Kelly Kosmo O'Neil

PhD Student in astrophysics at UCLA

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There does not need to be a typical 'type' of person that pursues STEM.

What do you do?

I view my job as a researcher as a continual opportunity to learn, and with that comes the honor of and obligation to perpetuate that knowledge by teaching others.

Specifically, my research is focused on modeling the orbits of stars in the center of the Milky Way Galaxy and the orbits of planets around stars outside of our solar system. Better understanding these orbits may help us better understand how these systems (e.g. the Milky Way, or other solar systems) could have formed and evolved through history.

Why did you choose this field?

Up until the end of high school, I never really had an interest in physics or astronomy, namely because I hadn't been exposed to it much. I had taken one physics class my freshman year of high school, as per the school requirement. But at the time, I just saw it as a requirement, and didn't dive any deeper than the surface.

Upon applying to college, I was debating what majors to indicate interest in, and one of my good friends said that they wanted to study astrophysics. I thought it was a joke. I didn't even know what that meant. The fact that there was this whole academic field that I didn't even know existed was intriguing, so I tried to learn a little bit about what physics and astronomy are all about.

As I started to learn a little bit, the biggest thing I learned is how much I didn't know. Learning one thing opened up a whole new set of things I'd never even thought about thinking about. Ultimately, the endless expanse of knowledge written into this vast and intricate universe is what led me to pursue my bachelors degree in astrophysics.

Because I had sort of stumbled into this field, I wasn't aware of the typical path people took in this field or how to get there. I just went along for the ride, knowing all the while that the thing I liked most about astrophysics was the thing that initially drew me into it: the more I learned, the more I realized I didn't know. So I set my sights on pursuing grad school, where your job is to, well, keep learning.

During my last year of college, I got quite sick for an extended period, and ended up having to delay my graduation from that spring to the following fall, meaning I couldn't apply to grad school right away since it starts in the fall -- in retrospect, a beautiful bummer. To fill the gap period after graduating before I could apply to grad school, I pursued a research position with the UCLA Galactic Center Group with the professor of the first astrophysics class I had ever taken.

It turned out I had longer to wait than I had thought, as my first round of applying for grad school proved unsuccessful. It was tempting to quit there and pursue something else, but my research advisor was very instrumental in helping me get to where I am now. She allowed me to keep my research position for another year, and encouraged me to apply again the next year. Not only did this give me the opportunity to continue pursuing my goal, but it also gave me an opportunity to get even more immersed in Galactic center research and realize that this is the subfield I really want to pursue. I had never seriously considered staying at UCLA for grad school; you know, people always say to expand your horizons and go somewhere else. But I loved this research. When I applied to grad school again the next year, I had grown to love my research (and the research group) enough to commit to staying at UCLA as a PhD student. I am extremely grateful to have this opportunity and to have had a prominent female mentor to support me through the challenging interim years.

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

Getting accepted into graduate school

Why do you love working in STEM?

Continually learning and continually sharing that knowledge with others.

Best advice for next generation?

There does not need to be a typical 'type' of person that pursues STEM, and even if it seems like there is, you do not need to conform to it. You can be who you are, and that in itself will add value to the scientific community.

Inspo quote / fun fact / role model

"You gotta run fast to run fast" - Brady O'Bryan

NOMINATE a woman in STEM

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