As children, we’re often told to dream big and shoot for the stars. Sarafina Nance took that advice literally.
While some people thought her goal of becoming an astronaut was unrealistic, the 28-year-old is one step closer to proving them wrong! In August 2021, she’ll be one of six participants in a Mars simulation run by the International MoonBase Alliance.
Although this mission is separate from NASA, it will include a collaboration with the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.
“We basically live like we’re on Mars for two weeks,” Sarafina said. “So that includes wearing space suits every time we leave the habitat.”
As you can imagine, she’s gone through a lot to prepare, but her journey began long before oxygen deprivation and altitude training or earning her scuba certification. By 4 years old, Sarafina was gazing into the night sky with her dad. Her curiosity about what was beyond her home in Austin, Texas, made her a huge fan of NPR, which she would often listen to with her mom. Having gotten a taste of what space was like, she decided she would one day become an astronaut.
Some childhood career dreams fade or change over time, but Sarafina has always known what she wants to become — and has worked hard to ensure it happens! She first earned a dual bachelor’s degree in physics and astronomy from the University of Texas at Austin’s College of Natural Sciences. These days, she’s an astrophysicist and a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley.
It’s clear that Sarafina has found her calling! Unfortunately, as an Egyptian-American woman in STEM, she has faced several obstacles and doubters along the way
“There are messages that people give young — particularly women and particularly women of color — from a very early age that maybe they’re not smart enough to do math and science,” she said.
I remember a teacher telling me, ‘Girls just aren’t cut out for this.’ And so it’s hard. It’s really hard to continually push forward knowing that there are people who just don’t believe that you’re meant to be there.
Through it all, Sarafina has persevered, and now she’s determined to create a better path for people like her in the future. One way she’s doing this is through her book, “Little Leonardo’s Fascinating World of Astronomy.”
Another obstacle has been her physical health. When her dad was diagnosed with metastatic prostate cancer, Sarafina decided to be proactive with her own health. She underwent genetic testing and discovered that she had an 87 percent lifetime risk of breast cancer and a 30 percent risk of ovarian cancer.
“When I was 26, I got my preventative double mastectomy to decrease my risk from 87 percent to less than 5 percent,” she said. “I had three surgeries in one year, and my last one was almost exactly a year ago.”
Always looking to help others, Sarafina chose to share her story online to encourage people to be proactive about their own health.
“I feel really, really lucky to have this opportunity to be able to pursue my dreams, especially after something that made me uncertain whether I would ever be able to do something like this,” Sarafina said. “I finally feel like I am physically in a good enough spot to be able to push my body and push my mind, and see sort of what I’m capable of doing.”
Soon she will get to do just that! The Mars simulation won’t be cutting any corners when it comes to the real hardships astronauts would face. That includes giving participants a limited amount of food and water and delaying all communications by 20 minutes.
That might seem intimidating to us, but Sarafina is more than ready for the challenge. Plus, if she ever feels uncertain, she can always look up at the night sky.
“I’m reminded of the perspective that the night sky brings us, of how small we are and how much there is to learn,” she said. “That, to me, is so comforting, and it pushes me, ignites this excitement and curiosity in me to keep going.”
We can’t wait to cheer her on as she makes her way to the stars! Keep up the amazing work, Sarafina!
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