What do you do?
I am astronomer and astrobiologist. I do theoretical modeling of the atmospheres and climates of extrasolar planets with a particular focus on how to detect life in Earth-like planets orbiting other stars.
Broadly, I am interested in anything related to the field of Astrobiology: the study of origin of life on Earth and the pursuit of detecting life on other planets/moons in the Universe. Currently we are just now finding planets that are Earth-sized and temperate for the first time in history. In the next two decades, first with James Webb Space Telescope and later with follow-up missions we will be able to detect the atmospheres of terrestrial extrasolar planets in the habitable zone. These questions of our origins and the distribution of life in the Universe are the main driving inspiration for my day-to-day work.
Why did you choose this field?
After finishing undergraduate with a degree in physics, I realized that though I enjoyed all of the research areas I had done as an undergraduate none of them gripped me so completely that I could imagine doing that for the next 40 years. I then went to a conference in astronomy, a field I had previously not considered, and attended an astrobiology session on remotely detecting life on another planet. My first thought was, “We might be able to do this in my lifetime!?” I was hooked. I immediately started reading everything I could about the topic, and it has never lost my interest. Knowing that my research will eventually contribute to answering this age-old question of “Are we alone in the Universe?” is what gets me excited to come into work every day. It was that moment, sitting in that conference, that inspired me to be an astrobiologist and pursue a PhD in astronomy. I think a lot of the opportunities for great growth in science lie at the intersection of traditional scientific disciplines. Astrobiology is unique in that it combines all of science, from geology and astronomy to biology and chemistry. What I find most interesting about astrobiology is its potential to answer two big questions of humanity: how did life arise on Earth and is there life on other planets?
What do you look at and think, "I wish younger me would have known this was possible"?
Because of my non-traditional path of going to a community college in Montana first, I didn’t think that I would be able to get into a place like Harvard and I almost didn’t apply. I remember sitting at the computer for five minutes, staring at the submit button, asking myself why I should spend $90 on an application to a place that I had no chance of getting into. I hit submit and quickly closed the laptop. To my surprise, I was accepted to Harvard and finished my PhD in astronomy & astrophysics in 2015 and am now a researcher at Oxford. I nearly didn’t apply to either place. I would tell all younger aspiring women to apply for things even if you don’t think you are ready or good enough. It is often our self-limiting beliefs and feelings of the impostor syndrome that make us self-select ourselves out of opportunities. Don’t say “no” to yourself, let someone else make that decision.
Why do you love working in STEM?
I still can’t quite believe that I am paid to be able to think all day about how we might detect alien life on another planet. It seems a dream, and a great privilege to work on this universal human question. Are we alone in the Universe? For the first time in human history, we can begin to tackle this question scientifically. I also love teaching and interacting with students. Getting a younger budding scientist passionate about science and astrobiology is the best reward of my job.
Best advice for next generation?
Don’t say no to yourself.
In a now classic study, men will apply for a job if they meet 6/10 of the criteria, women will only apply if they meet 10/10. The impostor syndrome, that feeling that you are not as smart or as good as everyone thinks you, and that you’ve only managed to scrape by with luck is very pervasive. I truly think that if any one of you could sit in my brain for a day, you’d all realize that I am not that smart and I’ve fooled even Harvard and Oxford into hiring me. This persistent feeling of not being enough keeps many women out of STEM.
One of the biggest challenges I faced was in my first year of graduate school at Harvard. I felt like I’d fooled everyone and almost dropped out six times in the first semester. Only late night phone calls with my Dad, also a physics professor, kept me going. He urged me to just finish the first year and that it would get better. Ultimately I realized that the rest of my classmates also felt the same feelings of being an impostor, had the same insecurities and fears I did. For a long time I was convinced that I was the true impostor and that my clearly brilliant friends were fake impostors. It took me many years to realize this pattern in my thoughts and through the support of friends, family and though seeking counseling I was able to recognize and combat the impostor phenomenon. Specifically, my internal impostor script tells me that I am not good enough to apply for this fellowship, that award or this grad school. Instead of listening to that script, I have realized that this phenomenon is real and that I should still apply to these opportunities without pre-selecting myself out of the application pool. Because of this, I ended up getting into a great grad school, was selected as one of eight PhD students at Harvard to be a Harvard Horizons Scholar, and now have a prestigious prize postdoctoral fellowship at Oxford. All of these opportunities I might have missed if I would have listened to my impostor thoughts which tried to convince me that I wasn’t good enough for these opportunities. Instead I’ve learned to not let the impostor syndrome stop me from pursuing my scientific career goals and aspirations. Because of my experience, I am now passionate about helping others thrive with the impostor syndrome in academia I co-host a podcast with my good friend who first introduced me to the impostor syndrome, Dr. Sarah Ballard, called “Self-care with Drs. Sarah” where we discuss our real impostor thoughts and how to thrive in your work by first taking care of yourself.
Inspo quote / fun fact / role model
I have two main quotes I try live by. One is a quote by James Berry: “The Life of Every Man is a diary in which he means to write one story, and writes another. His humblest hour is when he compares the volume as is with what he vowed to make it.” Living life on autopilot sometimes prevents us from being who we want to be. I try to live each day mindful that our time on Earth is short and to actively do the things I am passionate about. The other was popularized by the vlogbrothers, Hank and John Green: “DFTBA or don’t forget to be awesome.”