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MARYAM ALJOAAN: ICE-BOUND!
To explore-learn-protect planet Earth

By Shabana H. Shaikh , January (2011) edition of bazaar
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Maryam Aljoaan
Maryam Aljoaan
 

“That beautiful, warm, living object looked so fragile, so delicate, that if you touched it with a finger it would crumble and fall apart. Seeing this has to change a man”- Astronaut James B. Irwin, Apollo 15

 

 

It is rarely that one has the good fortune of enjoying tête-à-tête with a young woman, who will very soon have the distinction of being Kuwait’s first female to set foot on Antarctica, leaving an indelible mark in history. And that was precisely what I was doing one Friday morning with Maryam Aljoaan, an oceanographer and daring explorer-in-the-making, whose youthful looks and cheerfulness belie her more serious pursuits in life.

In February 2011, Maryam will be part of a 16-day expedition to Antarctica organized by ‘Students on Ice' along with nearly 70 university students, several faculty members, scientists, experts and educators of various disciplines. Kuwait’s telecom company, VIVA, has been gracious enough to sponsor this daring historical expedition, exclusively, for Maryam. "The organization 'Students on Ice' selects participants based on criterion such as interests in Antarctica and in the environment, strong academics, leadership qualities, active involvement in the community and a desire to make a difference," explains Maryam, on her eligibility for the expedition.

I was curious to know what made Maryam want to foray into the World's coldest, driest, and windiest continent that remained a hypothetical land until the late 1700s.

"It's the closest I’ll get to Space, as of now!" laughs, Maryam, and then elaborates further, "I have always been fascinated with Space and I am passionate about exploring planet Earth, learn to understand it and work on protecting it. Antarctica plays a very important role in climate change; therefore it is very important to achieve a better understanding of the subject through first-hand experience."

But Maryam’s journey from a simple Kuwaiti girl with larger-than-life-dreams to where she stands today on the brink of making her own mark on history, has not been an easy one. By now, it was hard not to appreciate Maryam’s resilience and classic perseverance as I dwell further into this intriguing woman’s persona. “While my family has been supportive, mostly everyone else at some point or the other, thought I was unrealistic,” reflects Maryam, “Some even called me crazy when I gave up my life and job in Kuwait to pursue my studies in this direction.”

Before Earth and Space Sciences became Maryam’s calling, her life was set on a very different course. “I was originally intended to do engineering, but that come to an abrupt halt, when my scholarship was unceremoniously revoked,” explains Maryam, “It then occurred to me that my adversity was actually in my favor, because it offered me the freedom to pursue any discipline I wanted and so, I chose my first love - Earth and Space studies!”

Maryam’s scholastic journey took her to the USA, Russia, and presently to Bremen, Germany where she is currently specializing in Oceanography, and scheduled to graduate by May 2011. Almost expected, her graduation thesis is impressively titled Temporal Evolution of deep and shallow hydrothermal systems on the slow-spreading Mid-Atlantic Ridge (MAR), which I willingly joked, was intimidating by just the sound of it.

Yet, Maryam did not seem at all hesitant to explain finer aspects of her interests, or the unexpected, but logical relationship of the Ocean to Space. For instance, I learned, the oceans and the land “biosphere” are natural carbon sinks and absorb about half of all carbon dioxide emissions from human activities. “The Southern Ocean, which is my study area, takes up 15 percent of these emissions. Phytoplanktons are microscopic floating plants in the oceans, using photosynthesis to extract carbon from CO2 and store it away in the ocean floor,” she explains. “It is important to understand the process of this natural carbon sink as they absorb the excess CO2 from the atmosphere, slowing down global warming.” Interestingly, Phytoplanktons are also one of the seven hundred species of algae existing in Antarctica. “So, the real threat to our environmental imbalance is not only deforestation, but also the pollution of our oceans,” says, Maryam.

As part of her studies, Maryam will be looking at the role of Antarctica within the Earth System, with a particular focus on the Southern Ocean. This includes the importance of the Antarctic for the global climate, and for nutrient cycles within the ocean. Her expedition vessel, called M/V Ushuaia, will spend one day in Beagle Channel and two days each way crossing the Drake Passage.

Once in Antarctica, where the coldest natural temperature ever recorded on Earth was −89.2 °C at the Russian Vostok Station on 21 July 1983, Maryam will explore and make landings along the Antarctic Peninsula and visit scientific research stations such as the Argentine Station Esperanza and the Ukrainian station Vernadsky as well as other islands depending on weather conditions.

Back home, Maryam is a representative of Kuwait Science Club at The Department of Astronomy & Space Sciences, and is enthusiastic about motivating the next generation’s interest in space sciences. Presently she is an advisor to the Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS) Kuwait chapter and has been active on space education and public outreach programs. “One of the students, I inspired some years ago, has now enrolled for aerospace studies in the UK! That is the kind of impression I want to make,” exclaims Maryam, taking her role as a Role Model for the Youth, seriously.

In 2006-08, Maryam was elected as Middle East Regional Coordinator for the Space Generation Advisory Council in Support of the United Nations Programme and in 2009, she addressed on Youth’s Perspective on the Future of a Space Program in Kuwait to the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space in Vienna, Austria.

But her memorable and publicized radio contact with the International Space Station in 2005 still makes her beam with pride and reveals the young woman’s penchant for firsts. A licensed amateur radio, Maryam’s contact with ISS on 27 of August 2005 with a simple home radio, an antenna and her little sister’s assistance, made her the first person in Kuwait to make live voice radio contact with the station. She managed to speak to Russian cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev, which became momentous because it coincided with his birthday. "The timing had to be perfect, and I was just an amateur with a basic radio and an antenna!" laughs, Maryam.

Since then, she has coordinated two telebridge contacts with International Space Station for students, which again marked the first such event with a school in the Middle East. Sergei Krikalev remains Maryam's idol, besides being inspired by astronauts Ernst Messerschmid, whom she had the privilege of meeting at a Space Congress in Spain, and Story Musgrave, who had the longest career and number of space-flights as an astronaut. “Mersserschmid made me realize that there is no beginning or ending for learning,” she adds.

Maryam’s Antarctica expedition will be symbolic in many ways. While she may well become a pioneering figure, inspiring the next generation of Kuwaitis, her presence on Antarctica will coincide with Kuwait’s National Day this year and Maryam has a very special gesture in mind. “I am planning to raise Kuwaiti flag there and send live photographs to Kuwait!” she shares excitedly, with a genuine smile, that I have come to believe is almost a constant attribute of her facial expressions.

After the expedition, Maryam has plans to return to Kuwait and undertake speaking opportunities at schools and universities around Kuwait to share her unique and probably life-altering experience, and to shed light on climate change and local environmental problems.

“I also plan to launch a campaign under the slogan ‘Protect earth, Go blue’, because ocean is the basis of life,” emphasizes, Maryam.

It leaves no doubt in ones mind that Maryam has the credibility and tenacity to become an influential name in the coming years.

For now, bon voyage, Maryam!

 

 

To follow Maryam’s extraordinary expedition to Antarctica in February 2011, join her Facebook page or log on to her website: www.maryamonice.com.

 
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