STEMinist Profile: Jesi Hoolihan, Student, Astrophysics


Jesi Hoolihan


St Thomas University

What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
I always had an interest in math and science during my high school career and after a six year career in retail management, found myself inspired while watching Particle Fever. I haven’t looked back since!

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
I founded my own nonprofit organization when I was 17. Founding a company on my own really showed me that I will accomplish anything I set my mind to.

Role models and heroes:
Elon Musk. I could care less if my hero is male or female, I love seeing people bettering our species as opposed to their pocket books.

Why do you loving working in STEM?
Well, I’m not officially there yet, but I am excited to be studying astrophysics.

Advice for future STEMinists?
Anything is possible. Don’t fall into the expectations of others.

Favorite website or app:

UCSC students design video game aimed at making astrophysics fun

Kate Compton and April Grow, both students at UCSC’s Center for Games and Playable Media, hope players will feel like they’re “farming” in space as they cultivate star gardens. In doing so, gamers will also learn about nucleosynthesis, the process by which stars forge atoms into the elements that make up the periodic table. But Stellar, which will be soon be available on Google’s Chrome Store, is first and foremost a game — and its programmers hope the approach will help spark children’s interest in science.

[ via San Jose Mercury News ]

STEMinist Profile: Jarita C. Holbrook, Researcher

Jarita C. Holbrook


Women and Gender Studies at UCLA

What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
My career is really two stages if not three. I hold degrees in physics, astronomy, and astrophysics through my doctorate. At that point in time, I wanted to be an astrophysicist but by the time I finished my PhD, I had changed my mind. The next stage of my career has been as a social scientist focused on the links between humans and the night sky: Cultural Astronomy. To make the transition from physical science to social science was not easy! I had to learn a new language and way of approaching and analyzing data.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
The third stage of my career is that I am a filmmaker! When I am making documentary films I focus on minority astronomers and astrophysicists. Being a cultural astronomer takes me to amazing places and I talk about the sky and gather information about the sky from everyone I meet; when I am making a film I follow astronomers to cool places and focus on them and their research.

Role models/heroes:
I have many great mentors but role models is more difficult: Anthony Aveni added respectability to Cultural Astronomy and his work is amazing. I love the work of filmmaker Julie Dash, but I have never met her. Angela Davis is my role model for how to always be gracious no matter how famous. Anthropologist Brackette Williams taught me how to undermine my opponents because they are predictable. Finally, former dean of the UA business college Ken Smith taught me some tricks to being an effective academic leader. All of them I consider to be my role models.

Why do you love working in STEM?
I like being able to develop a hypothesis, design a research project to test it, and then to look at my results to see if my original hypothesis was correct. This step 1, step 2, step 3 that you can always fall back on. What I absolutely love is when I am looking for one thing and I discover another thing!

Advice for future STEMinists?
Being an interdisciplinary scientist is difficult because the academy is rigid so everyone wants to fit you into somebody else’s box. However, I think that the most exciting work is occurring in the spaces between disciplines. Career-wise, I have had to compromise and occupy places where I do not fit intellectually, however I have always learned things important to my research from my colleagues in every situation. I have occupied history of science, applied anthropology, Africana studies, and now women and gender studies not to forget physics and astronomy, too.

Favorite website/app:
I have always been a movie person so nothing beats IMDB and their app.

Twitter: @astroholbrook

STEMinist Profile: Katherine J. Mack, Theoretical astrophysics researcher


Katherine J. Mack

Theoretical astrophysics researcher

Institute of Astronomy / Kavli Institute for Cosmology, University of Cambridge



What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
I’ve wanted to be a scientist for as long as I can remember. I have always been very analytical and interested in science and math. As a kid, I was always taking things apart and trying to figure out how everything worked. After going through all the electronics in our house, I got more ambitious and discovered cosmology. I decided I wanted to answer the biggest questions there are.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
They’re all cool projects! I guess I’m a traitor to cosmology if I say this, but one of the coolest things I’ve ever been involved in was actually a particle physics experiment called K2K. It was a long-baseline neutrino-oscillation experiment, in which an accelerator facility in Japan called KEK sent a beam of neutrinos to the Super-Kamiokande neutrino detector, to see if any of the neutrinos would disappear en route (by changing into less-detectable kinds of neutrinos).

The project I did at KEK involved building things with power tools, which is always fun, but when I visited Super-Kamiokande I got to actually go inside the detector, which was absolutely amazing. Usually you can’t go inside because it has to stay very clean, but they were doing an upgrade of the whole detector at that time. It’s a 40-meter tall cylinder filled with ultra-pure water, with light-detectors called photomultiplier tubes lining the inside surface. To replace old tubes, we put on clean-suits and went around the detector in a little inflatable boat. (Search the web for pictures of Super-Kamiokande and you’ll see what this looks like.) It was pretty incredible.

Role models and heroes:
Currently I guess I’d say Neil deGrasse Tyson, because he has an amazing ability to get people excited about astrophysics. When I was young, my hero was Stephen Hawking — I think I wrote in my college application essays that I wanted his job. These days, I see him around pretty regularly at talks and conferences. I still don’t have his job, but it’s kind of amazing to be working in the same university and roughly the same field.

