Eyes for the skies

CSE alumna brings STEM to the masses with first-ever statewide stargazing event

October 24, 2019

It’s safe to say Nadia Abuisnaineh is an astronomy aficionado. Since fifth grade, she dreamed of studying space and the stars, mesmerized by the images taken by NASA’s Hubble telescope. She even thought her first college astronomy exam was fun.

Nevertheless, she isn’t just a fan. Abuisnaineh graduated from the College of Science and Engineering at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities in 2011 with a degree in astrophysics. And, she coordinated Minnesota’s first ever Statewide Star Party with the University’s Bell Museum.

Throughout the weekend of Nov. 8-11, the star party encouraged people across Minnesota to come together at their neighborhood museums, observatories, and parks to stargaze and learn about astronomy. Star parties regularly occur all over the United States—and at the Bell Museum—but this year’s event was the first time several communities across the state took part on the same weekend. 

Twenty-nine sites participated in the event. The theme, “The Moon and Beyond,” is a nod to the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing. 

“I love that we’re able to bring out our family and our friends and say, ‘Let’s look up at the night sky together,’” Abuisnaineh said. “We always see the moon, but when you look at it through a telescope and see the craters, sometimes it can be mind-blowing! It’s a unique experience that I don’t think enough people have.”

Expanding education’s orbit

Growing up, Abuisnaineh said she and her siblings spent a lot of time outside looking through their family telescope. Since then, her fascination and love for what lies beyond earth has never faded. 

“The sky is so amazing and so accessible,” she said.

“You’re bringing something that’s so far away so close to you. It’s like a gift from nature.”

After graduating from CSE, Abuisnaineh dedicated her talents to Islamic awareness and outreach, working at an online Islamic University and volunteering with non-profit organizations in her community. 

“I put astrophysics to the side after graduation, but I always knew I wanted to go back to it,” Abuisnaineh said. “Astrophysics is so fascinating, and my education at the U of M only made my passion for that stronger."

Earlier this year, she became a NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) Solar System Ambassador, which means she educates people about space through presentations at local libraries, schools, and museums. Most recently, she led a tour at the Bell’s summer “Museum of the Moon” exhibit, which featured a massive moon sculpture suspended from the ceiling. 

The NASA JPL program only requires its ambassadors to participate in four events per year, but Abuisnaineh has already volunteered at about 10 thus far. While the Statewide Star Party coordinator is a separate position, she is the first NASA JPL ambassador to organize a first-ever statewide stargazing event.

For Abuisnaineh, working to promote space education has been a lifelong aspiration.

“I’ve always dreamed to work at a planetarium,” she said.

“I realized I didn’t really enjoy research as much as I enjoyed talking to people about math and science, and especially about space,” she said.

Inspiring the next moonwalkers

As a Muslim, Abuisnaineh said her love for space has always been closely tied to her faith. This is why she believes a key part of her job is bringing STEM education to the Muslim community through outreach events like the star party. 

“It says in the Koran that God created the universe for us to look,” she said. “But there’s this idea that science and religion can’t coexist."

"These events can show our Muslim community that they can be passionate about science and still believe in their religion,” Abuisnaineh said.

At the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, Abuisnaineh was the only Muslim woman in many of her science classes, and at times one of few women. This is why she said events like the ones she has organized as a NASA JPL ambassador and star party coordinator are especially important for young Muslim girls.

Since there aren’t a lot of examples of Muslim women in STEM fields, Abuisnaineh said it’s crucial for young girls to see themselves in those positions. And although being a role model comes with a lot of pressure, Abuisnaineh said she is up to the challenge.  

“It’s very necessary for girls to see things like a woman president, or a woman athlete, or a woman astronaut,” she said. “For Muslim girls, seeing that I was able to pursue a passion of mine in science can inspire them to believe that they can study and pursue whatever it is they are passionate about.”

In light of NASA’s decision to send the first woman to the moon in 2024, Abuisnaineh said she is excited to have more female astronauts in space exploration as role models for young girls to look up to. 

“If my 2-year-old daughter grows up in a world that has the first woman to walk on the moon, she’ll grow up in a world where that’s normal,” she said. “And I think that’s really cool.”

Story by Olivia Hultgren

Watch a video about Abuisnaineh and her passion for space and religion, used with permission from Reviving the Islamic Sisterhood for Empowerment in their Muslim Sheroes of Minnesota storytelling project.

For more information on the Minnesota Statewide Star Party, visit the Bell Museum website.

If you’d like to support outreach programs in the University of Minnesota College of Science and Engineering, visit our CSE Giving website.