PORTRAITS OF AFRICAN SCIENTISTS IN PLANETARY AND SPACE SCIENCE
The development of scientific research in the domain of planetary and space sciences in Africa depends to a large extent on a few individuals who focus their energy to this objective, with passion. The Africa Initiative for Planetary and Space Sciences, which has attracted worldwide attention, is willing to take the occasion to make this men and women more visible, by sharing their experiences on internet.
Today, the spotlight is on Mayssa El yazidi, a young woman from Tunisia, passionate about Astronomy and Mars. Mayssa has accepted to answer to a few questions, and her answers are written down here. We hope that this discussion will be source of encouragement for all young students or research, who are willing to engage in this research area.
Can you tell us in a few words who you are, what you are doing right now, and what is your background ?
I am a student at the Faculty of Science of Tunis (FST), University El Manar, Tunis in Tunisia, I am 25 years old. I live in Tunis and I have two diploma degrees: A License and a Master in Geology from the same university.I want to pursue a PhD.
I have a basic training in geology and I am passionate about the geological study of the planets since 2011. My License project was about “the comparative geology of the celestial bodies of the solar system” and my Master project was entitled ” Introduction to the geological study of Mars”.
When has your interest for astronomy started? Are there any decisive encounters in your career’s path?
During the first year of Geology in Tunisia, we had a small introductory course “The Earth in the Universe”. I learned basic notions about the Universe, the solar system, the sun, the planets and their characteristics. This course was divided into six sessions, which included practical work and a visit of the Tunis Science City. From the first class, I was moved by the desire to understand the origin of the universe and its composition, and to learn about the planets that are relatively close to us. I was also very interested in the question of the existence of life outside the planet Earth. During my first year at the University, in 2011, I joined the astronomy club of the Faculty of Sciences of Tunis. All this questioning constitutes the motivations to continue my studies in the field of astronomy and planetary sciences.
Some of my professors have been a real support for me during my studies, such as Professor Slim Shimi Najet (Laboratory: Paleoenvironments, geo materials and geological risks, FST), director of my projects of License and Master and Professor Sonia Haddad (Laboratory : Condensed Matter Physics, Solid State Physics, Materials Science, FST), who helped me a lot during my Master’s project, Professor Nejmeddine Jaïdane (Laboratory: Atomic and Molecular Spectroscopy and Applications, FST) who encouraged me so much during my life and always followed me in my astronomical adventures, Professor Piero Benvenuti (Laboratory: Astrophysics Plasmas and Magnetohydrodynamics and also the General Secretary of the International Astronomical Union), Mr. Alain Souchier (one of the founders of the French association “Planète Mars”), Mr. Stephen W. Ramsden (the director of the Charlie Bates Solar Astronomy Project) and Professor Zouhair Benkhaldoun (Laboratory: High Energy Physics and Astrophysics at Cadi Ayad University in Morocco). All of these people helped in some ways along the path of my dreams.
How do your friends and family support you and your activities in this field?
Initially, it was not easy to convince my family and friends of the value of these activities, especially in Tunisia. But these difficulties have finally strengthened my ambition to share this science and to try to change the way it is considered in Tusinia. Today my family, my friends, and my Professors, have become my first moral and financial support. They keep encouraging me in the various actions that I undertake.
In a few words, which activities in astronomy did you initiate in your country? How are you sharing your passion?
My activities usually include public conferences, training workshops or courses, guided visits at the City of Sciences, and participation in international events, such as the international day of asteroids in Morocco, the 2nd national symposium of astronomy in Algeria, or the 15th National Astronomy Festival in Algeria.
To share my passion, I organize public events (especially for students) to raise awareness of the importance of astronomy in cultural and scientific development, and in collaboration with astronomy clubs. I hope that these activities will eventually push for setting up a university program in this field in Tunisia.
Is there any equipment in Tunisia for Astronomy? If yes, are available instruments appropriate for research?
In Tunisia, we do not have yet a professional observatory for astronomy, or dedicated professional instruments. However, to my knowledge, we currently have 4 Coronado h-alpha, one Meade LX200 telescope (MegaMeade, C14), 5 Schmidt-Cassegrain telescopes 235 mm in diameter (Celestron C9), about ten Schmidt-Cassegrain telescopes 203 mm in diameter (Celestron C8) and several small astronomical glasses. These instruments are, owned by the City of Sciences of Tunis and Tataouine, the Palace of Sciences of Monastir or by several associations and clubs of astronomy. These instruments are generally used in the context of cultural and associative activities and for the general public and not for scientific research.
You had the opportunity to visit the Observatory of Oukaimeden in Morocco (University Cadi Ayyad), what did you learn from this experience?
