What do you do?
I am a student researcher under Dr. Saida Caballero-Nieves studying massive star binaries. I am also a Resident Assistant on campus and am involved in campus-greening initiatives through our Residence Life Sustainability Committee.
Why did you choose this field?
In eighth grade, our science class started the astronomy unit. I remember my classmates staring at the notes bored out of their minds while I thought it was the most amazing thing I'd ever learned. I knew then that I wanted to be an astronomer. I have always loved the stars and the universe, and I am lucky in that I have a family who values math and science education. My paternal uncle has a doctorate in mathematics, and my maternal grandfather was an engineer at Grumman, where he worked on the Lunar Modules that brought mankind to the moon. I had these role models to look up to when I decided to follow in their footsteps.
I've always loved helping and teaching people. In high school, I joined the robotics team. While I was a high school student, I mentored elementary and middle school robotics teams in our district. There were plenty of times when some of my students wanted to quit, either because their code wasn't working the way they wanted or they were having difficulty working with a teammate, but I encouraged them to stay and see it though. At the end of the season, they were so proud of the robot that they designed and created and quitting was the last thing on their minds.
My high school robotics team comprised of nearly 50 students, but there were maybe only half a dozen girls. I was in charge of outreach and communication for the team, and I made it a core focus for my team to be a place where everyone feels welcome and comfortable joining. During my senior year, I mentored several middle school girls as they shadowed the highschool team and encouraged them to stay in robotics and in STEM even though there weren't many other girls on the team. Since I've graduated, they all continued with robotics and have been able to inspire even more girls to join. I realized through all of this how much I love teaching, and how much I can give to people. I was privileged to grow up with strong science and math role models and a family who encourages me to follow my dreams, but there are many who don't have that person in their lives. I want to be the role model and encouragement for everyone to pursue their dreams.
In high school, I started education-based clubs and spent my free periods and after school helping and tutoring my peers. As a senior, I was taking classes like AP Physics and Calculus, and I had the opportunity to solo-teach one unit of the Honors Physics Class. I loved standing in front of classroom and coming up with ways to demonstrate physics concepts that would be entertaining to the students. My physics teacher, Mrs. McElrath, was a huge inspiration to me. She encouraged me when I started to doubt myself and whether I was good enough to be an astrophysicist. She taught me that one bad quiz grade or being confused about a lesson didn't make me any less of a scientist; it just made me human. She taught me that even when I fail, I am a scientist because of my dedication and perseverance to the subject I love. Mrs. McElrath made me want to be a professor so that maybe I can encourage someone to follow their dreams in the way that she did.
What do you look at and think, "I wish younger me would have known this was possible"?
While I was on my high school robotics team, I was terrified of coding and machining. They were painted as super complex and easy to mess up, and I didnt even want to learn how to do them. I could stand up and give a speech in front of thousands of people; I could stand up against someone with a lot more experience and power than me when they made a sexist comment; I could converse with high-level employees from NASA and Comcast without breaking a sweat, but the thought of having to build and code a robot by myself made me nervous. This past year, I took a coding class and realized that I'm good at coding. I was a tech director for theatre, and I designed and built a sturdy, successful set. I've realized, since then, that I wasn't afraid of coding; I was afraid of failing. I wish I could tell my younger self how many times I've failed, and then I could tell her how many times I've gotten back up and persevered despite it. I've always struggled to identify as a scientist. No matter how well I did in my science and math classes, the thought of being a "scientist" felt like it was always out of reach. But I am a scientist. I can write proposals, operate different kinds of telescopes, plan an observation, reduce stellar data, and perform the calculations. I wish I could show her that confidence.
Why do you love working in STEM?
I love working in STEM because there's always something new to learn. Every time we answer a question about our universe, more questions come up. I look up at the night stars and I see endless possibilities of things to study and explore.
Best advice for next generation?
I would tell girls in STEM that if they're interested in a subject, do it. Join the club even if none of your friends are in it. Take the class that piqued your interest. Even if it ends up not being for you, give it a shot. Explore the possibilities. You are good enough and you are smart enough to do whatever makes you happy, so never let anyone tell you that you aren't.
Inspo quote / fun fact / role model
"Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less" - Marie Curie