Book Summary: Starstruck: A Memoir  by Sarafina El-Badry Nance

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Starstruck: A Memoir Of Astrophysics and Finding Light in the Dark by Sarafina El-Badry Nance

Sarafina El-Badry Nance is an astrophysicist.  At age thirty, she has written what hopefully will be but the first volume of her autobiography.  She already has had quite a life. She is the only child of an American father and an Egyptian-American mother.  She loved science from an early age.  Sarafina had many of the experiences of the average millennial child.  

But, she had more than her fair share of family conflicts and physical and mental health concerns.  Sarafina also must deal with sexism and domestic violence.  Sarafina handles them all, not as a superwoman, but as someone with the inner strength and drive to succeed.  She tells her story and tells it well in this eloquent first book.  

Why I Read This Book 

Science is not my best subject.  I am interested in how things work and am sometimes in awe of the natural world.  There are also a lot of scientific stories to tell.  History and stories particularly interest me.  Nonetheless, I have not read too many science-related books.

The thing that caught my eye about this book is its autobiographical quality.  A story about an Egyptian-American woman astrophysicist piqued my interest.  Once I began reading, her engaging style had me hooked.  No co-author is cited; she has writing talent. 

The book also has a creative approach to starting each chapter with a short scientific snapshot.  A touch of science, but not overwhelming.  Once I started reading, I was hooked, wanting to find out how her story turned out.  Spoiler alert: “to be continued.”

Parental Relationships 

Sarafina El-Badry Nance dedicates the book to her father: “For My Dad, Who Will Always Be Perched On My Shoulder, I Love You.”  This is a bit of foreshadowing though she includes a loving acknowledgment of her mother at the end of the book.  

Sarafina is very close to her quiet American-born father while having a more troubled relationship with her Egyptian-born mother.  Her parents are emotionally very different, the father acting more dispassionate while the mother more emotionally expresses her frustrations.  

I think Sarafina found a certain calm with her father, especially with all the stresses of her childhood.  The reader might think the father pushes her too hard at times, especially as a child.  We would have benefited from listening to both parents tell their sides of the story.  Sarafina does fairly provide details that show her mother’s struggles.  

Nonetheless, Sarafina is closer to her father, including noting at one point that she wrote fifty things she loved about him.  She loved her mother and has various moments where her respect comes out.  But, we don’t get a reference of fifty things for her mom.  

Women in STEM 

Sarafina from an early age loved science, including being excited about listening to the StarDate radio program.  Her parents sacrificed to give her a very good private school education.  An interesting aspect of her education is being sent to religiously run schools with faiths that neither she nor her parents very much believed in.  

There is some amusement here too, including young Sarafina confused about some of the religious doctrine and how she was not supposed to challenge it.  This was quite foreign to her budding scientific mind.  Her parents diplomatically tried to explain things to her, not wanting to directly challenge the school staff.  I wonder if many parents have such a talk about some things that are taught at both public and private schools today.  

A major reason why she wrote the book was her belief in the importance of role models for women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) fields.  On a field trip as a child, she was told by a male astronomer that astronomy would be too hard for someone like her.  

Her love of science and astronomy is shown when she finally is old enough to take a special program under one of the people she cites as a mentor.  For years, she looked forward to taking part.  Her teacher encourages her to ask questions and a highlight of her academic year is to spend hours discussing some she has with a college professor.  

The professor also shows empathy when he notices Sarafina is stressed.  She admits that she is worried about the Egyptian revolution that broke out.  The professor’s show of concern for the emotional needs of a high school teacher is an example of an ideal academic.  Being a good teacher is not just about providing knowledge, but respecting the needs of your students.  

Sarafina had no love for the technical parts of physics, grinning and bearing learning them have the tools necessary for a career in astrophysics. She also shows the sexism present in some college classes and the importance of having supportive women classmates to help you.  

Mental and Physical Health 

Sarafina’s childhood was a series of physical and psychological stresses.  

The reader is likely to feel for young Sarafina as we read about how she was constantly sick with mysterious ailments.  I was as concerned about her mental health, including what seemed to me an excessive amount of stress to do well academically.  

From her account, this seems to not only lead to mental stress (along with the problems with her home life) but also probably some physical symptoms.  What some children must handle is rather amazing.  For instance, she was left mostly alone for much of one year of high school as both of her parents took jobs far from her home.  

Later on, her beloved father is the one who is sick, having been diagnosed with cancer.  Sarafina touchingly explores this, including how much it changed her father’s high-strung view of life.  

Sarafina herself was found to have a BRCA2 genetic mutation.  This made her very likely later to have cancer.  Like the actress Christiana Applegate and others, she had a preventive double mastectomy to greatly reduce her cancer risks.  At first, many doctors did not want to perform the surgery on someone so young.  Sarafina has spoken out a lot on this issue.  

Sarafina had breast reconstruction surgery.  She became a celebrity later on by becoming a Sports Illustrated Swimsuit model.  For whatever reason, she does not discuss this in the book.  The book is not a full autobiography, skipping around some, but this would seem to be a rather notable thing to toss in.  A case study of editorial choices in book writing, I guess.  

(Sarafina also has a significant social media presence that repeatedly is cited in articles and other places.  She does not talk much about this either.)  

Relationships: Good and Bad 

Sarafina provides us with a lot of detail about her various personal relationships.  Her stressful childhood at school was mixed in with joyful childhood friendships.  

One charming moment involved Sarafina and some young friends going on a nature trip.  They came upon a coyote, which scared both animals and humans.  A friend was concerned about them invading the animal’s home.  A good lesson in both empathy and respect for other animals.  

While in college, Sarafina also had a relationship with a guy that became very abusive.  She blamed herself and thought she was the problem, having serious doubts about her self-worth.  She ignored or handwaved warning signs.  It became physically abusive before it finally ended.  

Therapy (as it did as a child) helped her get over the trauma and build up her sense of self-worth.  The need to properly care for your physical and mental health is a major theme.  

And, I dare not leave out Comet, her special dog friend.  

Arab-American Heritage

Her mother comes off as someone never comfortable in America, most happy speaking Arabic.  After 9/11, she had to deal with bias, including being seen as a threat while on a plane for a conference.  Moving away more a culture center like New York City to Texas did not help.  I sometimes really wanted to learn more about her story!

Sarafina-El Badry Nance was uncomfortable about her Egyptian background.  This includes not wanting to use her mother’s name.  She is sometimes cited as “Sarafina Nance.”  In fact, in a tweet on 9/11/20 (telling date!) she says:

My name is Sarafina El-Badry Nance. This is the first time I’ve said my full name in public. Ever.⁣ I [now] talk about disavowing my Arabic heritage for most of my life post-9/11, too scared and too embarrassed to embrace my identity.

This is not talked about too much in the book.  The clearest view of her Arabic heritage comes from the discussions about her mom, which is tellingly a very fraught relationship.  

Memoir Writing 

The author says “memoir is difficult.”  Maybe, it is better put that writing a good memoir is difficult.  A scientist might not be who you would think would be a good writer, but she is.

She has an interesting technique.  She starts each chapter with five or so pages of science, mixed in with some philosophy (such as how we view the universe).  

Then, she begins talking about her own life.  It is not a complete account (skipping around her childhood and college years) but covers a lot of ground.  And, the book reads like a novel, including various personal vignettes.  She provides a good model for others.  

I am something of a completist, so was left wondering about various things.  The book didn’t start with “I was born on” and so.  Overall, I enjoyed the book.