiful about somebody recognizing that and having the chance to do it.
When I was going through my surgeries, I remember feeling so isolated from my peers, because I was so young. I was 26. And I remember going… I write about this scene in the book, where I’m going out to dinner, and I’m with a bunch of other grad students, and they’re all talking about their dating life and classes.
And I felt so… I felt like I was on another planet. I mean, it was as though I had nothing to add to that conversation, because I was thinking about death. I mean, literally. It was like, “I’m about to get amputated. How do I deal with this?”
Going through that really allowed me to appreciate what’s important in life, and I’m constantly working on that every day. I’m not saying I’m perfect in the least, but something I’ve learned is, community is incredibly important to me.
I just got back from a weekend with some of my best girlfriends, and there was something so truly magical and special about being able to share love and… I don’t know, being held by the most important people in your life. And making time for that, and making the mindful decision to allow that to have room, is something that I don’t think I knew how to do before my diagnosis. And now, I’m learning how to create space for that.
With every chronic illness, and every sort of diagnosis like that, the person, the individual is faced with how they’re going to process it and how they’re going to allow it to affect their lives. And there’s no right or wrong answer. I mean, it’s incredibly difficult.
And in many ways, I think I’m grateful, similarly to my dad. I have a wonderful partner. I have a wonderful community. I’ve found so much meaning in the things that I do.
Yeah, I mean, it’s sort of seeing the silver lining in the hardship. Finding light in the dark, to paraphrase the title of my book.

Sarah Al-Ahmed:
Yeah. And I’m sad that you had to go through all of that in order to gain that context, but it is a special gift to be able to really understand what’s important to you. Especially early in life, when you can shape your life around it.
Being open about your experiences, particularly your decision to have a double mastectomy… Which, thankfully, dramatically lowered your risk of breast cancer. But that was a hard thing to be open about on the internet. And then suddenly, you kind of blew up on social media because you were so open about your experiences.
What was that like? And did you have that same kind of notoriety when you were just talking about astrophysics?

Sarafina El-Badry Nance:
I started on social media because I was studying for my prelim exam in grad school. I was learning a bunch of things about the universe and I needed to say them to somebody else other than myself. And I was like, “Okay, I’m going to go on Twitter and start talking about it.”
And I definitely gained an audience, but I found that I have a hard time… I mean, speaking of flattening someone online, versus fleshing them out into a full human being. I found that it was really impossible for me to have this platform and not share these really life-changing events that I was experiencing. And I felt like I was being disingenuous to myself if I wasn’t being open.
And not everybody makes that same decision, and that’s completely okay. But for me, the way that I wanted to show up online, and the way that I wanted to build community, was about being transparent and about being open.
And there was science involved. I mean, this was a very, for me, scientifically-motivated decision. As well as a, “I am anxious about this and I do not want to be anxious about this anymore.” So that was, of course, an element too.
But what I ultimately found after I started sharing was that, people responded in a way that shocked me. I did not, at all, anticipate the response that I got, which was overwhelmingly positive.
And a lot of people were reaching out directly, saying, “I have a family history of cancer. I’m going to go get genetic testing.” Or, “I just got my genetic testing results and I’ve been scared about what to do with them. But now, this has given me the courage or the validation to move forward in this way.”
If sharing my story truly impacts one other person, it will all feel worth it to me. That was what that was about. I mean, that really was me trying to share in an attempt to, of course, feel not alone. But also to help.
And after that, there was this education piece. There was this moment of me recognizing, “People are really uncomfortable talking about women’s bodies. People are really uncomfortable talking about breasts. There’s a taboo around it and there shouldn’t be, because you’re talking about health. You’re talking about people’s agency and people’s right to own their own bodies.”
And that felt incredibly important to me.

Sarah Al-Ahmed:
Did that experience, in any way, convince you that you should write this book?

Sarafina El-Badry Nance:
Yeah. I actually decided I wanted to write this book on the heels of my mastectomy. It was about a month afterwards, and I was thinking about my healing process and what it meant…
I was trying to just contextualize. I’ve gone through this huge thing, “What does it mean to be in this position? And how did I get here?”
And all of a sudden, the research aspect came through, the science aspect came through. The way that I have endured, I think is the right word. Because it’s not like I’ve surmounted obstacles. It’s more just like I’ve pushed through them and it’s out of survival.
And that was really interesting to me. Because I think a lot of times, you hear stories about people succeeding, or overcoming obstacles, or reaching that career moment and it’s sunshine and rainbows. I mean, the way that it’s depicted.
And ultimately, that’s not at all the story that I was interested in telling. That felt very disingenuous to my lived experience. For me, it was really important to share the heartbreak, the pain and the joy. Because both, combined, got me here.

Sarah Al-Ahmed:
And you’ve continued to push through. You’re about to get your graduate degree in astrophysics. And you spent a little bit of time as an analog astronaut with HI-SEAS, right, in Hawaii?

