What do you do?
I am an observational and theoretical astrophysicist. I use the orbits of planets around distant stars to uncover details about their formation and evolution. Because planets form and evolve over time spans of millions (or even billions!) of years, it’s difficult to see them change in real time. My research uses telescope observations and theoretical computer simulations of planet orbits as pieces of this puzzle. If we put enough of these pieces together, we can turn back the clock billions of years and understand the histories of planets beyond our solar system and how they came to be.
Why did you choose this field?
The honest answer is that it is a form of escapism for me. There wasn’t a particular moment I realized this, but it was more of a slow realization of why I continue to do it every day. I oftentimes am overwhelmed by my own thoughts and resentful of my brain for creating them. But everything in space feels so far away from that, probably because it literally is. I can trust that if I’m thinking about space, I’m not thinking about anything upsetting. Everything about space and the fundamental laws of physics have to be exactly the way they are to make our galaxy, the Earth, and life. If they were any different, we wouldn’t be here.
What do you look at and think, "I wish younger me would have known this was possible"?
I discovered a planet when I was 20 years old. The first planets beyond the Solar System were discovered the year I was born, and 25 years later the process of planet discovery is almost entirely automated- it’s falling into the category of jobs that can be replaced by computers! Somewhere between then and now, I discovered a planet called Kepler-1649b as my first astronomy research job at NASA in Mountain View, CA. I had no idea this was something society, let alone someone like me, was capable of, and I was pretty much thrown into it my first day there. If someone had told me this would happen to me even weeks prior, I certainly wouldn’t have believed it.
Why do you love working in STEM?
My favorite part about my job is that I am learning things that no one knows yet. As a grad student I am learning things that other scientists know. But as a research scientist, it’s my job to ask questions that no one knows the answer to and then figure it out. I wake up every day looking forward to the possibility to learn and the friends I’ll make along the way.
Best advice for next generation?
If STEM is hard for you, you aren’t doing it wrong- in fact, you are probably doing it right! I’ve made it this far and it’s never felt easy to me. I’ve failed exams, I’ve gotten rejection letters, I’ve felt like I wasn’t good enough, I’ve felt like others felt like I wasn’t good enough. I literally have a map in my phone of places I go on campus to cry. But I don’t see these as weaknesses, and I don’t think these struggles make me unique. I want to normalize them because they are so common and they don’t have to deter you- I experience them and I’m still a scientist, I'm still happy to be here, and I’m just as “cut out” for it as anyone else.
Inspo quote / fun fact / role model
"Be resilient in the face of adversity"
- Ginger Kerrick
"I'll show you how valuable Elle Woods can be"
- Elle Woods