Fascinated by the dying solar system

Shazrene Mohamed

“I used my whole month’s salary to pay for the postage stamps to send in the bursary applications.”

Bursaries, scholarships, grants and prizes

Argelander Fellowship, University of Bonn, Germany

Victor Rothschild Fellowship, AIMS, South Africa

Funds for Women Graduates Foundation Grant, UK

Graduate Scholarship, St Edmund Hall, Oxford, UK

Rhodes Scholarship, Oxford University, UK

From a very young age, Shazrene displayed the correct temperament to be a scientist. Not only was she curious about the things around her, but she also had an insatiable desire to know the reason why or how they were the way they were or worked the way they did.

In Grade 4, Shazrene fell in love with the sky while learning about the solar system at school. By the end of the year she had made up her mind that she would one day become an astronaut.

It was the beauty of the stars, planets, comets, sun and moon, all the unanswered questions about them and a picture of an astronaut floating through space with the blue earth behind him that had hooked Shazrene.

“The beauty sparked many questions of course, like: ‘What makes the stars shine and twinkle? How did they get up there? How do they stay up there?’ I childishly decided that the only way to find out would be to go to space to see for myself.”

Researching her chosen career, Shazrene knew she would have her work cut out for her. Only the best of the best were chosen to be a part of a space programme and only citizens of a country with a space programme would ever get the chance to become an astronaut.

Zimbabwe did not have a space programme nor did they make provision for their citizens to hold dual citizenship. Her parents were not wealthy either, so she knew she would have to apply for a bursary in order to go to university.

“I spent a whole day in the public library going through a huge book which listed all the universities and the bursaries they gave, eventually choosing 11 possible institutions that were known to give full scholarships. At the time I had a holiday job working at a pharmacy; I used my whole month’s salary to pay for the postage stamps to send in the bursary applications.”

Shazrene was offered a bursary at several of the universities she applied to, including Harvard and Princeton. Harvard did not ask her for any funding so it was the obvious choice.

Studies opened doors to travel

Having never been apart from her family or on a plane before, she cried all the way to Johannesburg, but by the time she landed in America she had pulled herself together. Once at Harvard she registered for some pre-med courses including biology and organic chemistry.

Her parents did not know much about astronomy, astronauts or space, nor that it was a possible career path. They did know about doctors and medicine and so encouraged her to also consider becoming a medical doctor. However, her passion was space and so she finally decided to major in astronomy and mathematics, and to take courses to learn Russian.

“I also joined the US Military Reserve Officers’ Training Corps to get my US citizenship, provided I passed the officers’ training. I was in my final stage when those planes crashed into the Twin Towers on 11 September 2001, and not long after that I was taken off the programme together with all the other non-Americans.”

Although Shazrene was shattered, she kept positive. Thankfully for her, seeing pictures of planetary nebulae during her studies had piqued her interest in astronomy research even further so she had a backup career path to follow, whereas many of her classmates had no such luxury.

Not long afterwards, Shazrene was in England, enrolled at Oxford University on a Rhodes Scholarship for a PhD course in astrophysics. Because of the three papers that she had published during her undergraduate studies, she was able to skip getting a Masters.

“I loved Oxford, there were more fellow Africans, it is a lot older than Harvard with more traditions. It took getting used to though especially since we were so spoilt at Harvard, where they do many things for you.”

It was a period of intense study for Shazrene. She had to learn how to program with computers for the first time. Her supervisor, Professor Philipp Podsiadlowski, encouraged her to push herself and to teach herself, recommending papers for her to read and experiments for her to do.

Not only was she required to learn Gadget, a computer program that uses C – Code, but she had to figure out a way to change the program to compute how stars interact with each other instead of the original use for cosmology and the physics of galaxies.
Job description

“My job is different from most other physicists. As an astrophysicist you can’t poke or prod your object of study. Instead, we have to use theory and models to experiment and investigate.”

Shazrene uses super-computers to develop 3-D models of how things might be. One might look at a faraway star through a telescope and only end up with a blurry image. 3-D models help to shed light on that as the orientation of the model and its parameters can be changed until the simulation resembles the object. In that way, one can better understand its physical properties and why the star appears the way it does. The models are also used to make predictions for what can be seen with current and future telescopes.

Shazrene studies old, evolved stars. When a star, just like our sun, runs out of fuel it will become a giant star and lose its outer layers. Eventually all that will be left behind is a white dwarf and a glowing nebula, known as a planetary nebula. She specializes in binary stars: systems with two stars orbiting around each other.

“I simulate what happens when a giant star has a white dwarf companion nearby. Some of the material being lost by the giant gets swallowed up by the white dwarf companion. If the white dwarf mass grows to reach about 1.4 times the mass of our sun, it will produce a supernova, an explosion so powerful it can outshine the light from an entire galaxy. The white dwarf also shapes the material being blown off from the giant.”

Apparently the dying stars are amazing to look at. Their extended envelopes go from plain round to weird and intricate shapes like hour glasses and butterflies with filaments, jets and spirals. It is perhaps the beauty of these stellar systems that makes it easy for Shazrene to take her science to young learners as part of the SAAO outreach programme.

“She is a gifted scientist and a brilliant communicator who delights in making her work accessible to colleagues, students and the public. She is particularly good with smart young people and is a fantastic mentor,” said Professor Patricia Whitelock, a fellow astronomer at the SAAO.

Patricia added that Shazrene is particularly empathetic towards young people from disadvantaged backgrounds and is really good at inspiring them to take more of an interest in mathematics, physics and astronomy.

Other than describing what we know and don’t know about stars and showing students spectacular images of supernovae, giants and nebulae, Shazrene aIso encourages young people to think about what it is they love and want to do as a career.

“Since we spend a large fraction of our time at work, life is a lot more fun and enjoyable if your work involves pursuing your dreams and passions, so it is something worth spending a lot of time thinking about. It is easy to give your best when you are doing something you love.

I also explain that I was just like them and that although my story is unlikely, it shows that with hard work and perseverance, anything is possible.”