It was the most beautiful experience of my life! I never had the opportunity to visit a professional observatory, and I was very curious to understand how it works. During my visit to the Observatory of Oukaimeden and also to the Observatory of the Cultural Center Atlas golf Marrakech, I learned a lot about the equipment (the characteristics of each telescope, and sensors including CCD cameras, their modes of operation and how the data are exploitated…), I also realized that each instrument is dedicated to specific objectives (detection of exoplanets, research and monitoring of comets, asteroids, the study of the ionosphere, variable stars, monitoring of meteorite falls on the Moon, etc …). This observatory represents the demonstration that it is possible to make major discoveries with instruments of observation that a country like Morocco could afford, with for example the characterization of the planetary system composed of terrestrial planets like TRAPPIST 1. This visit was also a chance to be able to meet with specialists in the field such as Khalid Barkaoui, Hamza Ajeddig, Daassou Ahmed, and Taha Shisseh, people with whom I had the chance to share many scientific and astronomical discussions and a night of observation of the sky. I take this opportunity to warmly thank Professor Zouhair Benkhaldoun for his great support and his encouragement.
I also visited the astrophysics research laboratory at the Faculty of Sciences Semlalia of Marrakech, which is ranked as one of the best research structures in Morocco. I was particularly impressed by the research being conducted, the advanced techniques employed and the innovative scientific methods in the field of astronomy and astrophysics developed there.
What obstacles and support do you encounter to talk about astronomy in your country and achieve activities in this field?
I realize that the road will be long to achieve my goals. The obstacles to the development of astronomy, astrophysics and planetology in Tunisia are numerous. In Tunisia, we do not yet have the sufficient critical mass of researchers to explore all avenues of research. Also, it is very difficult to open new paths off the already established tracks. Added to this is the fact that the scientific community in my country is still too masculine and I have the feeling that it’s still sometimes difficult to consider and recognize that innovations or suggestions to advance science can come from women as well.
These are the difficulties that I have to face, arguing the value of diversity and “think differently”. As Booker T.W said, “I have learned that success should not be measured by the position reached in life, but by the obstacles one has had to overcome while trying to succeed”.
Currently in our astronomy group we still have no telescope or instrument dedicated to the observation of the sky. In Tunisia, there are only two shops that sell telescopes but prices are much higher than in Europe for equivalent equipment. Buying a telescope abroad and transport it to Tunisia is also very expensive (transport costs, importation taxes) and this can only be achieved via an association, club, society or a public institution.
We have, of course, financial problems. I have the feeling that the majority of public financial support is directed towards artistic activities (theater, dance, music, painting … etc.) and not enough towards scientific activities. However, we can sometimes get pubic support for astronomical events from the Ministry of Higher Education. I have also received supports from my professors at the Faculty of Sciences of Tunis, my family, my friends in Tunisia and outside, and especially my dear friend Stephen W. Ramsden, who plays a key role in this respect. Each of these supports plays a very important role and constitutes an asset for all the steps that I take to promote astronomy in my country.
Some people think that it is difficult to invest in the basic sciences in countries that face other priorities in health, nutrition, or security, for example. In your opinion, what can astronomy bring to a developing country?
There is a finite budget that must be oriented towards pressing issues, such as health, safety, nutrition and education, but also scientific research, because scientific research is an essential investment for the future of our country. In 2016, scientific research accounted for 0.66% of GDP. Tunisia is now ranked as the leading country in Africa in terms of scientific output relative to GDP and population, and ranked 60th for the total number of publications (according to Web of Science). So, from the moment innovation is defined as “the engine” of any economic development “university research must be one of its fuels” (Cref, 1996). The basic research is itself the mother of any applied research that directly impacts society.
Astronomy is a field that promotes creativity, exchange and the cross-fertilization of different disciplines in basic research (Mathematics, Physics, Mechanics, Geology, Biology, Chemistry). It also includes the fields of engineering (instrumentation, electronics, robotics, signal processing). Thus, this science is very often linked to technological advances impacting society and other areas of research.
You wish to achieve a PhD thesis abroad, can you tell us what actions have you taken, what obstacles did you encounter?
In Tunisia, we have no specialist in planetology. This explains the fact that to achieve a PhD thesis in this field, it must be conducted either abroad or in “cotutelle” (co-supervision by a professor in Tunisia, and a professor abroad). I have prepared in fact 158 applications for thesis and master scholarships in several countries like France, Austria, Italy, U.S.A, Australia, and Canada.
