Nadia Abuisnaineh, Solar System Ambassador

Nadia Abuisnaineh’s first telescope was as much a milestone as a first lost tooth or a first pet is for many of us.

Growing up in a close-knit family with nine siblings, Nadia wanted something that she could call her own. And while some children fondly remember the day that their parents brought home their new puppy, Nadia will never forget the night that she set up her new telescope.

“As long as I can remember, I was always fascinated with science, and then as the years combined, I became fascinated with astronomy.”

The telescope sitting in her family’s backyard was the embodiment of this burgeoning interest in space.

And Nadia wasn’t the only one in the household with an itch to explore the furthest corners of the universe. She had inherited her curiosity and her deep appreciation of God’s creation from her grandmother.

“I’ll never forget it. One night when we were living in Palestine, there was a full moon, so she told us that we were all going to sit out on the balcony. She sat down, looked up at the moon, and started doing her remembrances of Allah [Arabic for God].”

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Staring out into the night sky was “part of our childhood,” Nadia says. “It was just something that we did with our grandma.”

And something that she shared with her siblings, who were equally inclined to the sciences and transfixed by space. The telescope may have been Nadia’s, but she eagerly invited her sisters and brothers to join her in their backyard for nightly star gazing.

“Even now they reminisce and say, ‘Remember when we used to go out and watch the shooting stars and look at the International Space Station?’”

Her smile shines, her eyes glitter. It’s clear why her siblings hold that memory so tenderly in their hearts — Nadia’s got a special gift. Just by virtue of her exuberance and her joy, she creates an unforgettable experience for anyone blessed with her time and her knowledge.

Her passion brings into full focus what may seem faraway and a little fuzzy to us, whether it’s the stars, the moon, or the call of Islam to study our universe.

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a degree in astrophysics

Around age 15, Nadia set her sights on becoming an astronomer. Not only did she love space, but she also excelled at science and math. “So once college came around, I was ready,” she says. “I went for a degree in astrophysics.”

She says it like it’s no big deal. 

But analyzing the mysteries of distant planets and swirling galaxies requires far more than fascination. Astrophysicists must be able to sift through mountains of data, make elaborate calculations, and master mind-boggling theories.

Those weren’t the only challenges for Nadia. “I was alone, basically. I was not only the only girl — I was the only Muslim girl.” In her introductory course at the University of Minnesota, in a lecture hall filled with 150 students, there were two other women and no other Muslim women.

Even looking around that room though, Nadia never considered quitting on her passion for a second — “I would sit in lecture and just think: wow, this is so fascinating. I never wanted to skip class.”

Her first thought when she walked out of the final exam? “That was so much fun!” Nadia laughs. “That’s when I knew that I was in the right place.”

As she continued along her program, Nadia’s thoughts turned to her post-graduation plans. As much as she loved astrophysics, she wasn’t sure about spending the rest of her life doing research.

Remembering what had drawn her to the field in the first place — those starry nights in her family’s backyard, staring through her telescope and pointing out the planets to her siblings — Nadia realized that she wanted to teach. 

“It’s my personality. When I enjoy something and I share it with someone, I get really happy!” she smiles. “I see that in my son now — when he loves something and shows me, he’s so happy. That’s exactly how I was.”

Which is, of course, exactly what makes a great teacher. Joy, enthusiasm, and passion.

the magnificence of the moon

When Nadia graduated, she took some time off to pursue another passion — motherhood.

“Just because I dreamt to do astrophysics, just because I dreamt to do something cool with space — that doesn’t mean I never dreamt to become a mother,” she says. And as any parent will tell you, it’s a full-time job. For the time being, she thought, those other dreams were put on hold.

Then one day while she was browsing Facebook, a post from NASA caught Nadia’s eye. They were looking for something called a Solar System Ambassador.

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She clicked out of curiosity. “Oh wow, I could actually do this,” she remembers thinking. “The hours are flexible. The involvement is not that much. It’s really on my own time.”

Of course, she was a shoe-in.

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As a Solar System Ambassador, Nadia joined a team of volunteers across the country who speak to the public about NASA’s missions and space exploration programs. She’s presented at schools, libraries, and museums across the state — most recently at the Bell Museum at the University of Minnesota.

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing, the Bell Museum was welcoming a special exhibit into its space. Created by a UK-based artist, the Museum of the Moon features images of the moon’s surface taken from a NASA spacecraft mission, stitched together across a balloon measuring more than 20 feet in diameter.

“My first reaction when I saw it was: wow, it really looks like somebody grabbed the moon from outside and just put it inside the museum,” says Nadia. “It looks so realistic, and it's wowed many of their guests.”

As a NASA Solar System Ambassador, Nadia was the one to introduce this stunning display, telling museum visitors about how the moon has captured our attention all throughout human history.

“Mythologies, moon goddesses, Romeo and Juliet, and ultimately a sign of God’s magnificent creation. Since the beginning of time, all humans have looked up at the night sky, seen the moon, and at some point marveled at it.”

She smiles at her captive audience. “And it is quite a marvelous thing.”

interconnected beauty and complexity

Since then, Nadia’s intelligence, enthusiasm, and pure joy for our universe has earned her the job that she’s always dreamed of.

The Director of the Bell Museum recruited Nadia to become their Statewide Star Party Coordinator, leading and organizing a series of events dedicated to observing the night sky.

The same night sky that she sat under with her sisters. The same moon that she worshipped under with her grandmother.

“Allah created the universe for us, and He made it beautiful for us,” says Nadia.

“And not just that!” she says with warm, welcoming eyes. “This is what I tell people. Not only did He make it beautiful for us, He made it complex for us.”

Student of our universe and teacher of our community, Nadia reminds us of the interconnected beauty and complexity of our world. She is grounded in faith and guided by knowledge. Astronomer, ambassador, and teacher, Nadia is our Shero.