Sarafina El-Badry Nance is carving out a place for herself in the astrophysics field and challenging stereotypes about female scientists along the way.
In her new book, "Starstruck," which hits shelves June 6, the 30-year-old Egyptian-American astrophysicist and analog astronaut recounts her incredible journey, including a preventive double mastectomy at 26 and a subsequent stint as a swimsuit model.
Nance's passion for the stars began at a young age, when she began stargazing with her father growing up in Texas. “I love feelings small and I love asking questions about our universe," Nance told TODAY in a segment aired Monday, June 5.
"I was always tied to astronomy. ... It was always something that I wanted to continue to learn about and dive into and explore," she added. "I knew that I wanted to continue and devote the rest of my life to studying the stars."
Nance went on to do just that. Many moons (and years) later, she became an analog astronaut, living in a Mars simulation. "I hope that will get me one step closer to going to space," she said.
Later this year, Nance will complete her Ph.D. in astrophysics. But during her journey studying the stars, she learned that the path for women — especially women of color — is far from stellar.
"There are not a lot of women in astronomy and in physics in general ... and that’s a really difficult (and) isolating," said Nance, explaining that she attributes this to a "misrepresentation" of women as not being interested in science and math.
"There's so much that contributes to someone feeling like they don’t belong, implicit and explicit messages," Nance said. "That sort of mounts until it becomes unbearable and people leave, so I had to push past those boundaries and those messages over and over."
Nance credits her community of support and mentors who believed in her for helping her stay on the path she's on today.
However, Nance got a stark reminder of how precious life on earth is in 2017 when she discovered she carried the cancer-causing mutated BRCA2 gene.
"I learned that I had an elevated risk of breast cancer as high as 87% and an elevated risk of ovarian cancer (around 30%)," she recalled.
A few years later, at age 25, Nance was told by doctors that she would need breast cancer screenings every six months for the foreseeable future.
"For me that was untenable," she said. "I couldn’t imagine living my life constantly reactive and scared that something would pop up."
Nance has a history of cancer in her family. Her grandmother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and ended up dying of pancreatic cancer, she said, and her father was diagnosed with metastatic prostate cancer when she was in college.
So at age 26, Nance had a preventative double mastectomy that reduced her risk of breast cancer from 87% to less than 5%.
"I knew that that was the right course of action for me. It really was a no brainer," she said. "It wasn’t a fear-based decision. It was an empowering decision."
In 2019, Nance underwent three surgeries for her double mastectomy with a full breast reconstruction. Three years later, in 2022, she used the experience to make a powerful statement about women in STEM — and women's health — by applying to appear in Sport Illustrated's famous swimsuit issue.
"I think that the stereotypes of what a scientist looks like and what a body of a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model looks like is embedded in my mind, in everybody’s minds," said Nance.
"I think there’s something deeply profound about having to come back into yourself," she continued. "I never thought (my application) would go anywhere, but it was recognizing in myself I can do this."
Nance said she was completely surprised when she got the call that she was selected as a 2022 finalist for the magazine. Shortly after, she was flown to the Dominican Republic for a whirlwind 48-hour beach photoshoot. "It was so empowering. I got to embrace my body in a way that I hadn’t gotten to post surgery," she said.
Nance's passion for the stars often helps ground her during life's ups, downs and unknowns.
"For me, feeling small is my way of feeling connected to the universe, but also a deeper connection to myself and to everything within the universe. ... That sense of perspective really grounds me and allows me to tackle whatever life throws my way," she said.
Since her surgery, Nance has become an advocate for women's health and hopes to inspire young women to pursue scientific fields.
This article was originally published on TODAY.com