Dr Al-Shaimaa Hassanin – Winner of the Carolina Odman Early-Career Award 2023

By Phenyo Mathapo

An assistant professor in astrophysics at Cairo University, Al-Shaimaa Hassanin, was awarded the Carolina Odman Early-Career Award earlier this year. The award recognises and supports scientific achievements and contributions of women in astronomy in Africa to society. Her field of research is modelling solar eruption and understanding the physics underlying pre-eruption. This eruption transfers the magnetic configuration or topology from a stable to an unstable system and results in an eruption.

She states that winning this award is an honour as she met Carolina Odman Govender in 2008 in Egypt, and they kept in touch throughout the years. She fell in love with her passion for astronomy and, who she was as a person. She believes that this is the best award she will ever receive in her career. “She’s my role model. I’m very, very, very proud that my award has her name.” 

Doctor Al-Shaimaa Hassanin was born in Cairo, Egypt, where she also attended her primary and secondary schooling however, she attended elementary school in Oman. For her tertiary education, she attended Cairo University, where she studied astronomy in the faculty of science, for her undergraduate and masters. She then travelled to Germany to do her PhD at Potsdam University, which was funded through a highly competitive scholarship called DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service). 

According to her, the benefit of studying astrophysics is that astronomy has an indirect impact on our daily lives. Her love for astronomy began at a young age when she would go camping and observe the stars in Oman, which became one of her favourite things to do. When she and her family moved back to Egypt, she would search for books and resources which further confirmed her passion even more.

 However, her career path has been met with some challenges, because of her environment and gender. She states that in the beginning she was criticised and undermined by the community and society in Egypt as the faculty of science is difficult and demanding. One would have to study maths and physics, which were not seen as appropriate subjects for women to study. Her maths and physics grades were very good, and her parents were supportive which encouraged her to continue to pursue her dream, amidst the external prejudices. 

She acknowledges the support of her parents in travelling to Nigeria and Italy to attend schools during a time when Arab women could not even travel alone in Egypt. During her time in Germany, she encountered challenges surrounding her religion as the people would tell her to return to her country and that she could not study in their country. 

When she began working, she realised just how male-dominated the space science industry was as most of the staff were men, pressuring her to prove herself against the stereotypes attached to women. The criticism increased after she got married and had children, as it was expected of her to stay home by societal norms, however, her parents and husband continued to support her. She highlights her husband’s support during the different stages of her career. When she goes to work, her husband looks after their children, allowing her to immerse herself in her work. Through these experiences, she began to encourage other women who were experiencing similar challenges.

“You can do it, don’t let them put you down. You can be a leader. You can have your own life, you can marry, have kids, and have a successful career. It depends on you, not on them. Don’t underestimate your power as a woman. Follow your dream.”

Currently, her research involves the study of the sun-earth connections, geomagnetic storms and how that kind of instability, at the solar surface, could have an impact on the strength and/or parameters of the morphology of the geomagnetic storm.