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Meredith Hughes

Associate Professor of Astronomy, Wesleyan University

 

It is just incredible when I get new observations from a telescope and see something that nobody on Earth has ever seen before.  That part of the job never gets old.  

What do you do?

I'm an astronomy professor at a small liberal arts university, which means I have three jobs. The first is doing research, which in my case involves making observations with giant radio telescopes to try to figure out how planets form around other stars. The second is teaching and advising students, both in the classroom (by teaching everything from general introductory astronomy courses to advanced courses in radio astronomy), and out of the classroom by helping students figure out how to do scientific research, or even just which courses to take and how to adjust to college life. The third part of my job involves helping to make the university run in a lot of different ways, like choosing our next class of masters students or giving feedback on honors theses or serving on different committees - my favorite thing that I do in this part of the job is serving as the faculty advisor to our campus women in science group.  

Why did you choose this field?

"I always knew that I liked math and science as a kid, but it just never occurred to me that I could be a scientist. Most of the people I knew who liked math and science were either teachers or doctors, so I figured that's probably what I'd do."

I had a funny idea in my head of what a scientist was like, which was a sort of socially awkward egghead genius, and I didn't think I was that type of person, or that I'd be comfortable around people like that. When I was in high school, I got the chance to spend six weeks of one of my summers doing astronomy as part of the Summer Science Program, and that was the first time I ever met real scientists and other kids who were thinking about becoming scientists. Immediately, I recognized that I loved everything that I was doing, including taking observations with telescopes and designing computer programs, and moreover that I felt this immediate sense of belonging with the people around me - not at all the uncomfortable eggheads I had imagined! That was when I really started to think that I might be able to do science as a job.  

 

Another important decision point for me was when I was deciding what type of faculty member I wanted to be: I had job offers from a big research university and a small liberal arts university, and ultimately I have been very happy as a professor at a school where the classes are small and I get to know our students really well. I still get to do the cutting-edge research that I love, and I also get to spend a lot of my time teaching and advising, which I really enjoy.  It's been a great balance for me, and I love the deep impact that I get to have on students at our small school. Even in my classes for non-science majors, I take very seriously the responsibility that I will often be the very last science teacher that my students have, and my classes will shape the way that these students think about science for the rest of their lives, whether they go on to be lawyers or artists or whatever. Astronomy is a great "gateway science," because I think everyone naturally feels a sense of wonder about the universe, so it can be an accessible way to help people who are maybe a little bit afraid of math and science start to feel like it's exciting and understandable rather than terrifying and incomprehensible.  

What do you look at and think, "I wish younger me would have known this was possible"?

Mostly I still get a kick out of being the person who tells giant, multi-million or even billion-dollar telescopes what to do. I often feel like there must be some mistake -surely it's a bad idea to let a regular person like me decide how to use these complex and expensive machines!  But it is just incredible when I get new observations from a telescope and see something that nobody on Earth has ever seen before.  That part of the job never gets old.  

Why do you love working in STEM?

It's full of surprises! I can do pretty much anything I can imagine.  One semester I decided that my students and I should build a radio telescope, even though I had no idea how to do it. It was scary but also great fun to figure out everything from where the delivery truck could drop heavy equipment (since the observatory doesn't have a loading dock) to how to hoist our assembled antenna onto the roof of the building. We had lots of help from our campus machine shop and electronics technicians, and the students had a blast. It's the same with research: if I can imagine a question, I can ask it, and try to answer it with my own observations - and often I'll learn something that I am (or one of my students is) the first person in the world to know!  

Best advice for the next generation

One important thing to keep in mind is that science is a very collaborative endeavor. I used to worry that a scientific career would be too isolating, which is not the case at all!  I'm constantly interacting with other scientists and students, and sometimes I feel lucky to get an hour in my office by myself! Developing a network of support is really important as you move through a scientific career. People tend to think of mentoring as something that a very wise old senior person does with a very junior person, but I have become a big fan of mentoring "up, down, and sideways".  Peer mentoring can be as informal as problem-solving with a friend or as formal as the groups I've been part of as a faculty member that meet for an hour every other week to provide support and help problem-solve.  One person is never going to be able to mentor you in every aspect of your professional and personal life, so seeking out those varied relationships is both important and rewarding.  

Fun fact

I wish you could interview my great-grandmother, Dorothy Weinschenk Gillett (who I never met), because she was a truly inspirational woman in STEM.  She worked as a computer for Lockheed and did calculations for the Apollo and Mercury missions.  She was married to a radio engineer, so in some sense it was probably my genetic destiny to become a radio astronomer!