Sarafina El-Badry Nance:
Yes. I did a Mars simulation for two weeks, where I lived with a crew of five. I conducted research on supernova and lived as though I was on Mars, which was really cool.

Sarah Al-Ahmed:
That’s so cool. We could talk about that forever, but I can’t keep you on this call forever.
But I do have to ask, you’ve accomplished all of these things. What is next for the great Sarafina Nance? What do you have in your future?

Sarafina El-Badry Nance:
Oh, well, I’m getting married this summer, which is very exciting.

Sarah Al-Ahmed:
Congratulations.

Sarafina El-Badry Nance:
Thank you.

Sarah Al-Ahmed:
Following that story in the book was absolutely heartwarming and I’m so happy for you.

Sarafina El-Badry Nance:
Thank you. Thank you. No, I’m very, very excited.
True to the conversation we’ve just had, I think I spent a lot of time in my life chasing achievement, and chasing the degree or the award.
And now, I’m much more interested in being on a path that is fulfilling, where I feel like I’m making an impact and where I feel like I’m growing.
And I don’t know what that looks like yet. I have a dream of, one day, becoming an astronaut. I would love if that happens, but it’s much more about the process and the journey on the way there.

Sarah Al-Ahmed:
Well, I wish you all the luck in your journey. And I hope that just as space has bolstered me through the hard times in my life, it continues to do so for you.
Because I think that if more people could just see themselves in the scope of the universe, and just how small and precious each of our moments are, we’d probably all be better, happier people. Or, at least have an easier time getting through the hardships of life.

Sarafina El-Badry Nance:
I could not agree more.

Sarah Al-Ahmed:
Well, thanks for speaking with me, Sarafina. And for this beautiful book.

Sarafina El-Badry Nance:
Thank you so much for having me. I’m so, so happy you enjoyed it. Thank you.

Sarah Al-Ahmed:
I think I just made a new best friend. But, you know, life can be really complicated sometimes. Sarafina’s tale of resilience and perseverance is inspiring, but it’s also a really great reminder that we have to be kind to ourselves and each other.
So the next time you’re feeling stressed out, if you can spare a moment, step outside at night, feel the starlight on your face and dream about other worlds. Let yourself be distracted by the sheer absurdity of the fact that you and I exist on this rock around a star, just hurdling through the immense and beautiful infinity of the universe.
You and I are made of stardust. And in case you need to hear it today, I am so proud of you for everything that you’ve overcome in this life, and I’m really glad that you’re here with us on planet Earth.
If you’d like to cheer Sarafina on as she finishes her last months before graduation, or just follow her amazing journey as she continues into the future, you can find her on Twitter, @StarstrickenSF.
And while we’re talking about finding hope in the night sky, it’s a perfect moment to turn to Bruce Betts, our chief scientist, to ask what’s going to be up in the sky this week.
Hello, Bruce.

Bruce Betts:
Hello, Sarah.

Sarah Al-Ahmed:
I have returned from my vacation.

Bruce Betts:
Cool. Good to have you back.

Sarah Al-Ahmed:
Yeah, it’s nice to be back.

Bruce Betts:
Should we start with things in the night sky this time?

Sarah Al-Ahmed:
Let’s do it. It’s early in the month. We probably have all kinds of stuff to look forward to.

Bruce Betts:
It’s planet stuff really, right now, but it’s really good planet stuff, especially in the evening sky. Anywhere looking in the west in the evening, super bright Venus. Just past its highest point in the sky for this time around, but it’ll continue to be high for Venus. So easy to see.
Reddish Mars is closing in on Venus. It won’t get too close, but it’ll get fairly close at the beginning of next month. And reddish Mars is much dimmer.
In the pre-dawn sky, we’ve got stuff happening. Saturn’s already up, flying high in the pre-dawn in the east, looking yellowish. And now, it’s getting pretty easy to see Jupiter. Very bright, still kind of low in the east, getting higher and easier to see as the weeks pass.
Looking ahead, on June 14th, the crescent moon is hanging out next to bright Jupiter, and making a lovely pairing over there in the pre-dawn east.
That’s what we’ve got.

Sarah Al-Ahmed:
Yeah, I’ll tell you, it was really cool… Because I was on vacation at a music festival that literally started at sundown and went until sunup.
So I’m not usually out all night long looking up at the planets, but just being out there at the music festival with Venus shining over everyone, it was magical.

Bruce Betts:
Did they know that they were starting after the sun went down and going until the morning?

Sarah Al-Ahmed:
They did it on purpose.

Bruce Betts:
Did you choose that?

Sarah Al-Ahmed:
Yeah.

Bruce Betts:
For astronomy reasons?

Sarah Al-Ahmed:
For astronomy reasons.
No, it’s the Electric Daisy Carnival in Las Vegas. The whole thing is beautiful lighting. It would not have the same effect during the daytime.

Bruce Betts:
No, that’s good. I’m glad you had a musical astronomy experience.

Sarah Al-Ahmed:
You should come with me next year, Bruce.

