Arabian Stargazer: meet Diana Alsindy, the woman who's teaching young people about science and space, in Arabic
The Baghdad-born rocket engineer launched her popular Instagram page to help make science more accessible and inclusive
Two years ago, rocket engineer Diana Alsindy typed a seemingly straightforward query in Arabic into Google: “Why do satellites not fall from the sky?”
Her search returned zero answers.
But when Alsindy typed the same phrase in English, she was inundated with pages upon pages of information.
“There were hundreds of articles, with videos and illustrations and graphics,” says the Baghdad-born Alsindy, a propulsion engineer at Boeing in California.
“Arabs were pioneers in maths, astronomy, calligraphy … and so many of the technologies we use to this day were discovered by Arab scientists and engineers. And it seems like we kind of went downhill.
“If we’re expecting to expand the Arab world [in science and technology], how do you expect people to learn if you’re not saying it in their language?”
Instead of complaining, Alsindy, 27, whose family immigrated to the US from Iraq in 2008, decided to do something about it. She launched the Instagram account @TheArabianStargazer, posting science, technology and engineering as well as space exploration content in Arabic and English.
It was an immediate success, quickly winning her a steady following mostly from Arabic speakers around the world. The account, which she launched in 2018, now has more than 110,000 followers.
“When you make it normal to talk about science in Arabic, more people feel included. If I hear someone speaking in Japanese, I won’t listen to it, because I don’t understand it. You need to deliver that inclusivity,” she says.
From questions about wearing veils in space, to the challenges of being a Muslim astronaut and how young female students can convince their parents that they can work in a male-dominated career such as space, Alsindy says she gets hundreds of questions from her followers all over the world.
“Two years ago, I received a message from a girl and she said, ‘I am from Egypt and I really look up to you and I want to be in this field one day.’
“We kept in touch and a year later she got it touch again and said she was messaging me from her dormitory at Stanford University and thanked me for being an inspiration. She said she wouldn’t have applied for Stanford if it wasn’t for my platform and was really thankful to be there. She went straight from Egypt to an Ivy League school and that’s so amazing.”
When we immigrated, I barely spoke English. So I didn’t even think of which career I was going to be in
There are detractors, too, though, she notes.
“I sometimes get comments like, ‘You’re a woman, you should be in the kitchen.’ I’m a scientist and engineer and they still think it’s OK to say these things,” she says, with a laugh. “But the positive feedback is way more than the negative. So it’s cool.”
Alsindy’s desire to share her knowledge in Arabic was born out of her own experience growing up in the US. She was 14 when her parents moved her and her two younger siblings from Baghdad to San Diego, California.
“When we immigrated, I barely spoke English. So I didn’t even think of which career I was going to be in,” she recalls.
Her father, who studied mechanical engineering in Iraq, worked as an artist in the US. But Alsindy thought being an engineer could give her more options as a career.
In school, she says she really enjoyed maths and physics “because there wasn’t one way of doing something".
“You can always solve an equation or a formula in so many different ways,” she says.
When Alsindy was 19, she read an article about a female scientist and engineer who was part of the crew at the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah, which was replicating life on Mars.
“They were simulating life on the planet to see if humans could live on there. She was wearing the space suit and walking on red dust and rocks. And the story really caught my attention.
“I never before thought about space that way and I never thought you could have a career in space.”
Alsindy says she picked chemical engineering as her major in university so she could find opportunities in different careers “just in case aerospace engineering didn’t work out”.
Still, Nasa seemed like a world away then, she recalls.
“I kept looking for opportunities, but whatever I did, it seemed like Nasa was so far way and there was no way I could reach it. And Nasa seemed to be the only place I could be if I wanted to be in space,” she says.
But she was wrong. At the University of California, San Diego, which she joined in 2014, Alsindy was the propulsion team lead in an undergrad group called Students for the Exploration and Development of Space.
The group took part in Nasa’s Cube Quest Challenge, a competition to build flight-qualified, small satellites capable of advanced communication and propulsion near and beyond the Moon. Their entry, called Triteia, was a 3D-printed engine thruster that could propel a satellite into the Moon's orbit.
“Our engine was made from 90 per cent hydrogen peroxide, which means there was only one place that could give us the facility to test it – Nasa. The competition was three years long and evaluated every three months when we had to present the evolution of the design as we competed against high schools, other universities, graduate students and companies,” she explains.
“This meant a lot of meetings with Nasa. They did critical design reviews, preliminary design reviews and test readiness reviews, and it exposed me to what the space industry was really about. It wasn’t my physics class, it wasn’t my maths teacher who taught me how to solve an equation, it was this hands-on experience – I used all of these acronyms and methodologies as a professional working in space.”
Alsindy’s team didn’t win but working in that environment provided her with a solid understanding of working in the space industry.
“It doesn’t mean you have to wear a suit and go to space and walk on rocky ground. It doesn’t mean you have to be a genius in maths or physics or chemistry. It simply meant finding the right people, the right experiences and opportunity and applying your skill sets and know what you’re good at.”
Alsindy later became the propulsion development engineer at Virgin Orbit, working on the LauncherOne rocket, which took off for space in January. Through The Arabian Stargazer, as well as sharing her love for space, she also clears up misconceptions about its accessibility, especially in the Arab world.
“There is a misconception that this is a difficult career to get into. It’s just a little tricky because there isn’t a clear path that’s straight through,” she says.
“I’ve always had this desire to be cause-driven – and I have documents on my hard drive way before the Arabian Stargazer on how I can give back to the community using my strengths. And I’ve had this feeling of I need to give back to the Arab world.”
That aspiration has taken her on speaking tours around the Middle East, including the UAE, where she spoke at the Dubai Airshow in 2019. But her ultimate mission is much bigger, she says.
“I’ve talked to various organisations on how I could do internship-style fellowships for Arab students. Being in the space industry really opened my eyes to the fact that in order to really flourish in a certain career, especially engineering and space, you have to be in an environment where you can really explore things by hand. Also, to know if you like this before you commit to a full-time job. And that experience doesn’t exist in the Middle East,” she says.
The UAE, which has been leading the Arab world in space projects, could be a great partner in her mission to promote science, technology, engineering and mathematics education in the region, she says.
“I want to work with the UAE to build some kind of an academy where we teach students, new graduates or not yet, on how to gain these skill sets,” she says.
“I want to provide that same opportunity I had to students in high school or university and equip them with the resources.
“When companies abroad see that there are students who are trained by American professionals, they are going to come and invest in these students.
“Ultimately, my drive is to give all these students opportunities they might not get somewhere else.”
Updated: June 9, 2021 12:22 PM