As part of our #IsmailiExcellence campaign, we aspire to showcase how Ismailis across a range of diverse backgrounds working in different fields are living out the principles of best practice. To celebrate our first showcase, we have with us Farzana Meru, an Astrophysicist giving us insight into a day in her life and what inspired her to be an Astrophysicist.
NAME: Farzana Meru
What inspired you to get into your field?
I followed my passion. I was always interested in space-related activities as a child but never really knew that I wanted to be an Astrophysicist. I simply followed what interested me, be that the subjects I studied, the talks I listened to or the programs I watched, and soon realized that I was truly passionate about understanding the mysteries of the Universe. I had the opportunity to specialize in Astrophysics at University. And after giving a few different jobs a try, I decided to pursue this as a career.
Tell me about your current role?
I am an Assistant Professor in the Astronomy & Astrophysics group at the University of Warwick. I carry out research into understanding how giant planets, such as Jupiter, could have formed and evolved over time. I also supervise PhD and undergraduate students on research projects and in the near future, I will be lecturing on topics surrounding this field.
Describe a typical day in your life
My typical day involves running computer simulations and analyzing them using super-computers. My research tries to understand how planets form in their birth environments – the disc of gas and dust, known as a protoplanetary discs, that swirl around their central star. Our very own Sun would have had one of these discs when it first formed. I use my computer simulations to come up with theories about how these discs evolve and form planets.
I read scientific papers and write up my research results so that they can be disseminated to the scientific community, which may be in the form of journal articles, or presentations and posters which I then present at conferences. Additionally I supervise students on research projects. An element of my work involves telling the public about the exciting research we are doing, such as doing public presentations and also includes talking to the media. I also carry out tasks which help my department achieve its goals, such as sitting on hiring panels and committees, applying for funding from research councils, and organizing work experience for GCSE and A-Level students.
What excites you most about your work?
I love venturing into the unknown – working on trying to answer the big scientific questions that astronomers and the general public are asking that we currently do not know the answer to. We are trying to understand the origins of this universe and I am excited about what we, as scientists, will uncover about the Universe that we are such a tiny part of.
I get a great sense of satisfaction helping students become excited about Astronomy and science in general (especially if this helps to inspire young girls to study STEM subjects). I also love the opportunities that my work indirectly gives me: I have travelled to conferences all over the world, have lived in countries where I never dreamt I would live in, such as Germany and Switzerland, where I have been immersed in new cultures, and learnt a new language – I moved to Germany without knowing the language!
What has been your most memorable moment?
There are so many different ones – my job is full of different and interesting things. Submitting my first article to a journal gave me a real sense of achievement. Other moments include my first conference talk prior to which I was really scared, my first fellowship interview despite the process being thoroughly draining, my first press interview, and getting some unexpected scientific results which is always extremely exciting. More recently I remember being on cloud nine after being offered my lectureship at Warwick. I also remember breastfeeding my young daughter minutes before giving a conference talk which left me feeling like Supermum!
Who has championed you during your career progression?
Most definitely my family (husband, daughter, parents and sister) and my mentors (see below). My husband and I joke that we share my degrees because he was a pillar of support throughout. My parents and (now) husband supported me when I was at University and I called them up frequently to say that I was sure that they had made a mistake with the admissions process and that I wasn’t meant to be there!
When I was really young, my Dad would drive me to different UK cities to listen to various Astronomy talks. And my sister put up with me watching Apollo 13 again and again and again (I think I watched it over a hundred times – we both know most of the script off by heart!)
Have you had a mentor along the way? If yes, how did you find your mentor?
Yes, one can’t do these things without the advice and support of others with more experience. My first mentor is an Ismaili Astrophysicist who lives in Canada, Professor Arif Babul. A friend of my husband knew Arif and introduced me to him when I was an undergraduate. The second is my Masters supervisor, Professor Cathie Clarke. They have supported me and my career 100% with lots of very sound and well thought out advice and have always been there to guide me, especially during the tough times. Cathie also provided support with regards to work-life balance and issues related to having a child whilst still progressing with my career. There are also people who I have met at conferences, colleagues, and my old lecturers; all have offered great advice and encouragement, read proposals, given me mock interviews, guided me, and pushed me in the right directions. I cannot thank all my mentors enough.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Work hard play hard. Keep yourself active because when you slow down you are less productive. Take on as many of the opportunities that you are presented with. Every experience – whether good or bad – is an experience that shapes you.
What advice would you give to young women looking to enter your field?
Follow your passion. Work hard – even if at times it feels tough. Find your own way and a flow that works for you whilst embracing all your options. Be sure to seek out opportunities that give you experience in the field as this will help you figure out what areas you particularly enjoy as well as the ones you don’t. Talk to people, get advice, and find yourself a senior mentor to help guide you.
It’s also okay to not know what you want to do at a young age. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do until after I had finished my undergraduate degree, but I followed my passion and worked hard and that naturally led me to this profession.
Are you doing anything to encourage more girls into your field / science?
I have spoken to young Ismaili children to get them excited about Astronomy. I’m also in contact with other young women, who are at a more advanced stage (undergraduate and PhD) to provide them with female support. I am also supporting junior women in my field, by providing them with advice and experience.
Aside from this, I am actively trying to ensure that there are good female role models that students are exposed to through representation at summer schools and conferences. I have also sat on an Athena Swan panel, which promotes diversity and equality in the workplace.
I am also working with the AKEB to organize a Science Fair which we are looking to launch later this year, and have worked with them on their Space Camp projects too. I hope these will help to inspire young girls to study science.
Did you have a Plan B?
Not really. I tried a few things but was not as passionate about them as I was about Astronomy. My plan B was to help my husband with his business – lucky for him I didn’t go down this route!
We appreciate you taking the time out to share your awe inspiring journey with us and we hope through this article and through Farzanas’ inspiring voice in her chosen field that more youth within the Jamat will aim for the stars, galaxies and beyond.