Fiercely passionate, NDU alumna Dr. Rana Ezzeddine discusses how following her dream of being an astrophysicist led her to securing a tenure track position at the University of Florida researching the origins and formation of the Milky Way Galaxy.
What drew you to astrophysics in the first place?
It might sound cliché, but I have always been super fascinated by the night sky and its cosmic objects and inhabitants. I have also been inspired by the visions of astrophysicists wanting to solve the mysteries of the Cosmos, especially Richard Feynman and Steven Hawking.
As a physics undergrad, I was struggling to choose a physics topic that I was truly passionate about, and would want to study further. At that time I wasn’t even aware that it would be possible to pursue an astrophysics major or career in Lebanon, as no such courses were taught at the Lebanese University, where I completed my BS degree. Then I joined the “Lebanese Astronomy group", which consisted of avid amateur astronomers from different universities all over Lebanon, as well as professional astrophysics professors from NDU. I was immediately hooked, and I knew that this is what I wanted to study and pursue as a career.
What was it like studying astrophysics at NDU?
The first astrophysics Master’s program in Lebanon at NDU opened up this amazing opportunity for me to fulfill my dream of becoming an Astrophysicist. Interacting with, and being mentored by hard-working, passionate, real-life astronomy faculty from Lebanon and elsewhere during the Master’s program, and seeing live examples of successful male and also female astrophysicists gave me the confidence that such a career path is possible for me. I owe a lot of my success to them!
How did it feel to be one of the first students to graduate from the program?
I felt immensely proud to be one of the first graduates of the program, especially when I got a joint Ph.D. fellowship from the University of Montpellier in France and CNRS-Lebanon right after graduating. At the same time, I now feel the responsibility to hold on and protect the legacy of the opportunities that this program provided me, by presenting a good and successful example to the prospective students, that anything can be achieved when they are passionate enough about it, and work hard toward it.
How did your experiences in Lebanon prepare you for your Ph.D. and then for your postdoctoral work?
The Master’s program at NDU equipped me with a general overview knowledge of professional astrophysics, from the variety of courses taught by experts in their respective fields. Additionally, I was encouraged to lead a research project during my final semester. This gave me a glimpse into the world of research, which I fell absolutely in love with. Overall, the professional, fun and positive environment created by the faculty at NDU was key in boosting my confidence, and encouraging me to dare to say: ‘Oh yes, I want to be a researcher!” This confidence grew as I moved along in research during my Ph.D. and postdoctoral work.
What did you specialize in during your Ph.D.?
During my Ph.D., I developed a novel theoretical method to improve the accuracy by which we determine the chemical compositions of stars (i.e., the amount, for example, of iron, magnesium, calcium, etc. inside the stars). I computed complex realistic simulations of the atmospheres of the stars (the layers of a star where light is emitted), to compare to observations collected by the biggest telescopes.
It is important to determine precise chemical compositions of stars to be able to accurately interpret the origins and evolution of the chemical elements in the Galaxy and the Universe, which are created inside or via the stars.
What does your current research entail?
In my current research, I am primarily interested in finding, observing and interpreting the observations of the oldest stars in the Milky Way Galaxy. These pristine and rare objects give us insights and into the early Universe, right after the Big Bang. I, therefore, use the fingerprints of the chemical elements that are encoded in the oldest stars to draw evidence on how the Milky Way formed, and how the Universe successively developed to form the rest of its cosmic objects, including our own Solar System.
This field of research is called ‘Galactic Archeology’, and it is exactly what it sounds like! Similar to Earth-based archeologists who excavate the Earth for old remains to better understand Earth’s history, my colleagues and I excavate the Milky Way Galaxy for the oldest stars to better understand its formation, history, and origins.
Could you explain a little bit about the importance of securing tenure-track positions as an academic?
I think a researcher’s ultimate goal to secure a tenure-track position. It is the pathway for an academic job security. As you can imagine, securing such a position is extremely competitive. I feel immensely privileged and proud to have been able to get a tenure-track offer. But I am mostly excited to start my own research group to try to tackle together outstanding questions in the field, and to be able to teach and pass on my passion for science and astrophysics to prospective students.
What would you say to your past self if you could?
I would say: “never doubt yourself or your capabilities, and don’t be too harsh on yourself.” In academia, as in many other fields, impostor syndrome can be real and strong, and I’ve struggled with it a lot, especially being a woman in science. We are taught to constantly compare ourselves to others and to our peers, but we all come from different backgrounds and experiences, and success is never a straight path. We have to be kind to ourselves and others, and know that as long as we are doing our best, that’s all that matters.
Do you have any words of wisdom to impart to current NDUers looking to take a similar path?
I would advise prospective students to always dare to dream big and work hard toward your dreams. It might sound cliché, but statistics show that it works! Let yourself be driven with whatever you’re passionate about, no matter how crazy it might sound to others. If it matters to you, then it’s important enough. Also, do not forget to enjoy the paths you have taken, and always be kind to yourselves!
For female students, especially those interested in pursuing a career in STEM: you are constantly instructed to follow social norms and limitations, and maybe even being told that you are not good enough. I advise you to be unapologetically yourselves, and dare to ‘step out of line’ when needed. Again, driven by passion, hard-work and positive attitudes you will be capable of achieving anything you want!