Meet the Woman Searching for Planet Earth's Twin

Meet the Woman Searching for Planet Earth's Twin

Munazza Alam didn’t grow up grazing at the stars. But an inspiring teacher and a passion for math led her to dive deep into the hunt for habitable planets.




Earth Science, Astronomy, Physics, Storytelling


Munazza Alam

A photograph of National Geographic Explorer Munazza Alam researches large, bright exoplanets called hot Jupiters.

Photograph by Randall Scott
A photograph of National Geographic Explorer Munazza Alam researches large, bright exoplanets called hot Jupiters.

This article was originally published March 8, 2019.

Are we alone in the universe? It’s a question that often sparks debate. For a young woman named Munazza Alam, it sparked an entire career path.

Alam wasn’t always interested in the cosmos. “Growing up, I was not a space nerd,” she says. There was no telescope in her backyard, and trips to the museum centered on dinosaur exhibits. As a kid, she preferred playing outside and riding around on her bike to gazing at the stars.

But by her freshman year in college, she’d fallen completely under astronomy’s spell.

Field of View

Alam, 24, is bright in every sense of the word. She is intelligent and vivacious, and her voice radiates warmth. She can discuss the merits of condensed matter theory as comfortably and clearly as her feelings about her family background.

A first-generation Muslim American, Alam grew up on Staten Island, a borough of New York City that is predominately white. Her mother was born in Hyderabad, India, and her father is from Lahore, Pakistan. “I always had this sense of otherness, this idea of questioning belonging,” she says. For one thing, her relatives on the Indian subcontinent viewed her and her two older sisters as Americans, while “here we were viewed as not American, because our parents are immigrants,” she says.

Adding another dimension to her experience, Alam and her sisters attended Catholic school from kindergarten through 12th grade. A cousin had done well at the school, and her parents wanted their daughters to get the best education possible, so they enrolled all three girls. “It was a great way to learn to foster these ideas of acceptance, being among different groups and just learning how to understand what other people believe and the ethics that they live by,” Alam says.

Catching Fire

Her attraction to physics began in high school, thanks to an inspiring teacher with infectious enthusiasm. Alam had always enjoyed math, science, critical thinking, and problem solving, but this teacher’s passion for physics and her ability to break down complicated concepts stuck with Alam.

Her teacher was also inspiring on another level. “She moved from Israel as a little girl to New York City,” Alam says. She adds that she felt they shared a “kind of overlapping identity: She was first generation, and she loved physics, and was a minority student when she went through graduate studies as a woman.”

By the time she began her freshman year at CUNY Hunter College in Manhattan, New York, Alam had settled on physics as her major. She soon began her first research project on the low-mass celestial objects known as brown dwarfs, and by the end of the year, she had a chance to visit the Kitt Peak National Observatory near Tucson, Arizona.

“I was 19,” she says, “and it was the first time I had ever seen the Milky Way.” The sight solidified her decision to pursue astronomy long-term. It also reminded her of how far she’d come: “I mean, I grew up seeing a handful of stars at a time at best,” she laughs.

Rising Star

Alam, who is a National Geographic grantee, is now earning her graduate degree at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her current research focuses on a category of large, bright exoplanets called hot Jupiters.

Using data from the Hubble Space Telescope, she "constructs spectra of planet atmospheres to infer what they are made of and if these planets have clouds and hazes," she says. She follows up these observations using ground-based telescopes in Chile to then figure out how these celestial bodies formed and evolved over time.

One of Alam’s dreams is to discover an Earth twin, a planet beyond our solar system that has a climate like ours with the potential to host life like here. This kind of research is like a puzzle that doesn’t have a picture to follow, she says. It requires collaboration to figure out how the pieces fit together.

Women Wanted

Alam also hopes to inspire other women like her to join the field. “I don’t have any role models who look like me or have overlapping identities with me,” she says. “I want to be that for other girls who have a similar cultural background.”

Statistically speaking, gender equality is better in astronomy than in other physical sciences, “but it’s still not great,” Alam says. Her program at Harvard has 52 students, and fewer than half of them are women. Despite this disparity, Alam counts several strong female influences in her life, from her mother to her Ph.D. thesis advisor.

And though her particular projects may seem esoteric, she insists that astronomy is for everyone. “There is something so human and so natural to gaze up at the stars and contemplate the cosmos.”

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

Catherine Zuckerman
Tyson Brown, National Geographic Society
National Geographic Society
Production Managers
Gina Borgia, National Geographic Society
Jeanna Sullivan, National Geographic Society
Program Specialists
Sarah Appleton, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Margot Willis, National Geographic Society
Clint Parks
Last Updated

June 10, 2024

For information on user permissions, please read our Terms of Service. If you have questions about how to cite anything on our website in your project or classroom presentation, please contact your teacher. They will best know the preferred format. When you reach out to them, you will need the page title, URL, and the date you accessed the resource.


If a media asset is downloadable, a download button appears in the corner of the media viewer. If no button appears, you cannot download or save the media.


Text on this page is printable and can be used according to our Terms of Service.


Any interactives on this page can only be played while you are visiting our website. You cannot download interactives.

Related Resources