What do you do?
As an astrophysicist, I'm primarily interested in studying how the motion and structure of the Milky Way galaxy influence populations of planets. You see, the galaxy isn't just sitting still; it's constantly moving, changing, and evolving. If you look at different parts of the galaxy, you'll see wildly different conditions in terms of density, speed, amount of radiation, types of stars, etc. I want to use my knowledge of the way the galaxy behaves to find the places where habitable planets are most likely to form. To do this, I use a combination of observational data and computer simulations. In my last project, I used planet data from the Kepler telescope and and stellar motion data from the Gaia telescope to compare the velocities of stars with planets to the velocities of stars without planets. I switched gears for my current project and now I spend most of my time simulating the motion of stars in the densest parts of the galaxy to see how often they have close encounters. I think my research is really interesting, but my greatest passion is getting other people excited about science by talking to them about space!
Why did you choose this field?
Honestly, I'm an astrophysicist because of free pizza.
My mom always wanted me to be a scientist, but I liked every subject in high school, so I didn't know exactly what I wanted to study when I went to college. After trying out a few different subjects and having a couple really negative experiences, I was about to give up on science. But in the first semester of my sophomore year, one of my friends asked me to try an introductory astronomy class with her. I went, but I didn't have high hopes. When we got there, the professor said we'd get free pizza every week. I had no idea how I felt about astronomy, but I knew I loved free pizza, so I registered for the class! Now it's six years later and I'm getting my PhD in astronomy.
Looking back, I think I would have been happy in a lot of different fields. I don't think astronomy is inherently more interesting than marine biology or volcanology; it's just the first college-level science class where I had a positive experience.
What do you look at and think, "I wish younger me would have known this was possible"?
Like a lot women and people of color in STEM, I have a hard time focusing on my successes instead of my failures, so I started keeping a list of my achievements that I can look at when I'm feeling like an imposter. There are simple things on that list like finally understanding how fourier transforms and interferometry work, or writing a computer script that works perfectly the first time I run it. But there are also bigger accomplishments, like being named a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow, publishing a scientific paper, or being invited to talk at South Africa's National Science Festival earlier this year. If you had told me I'd do any of these things five years ago, I definitely wouldn't have believed you.
Why do you love working in STEM?
I love that I'm a professional problem solver. I love that it's my job to create new knowledge, even if that knowledge doesn't have any practical or real-world applications. I love that being a scientist has helped me hone my ability to think critically and systematically -- an ability that I use all the time. Of course I don't love the long hours spent slouched over a difficult problem or the number of times I've been astoundingly wrong about something, but I love the confidence I've gained from eventually working through those problems and finding the right answer.
Best advice for next generation?
Stop comparing yourself to others. You'll learn at your own pace and solve problems in your own way and reach milestones on your own timescale. The only thing that matters is that you continue to learn.
Also, if you realize along the way that you don't want to work as a scientist forever, that's okay! There are plenty of ways to take what you've learned in STEM and apply it to your other passions.
Inspo quote / fun fact / role model
In college, I actually double-majored in astrophysics and folklore and mythology because I couldn't choose between the two. My focus in folklore was ritual body modification (tattoos and piercings) and world building. So it's very possible to have multiple passions!