Bruce Betts:
Yeah. Okay. That’ll happen. Moving on to this week in space history. 2010, the Japanese Hayabusa mission returned the first samples directly from an asteroid, to earth. Not a whole lot of sample, but enough to do some science and prove it could be done. So, that happened in 2010.
And we’ll move on to… No, I don’t know how to do a random space fact in an Electric Daisy Festival proper way. Maybe a… Random space fact.

Sarah Al-Ahmed:
Close.

Bruce Betts:
Anyway, but this is nifty keen. Every second… One just went by. Multiple. The sun’s core fuses about 600 million tons of hydrogen into helium.
But what’s really groovy in that whole E = mc conversion fusion weirdness is, it converts 4 million tons of matter into energy every second. No, not matter anymore. Now it’s energy. Cool.

Sarah Al-Ahmed:
That’s so, so much. And our star isn’t even that big of a star. Can you imagine what’s going on in the heart of O-type stars?

Bruce Betts:
Don’t let it hear you say that.

Sarah Al-Ahmed:
I love you, sun. I didn’t mean it. You’re awesome.

Bruce Betts:
We’d be in a lot of trouble if we were hanging out at this distance from an O-type star.
Anyway, thankful for so many things in the world and outside the world. Let us move on to what we’re really thankful for, which is the trivia contest. I’m sure everyone is.
And I asked you, “What moons of planets in our solar system have average densities greater than, or equal to, three grams per cubic centimeter? Or equivalently, 3000 kilograms per cubic meter?”
How did we do?

Sarah Al-Ahmed:
Most people got this right, although some people did want to include Ganymede, but that wasn’t correct. The answer is Io, our moon, and Europa.
Most people did get that right. We even had some people write into us and say, “I thought Ganymede was going to be on that list as the biggest moon in the solar system.” But it turned out not so.

Bruce Betts:
Yeah, no, I think it’s an interesting statistic. And there’s a real drop-off after those three. Most of the moons out there are much more icy and less rocky.
And it’s also interesting, people lose track of the Europa. It’s covered by an ice shell. We talked about it like a liquid water ocean, but it’s mostly rocky.
And then Io is just a rebel, and the moon’s just cool. So those are the densest moons in the solar system.
What do we got? We’ve got winners, we’ve got cool stuff. What do we got?

Sarah Al-Ahmed:
Yeah. So our winner this week is Doug Burkey from White Pigeon, Michigan, USA.
So, Doug, because you got this question correct, I’m going to be sending you three random exoplanet posters from my personal collection in the office. I’m going to have fun picking those out.
And along the way, we got a lot of really great comments from people, many about Ganymede. But I loved this one, because this was in reference to a trivia question you asked a few weeks ago about, “What Moon in our solar system had a crater named after Macbeth from Shakespeare?”
And we had a little bit of a conversation about, “What is the equivalent of shouting Macbeth in a theater, for people that are astronomy lovers?”
And someone wrote back, “To trigger astronomers, all you have to do is shout, ‘Pluto is a planet.’ And watch the havoc unfold.”

Bruce Betts:
Yeah. Oh, Pluto. Alas.

Sarah Al-Ahmed:
But that was Joseph Kelly Putray from New Jersey, USA.
And this comment just kind of warmed my heart. Elizabeth Cod from Arkansas, USA, wrote in to say that she’s been a listener of Planetary Radio since she was a broke and confused undergrad, nearly five years ago.
And now, she’s equally as broke and confused as a graduate student, which I’m sure we all relate to. But she’s really glad that she kept listening to this show and looking up. And that it inspires her to continue her search for a career.
I super relate to that.

Bruce Betts:
Oh, wait, are we responsible for her being broke and confused?

Sarah Al-Ahmed:
No.

Bruce Betts:
Oh, okay. So the trivia question, or command this week is, “Name all the constellations…” This is the official IAU 88 constellations. “All constellations named for insects.”
And only the ones named for insects, just to be clear with language. Go to planetary.org/radiocontest.

Sarah Al-Ahmed:
And you have until Wednesday, June 14th at 8:00 AM Pacific time to get us your creepy, crawly bug answer.
And I’m actually getting pretty close to running out of the Goodnight Oppy Thermal Mugs, but I’m just going to keep giving them away until I have no more left. So our winner this week will be winning another Goodnight Oppy Thermal Mug.

Bruce Betts:
All right, everybody, go out there, look up at the night sky and think about your favorite insect. Thank you and goodnight.

Sarah Al-Ahmed:
We’ve reached the end of this week’s episode of Planetary Radio, but we’ll be back next week with even more space adventures.
Planetary Radio is produced by The Planetary Society in Pasadena, California, and is made possible by our star stricken members. You can join us at planetary.org/join.
Mark Hilverda and Rae Paoletta are our associate producers. Andrew Lucas is our audio editor. Josh Doyle composed our theme, which is arranged and performed by Pieter Schlosser.
And until next week, ad astra.


#Starstruck #Sarafina #ElBadry #Nance

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