Heba was my student during my tenure as a Tutor at the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) in Ghana. She was the first person I physically met from Egypt, haha. Here is our interview about her STEM journey;
Hi Heba, it is nice to speak with you again after this long. You are welcome to this platform. Thank you for accepting to share your story through us
Hi Winnie, Thank you for giving me this opportunity
Please tell us your full name and what you do
My name is Heba Sami Abdulrahman from Egypt. I have just submitted my PhD thesis in Physics, at North-West University, South Africa. My research is about Theoretical Cosmology, in particular modified theories of gravity. I am trying to solve some of the mysterious problems in our universe and I am really enjoying what I am doing. I study things like the origin of our universe, how it evolves and grows by extending Einstein’s well-known General Relativity theory.
Humanity’s eternal quest for a better understanding of the cosmos has always brought more surprises and more questions than answers. Nevertheless, the evolution of our perception of the universe over the last few millennia has been dramatic. From an earth supported by an infinite chain of turtles all-the-way-down, to a fixed firmament of heavens and hells surrounding us, to Ptolemy’s geocentric universe, Copernicus’ heliocentric universe, Newton’s falling-apple inspired gravitation, Kant’s island universes, Einstein’s fabric of static spacetime, still little is known about the universe. Humankind has traced all sorts of mysticism and reason to satisfy its curiosity and at times to determine its place and fate in the grandest scheme of things.
Cosmology is not an everyday word for an African child! How did you join this world?
I was born and raised in Cairo, Egypt with my two young sisters. My childhood was normal; I remember doing very well in my studies and my parents were very proud of me. I have always enjoyed Mathematics since childhood!
Everything in my life was fine until I lost my father when I was 14. Nothing changed in my life but my personality changed a lot! I became more responsible and started looking at everything in a different way. This became intense after 7 years when I lost my mom and found myself alone with my two sisters. At that time I was in my third year at the university. It was very tough for me. I had to drop some courses and found myself failing in many others. Imagine coming from the excellent category of students to a point of barely passing! I was very depressed and decided to take a break from everything after graduation.
I later heard about the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) and knew it was time to start again. I joined AIMS in Ghana and I completed my first Masters in Mathematical Sciences in June 2016. This was my resuming point; because of AIMS, I got a chance to start my academic career. In 2016 I was accepted to attend the African School of fundamental Physics and application (ASP 2016) in Rwanda. The school was based on High Energy Physics, Cosmology and Astrophysics. This opportunity helped me gain many skills and introduced me to the field of Cosmology. This was the foundation of my research work in Theoretical Cosmology.
In 2017 I moved to South Africa to start my second master’s in Cosmology. I managed to complete my masters in 10 months with a distinction and it was the highest distinction all over the three campuses of the university. My Master’s dissertation has resulted into four internationally peer-reviewed publications. I was very happy and motivated because of these achievements in a very short time. A rare achievement especially for a female student in an otherwise under-represented discipline such as physics, in theoretical cosmology no less.
In 2018 I started my PhD and in 2019 I was invited to Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL), New York USA, for three months to work with a research group about Astrophysics and Cosmology. It is one of the best 10 laboratories in the world. Some people might say I was lucky, but I believe it is all fruits of my hard work. Besides my research work I used to work as a teaching assistant as well. Now I am waiting for my PhD results.
What have you found inspiring and challenging along your journey in Cosmology?
Life is filled with many lessons and challenges. I believe that we get inspired by people around us everyday. Inspiration opens our minds to new experiences. And I also believe that challenges are going to come for us at all points in life. What matters is how we see ourselves and others and how we deal with difficult times and difficult people.
I was inspired when I first left my country and got to meet and know new people from different cultures and backgrounds. I also found the diversity in that environment challenging at the same time. I realised that I had to explain myself to other people more often than I used to back home! I remember one day someone said, “Heba you are your parents’ baby”! This was very offensive to me because this person had no idea how much I had been through after the loss of my parents and what it took for me to get back on my feet and give life another chance. But I later learned that in life, we need to be more sensitive about the things we say and do, plus always taking a step to listen more to people and communicate better. I am also a work in progress when it comes to my complaining habits. I still believe I should make my dissatisfaction known, especially if I am to build a meaningful relationship with anyone.
You have mentioned some of your achievements in life, and we are very proud of your hard work. Is there anything else you would like to add?
I received the S2A3 Masters Medals (bronze), from Southern Africa Association for the Advancement of Science as the most outstanding master’s degree student in the discipline of natural sciences at North-West University south Africa.
I have to mention here that when I first came to south Africa I had no fund or scholarship at all I was counting on the partial fund I received from AIMS to continue my work but after I finished my Master’s in cosmology I received two scholarships to fund my PhD work; one from The National Research Foundation (NRF) and the other from the African Union.
What do you enjoy doing outside work?
Cleaning 😀 I am a clean freak and I realised it is the best way to get rid of my stress. I also enjoy reading and colouring.
What is your favourite quote?
“However difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at” ~ Stephen Hawking.
What is your word of encouragement for a young girl in STEM?
Dear young girl in STEM, stay focused and know that no one was born “smart”! Your hard work will define you and your future and remember that every successful person had to start somewhere. They are just a few years ahead of you but not better than you. Hard work always pays off! One more important thing; learn how and when to say NO!. It is okay if you face some challenges regarding your study, we are all learning and sometimes we fail. Just learn how to surround yourself with people who can support you.
Thank you Heba for sharing your journey with us and the world. I am personally very proud of the strong woman you have become. May you keep soaring.