I search the Internet for Faculties specialized in this field. I contact Professors by e-mail and I inform them about the situation of planetology and astronomy in Tunisia. The vast majority of answers to my requests were negative and sometimes unfortunately, I did not get any answer. In January 2017, I had found a PhD subject with a Professor at the Institute of Planetology and Astrophysics of Grenoble, on Martian geology. During our first exchanges we thought we could solve the funding issue to cover the work related to this PhD project, but my university does not award exceptional scholarships, or funding outside the budget allocated to each research unit. I had to give up with this project due to the lack of financial support. I also applied for a Master’s degree in astrophysics at Grenoble, but my applications was rejected. I also tried to join the group of Sylvestre Maurice at the Research Institute of Astrophysics and Planetology (IRAP), in Toulouse, but without success.
The absence of a recognized course in astronomy in Tunisia is one of the reasons of the lack of success. I am also told that I do not have enough solid knowledge in astrophysics, planetology or astronomy. Therefore, I am still trying to get in touch with researchers willing to guide my studies in this field. I would like to find a specialized laboratory ready to host me to carry out research in the framework of a Ph.D. and which would allow me to obtain a scholarship. I have the support of my professors in Tunusia who help me in all these prospecting actions. I have NEVER lost my hope of achieving my goals … If it is not today, it will be tomorrow. And if it’s not tomorrow, it will be the day after tomorrow, or in 2, 3 10 years! But the sooner will be the better. Having in mind those who support me and who push me forward, and the hopes of other young people who would also like to follow this path, I remain very hopeful to open horizons and new possibilities for future generations: I do not despair! Never!
What do you think you can bring to your country with an astronomy experience?
With a PhD in Astronomy, I would try first to stay 2 to 3 years abroad, to take advantage of a professional experience of very good quality. I wish then to return to my country to bring my experience and participate in the development of the research in this field in Tunisia. At first, I would like to contribute to the inclusion of astronomy, astrophysics and planetology in the university curricula. I would like in future to be able to contribute to setting up a master degree in astrophysics, involving collaborations with international research centers to facilitate the possibility of internships and professional training and to develop the quality of our research. Also, I have the ambition to favor the emergence of a project for an astronomical observatory in Tunisia, both for research and for the public. I would like to help raise the awareness of decision makers, and public opinion in general, about the importance of astronomy for our country.
Following these questions, can you share a story, an anecdote, that illustrates your efforts to promote astronomy in Tunisia? Could you also tell us your expectations regarding the African Initiative for Planetary and Space Sciences
In 2017, I planned to organize a training course in astronomy and astrophotography for students and I chose for this event the extreme south of Tunisia, in the desert, far from all the light pollution, under the stars and our galaxy “The Milky Way”.
I have actively searched for a sponsor for this event, for our transportation, accommodation, food and needs, but these attempts have failed. The funding issue did not stop me. 6 students followed me on this crazy adventure. We finally covered all expenses with our own money. We took the “Lougae” (a kind of group taxi) and we moved from Tunis to Djerba, where the Youth and Science Association of Djerba, nicely welcomed us (Mr. Lassaad Akrout, Mr. Sami Elouati, Mr. Ridha Ben Achour …). On the first day, we attended “Star Night”, which was organized by the Youth and Science Association of Djerba. The second day, we had a session of astrophotography, during which we took very beautiful pictures of the sky. We then went to Tataouine, where we stayed two days and especially two nights and took advantage of the dark sky of the extreme south of Tunisia. It was an extraordinary experience! To be able to observe a magnificent milky way, with a multitude of details with only the naked eye! WOW!
We worked as a team. We never felt like simple friends, who just came to take pictures, no! We realized that we were one family, unique, united under one sky! The tourist police helped us a lot, they took care of us, and allowed us to be safe and protected. The course ended with many expressions and shared feelings … Like … “This is the most beautiful experience of my life” … … “I’m going back again, that’s it! »…« Mayssa, can we run this event every year? “. …. “I will stay again, I don’t want to go home” … which touched my soul and gave me great personal satisfaction.
It was not really a big event in itself, but it was for me a very great pleasure to see the happiness of these moments lived together. These smiles and happiness that are also my “fuel” to move forward.
I want to say to all young people, do not lose hope, not lose motivation and energy, follow your dreams, because dreams are the path of passion and success. And when you share your dreams, and you reach them together, it’s a great source of happiness.
I also had the chance to know the founding members of the African Initiative for Planet and Space Science. They encourage me a lot and contribute to the development of paleontology, astronomy and astrophysics in African countries like Morocco, Algeria, Senegal … etc. I hope that the African initiative for Planet and Space Science, will also participate in the development of these areas in Tunisia, and to the building of new observatories in African countries, to share our passion, and our experiences.
Interview by David Baratoux and Hasnaa Chennaoui-Aoudjehane for AFIPS