Dubai: The UAE’s space odyssey is inspirational for many, including a young Indian expat woman, who is now reaching for the stars.
From a child who was keen to know about planets and the solar system, Maria Vincent, a former distinguished Dubai student, has become a PhD student in astronomy in the US.
She wants to return to the UAE, which has granted her a long-term golden visa, to serve the country’s space sector.
“The UAE has played a big part in inspiring me to dream big and work towards my doctorate in astronomy,” said the former winner of Hamdan Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Award for Distinguished Academic Performance from Dubai and the Sharjah Award for Excellence in Education.
“The vision of the leaders to transform this country from a barren land to a sprawling metropolis, now a hub of innovation and important scientific research, has been the main reason why I wanted to pursue research and studies in astronomy — a field that is growing at a fast pace in this country,” she told Gulf News.
It all started when a young Maria, as a student of The Indian High School in Dubai, got a chance to go for a space camp at the US Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
“We spent a week there and I was able to narrow down my interests after that,” the 23-year-old recollected.
“We were assigned as ‘mission specialists’. We had underwater astronaut training. We were taught what goes on in a space mission and we could participate in many activities related to designing and developing some space equipment. We also learned various aspects of what goes on in the ground station and with the astronomers.”
Pursuing space dreams
After getting the hang of an astronaut’s life with the hands-on experience in the space centre, Maria could not think of any other subject to pursue for her higher education in the US.
“I did a Bachelor’s degree in Geophysics and Astrophysics from the University of California, Los Angeles, with Magna cum Laude and Highest Departmental Honors for both majors.”
She said her writing experience in the UAE has also stood in good stead in pursuing her dream of becoming a scientist.
“I had written many articles, essays and poems while being a student here. I published my first book at the Sharjah International Book Fair when I was in grade 12. As a scientist, writing is super important and with my experience here, I was able to build my confidence as a writer,” she pointed out.
Apart from several academic and research honours and awards, Maria has many scientific publications and presentations to her credit. Even as she is pursuing her PhD, Maria is also a teaching assistant at the Institute for Astronomy, University of Hawaiʻi, Manoa.
Maria, who has done several research projects at different institutions, said during her courses and internship programmes at space institutions in the US, the UAE and India, she got the opportunity to interact with many eminent space scientists from across the world and got even more inspired.
They include Dr J.N Goswami, principal scientist of first Indian lunar probe Chandrayaan-I; Katie Bouman, the American imaging scientist who helped construct the first ever photo of a black hole; and astrophysicist Andrea Ghez, who won the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics for her discovery of the black hole at the centre of the Milky Way galaxy.
Meeting and interacting with the legendary women in the field has given Maria a clear picture of how women should be spearheading careers in astronomy and in astronomical research.
She said she had witnessed the UAE’s strategy in this regard from close quarters way back in 2017.
“In 2017, I interned with a media company that managed social media and publications of Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC). I wrote articles for the space magazines Majarat and Red planet and also took a trip to the facility where Khalifa Sat was being built.
“The UAE in general has opened up a lot of opportunities for me. As I would like to take up a teaching job just like my mother, my main ambition is to become a professor in the field and train students for space programmes,” Maria said.
“Receiving a Golden Visa will enable that and will in turn motivate me to return and work here after completing my doctoral degree. I then hope to join the 50-year-old nation’s great space odyssey to help further research and exploration in this field at a global scale,” she said.
“As a matter of fact, the long-term residency programme is a great encouragement for academic talent, especially high school and college graduates to make the UAE their home and help this nation move forward quickly in its academic, scientific and technical endeavors, given the great potential for growth in several such sectors,” she said, thanking the officials who helped her get the honour.
The young woman said she wished to sponsor her parents George Vincent and Rexy Elizabeth Vincent and her only sister Rose Vincent under her Golden Residency.
“My achievements and progress in my academic career would not have been possible without the support and encouragement from my family. Choosing a field markedly different and nothing alike what my parents pursued was much less of a challenge because my parents understood the importance of chasing one’s own dreams,” she added.