I didn’t have a lot of female role models when I was young, and I didn’t really feel I needed  them. But I was probably quite influenced by my mother — she was working on her PhD in nursing when I was growing up, and she did original research as part of that. She got me interested in science fiction and took me to planetarium shows, star parties, and public lectures on physics and cosmology, and she was always encouraging of my interest in becoming a cosmologist. I also remember being a big fan of Kate Hutton, a Caltech seismologist who would show up on TV for interviews every time there was an earthquake. I think I liked her because she seemed a bit tomboyish like me and was always clearly the smartest person in the room.

It was nice to see a female scientist on TV who was (at least locally) well known and obviously greatly respected.

Why do you loving working in STEM?
As I mentioned above, the big questions are what really fascinate me. Things like, how did the universe begin, and how will it end? How did galaxies form? What determines the laws of physics as we experience them? I don’t expect to find the answers to any of those questions directly, but I love that they’re all deeply relevant to my work, and that I get to think about things that are really right on the edge of human knowledge. I also love that I get to choose my own projects and set my own scientific goals. I’ve been very fortunate in that, actually, since I’ve been able to obtain independent research fellowships — I don’t really have a direct supervisor who tells me what to work on. (A lot of astrophysicists are tied by their funding to a particular project or person.) There are downsides to that, of course — I have to be very self-motivated and I have to try to make sure I’m keeping up with things that will make an impact in my field — but it’s great to have so much intellectual freedom. If something sounds particularly interesting or challenging to me, I can just go and investigate it, and figuring it out becomes my job.

Being a theorist, specifically, also has its perks, in that my work isn’t tied to a particular location or piece of equipment. I travel a lot, visiting collaborators and going to conferences, and I can work anywhere. I think I do some of my best work in coffeehouses. My job can also be surprisingly social sometimes. As a theorist, a lot of what I do involves coming up with new ideas and thinking about things creatively, as well as swapping expertise with people in related fields. So going to conferences and to other institutions and talking with people is an essential part of my job, and I find that kind of real-time idea-sharing incredibly stimulating.

Advice for future STEMinists?
Learn as much math as you can. Math is awesome, and the more you practice with it the better and faster you get. It’s just like learning a language, in that sense. Having easy fluency with mathematical concepts will help a lot in your education and your work, in whatever area of STEM you choose to go into.

Also: Don’t get discouraged if you have to work really hard. Don’t think that your chosen subject should necessarily be something that comes easily to you. It always takes hard work to become an expert and to learn a new skill — if you love this kind of thinking, the hard work will become a pleasure, and that moment of truly understanding something fundamental about how the universe works makes it all worthwhile. Challenge yourself. Don’t be afraid to try things just because you’re not sure you can do them.

And if you want to go into research, start now. There are lots of established programs that you can apply to for early research experience, but you can also take a more informal approach. I got my first research opportunity — the one that eventually ended up sending me to Japan — just by going up to a physics professor and asking him if he could use a research assistant. I was a young high school student at the time, and I hadn’t even taken a physics course yet, but I was enthusiastic, and that was the only really important thing. If you’re not at university yet, find out what the faculty at your local university are working on and see if any of them could use a volunteer.

I’m not talking about a full-time job — usually you can manage to do a couple hours here and there after school. If you are in college, you should be able to find opportunities through your university. But don’t be afraid to approach people and say you find their work fascinating and you’d like to learn from them. As a researcher myself, I know that I love talking to young people who show an interest in my subject. Most academics are just happy someone cares about what they do, and they’ll be glad to talk with you about how you might be able to get involved.

Favorite website or app:
I’ve gotten all obsessed with Twitter these days. I follow a bunch of scientists and science journalists, and it’s kind of overwhelming how many fascinating things are going on in research at any given time. It’s like opening up a door through which you can watch science as it’s happening all over the world. And if people are talking about something particularly interesting, you can tweet to them and they’ll (often) answer your questions! It’s mind-boggling. And also highly — dangerously — addictive. Use with caution.

Twitter: @AstroKatie


STEMinist Profile: Emily Rice, Assistant Professor, Engineering Science & Physics

Emily Rice

Emily Rice

Assistant Professor at the College of Staten Island
(Engineering Science & Physics Department)

Research Associate at the American Museum of Natural History
(Department of Astrophysics)

What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
I enjoyed math from at least the sixth grade, took advanced classes throughout high school, and when I started college I was planning on majoring in math. In the fall semester of my freshman year I also signed up for an introductory astronomy class, and I was hooked. I signed up for physics the following semester so I could major in physics & astronomy and take the rest of the astronomy courses. But I didn’t do much research as an undergraduate and wasn’t certain I would pursue a career in STEM until I started working at a planetarium after graduating from college. I learned so much more about astronomy and public outreach while I was there that I decided I wanted to pursue research and a Ph.D. in astronomy.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
I am thrilled with how my fledgling research career has expanded since my Ph.D. to include low mass stars and extra-solar planets. I started out studying brown dwarfs, which are objects with masses in between the masses of stars and planets. My collaborators and I are trying to understand all of these objects in concert because they are surprisingly similar despite the striking differences between, for example, the Sun and Jupiter in our own Solar System.

Role models/heroes:
Even though he didn’t teach science, I still look up to my fourth grade teacher, Mr. Eugene Tiesler, because he taught in a way that made me feel capable and comfortable – I hope I can do the same for my own students. I also admire fellow scientists who have achieved success in their careers while mentoring students and having a family and interesting hobbies – luckily there are too many to name!

Why do you love working in STEM?
I love the variety and flexibility – I have a lot of different day-to-day responsibilities and there are always opportunities for new projects, in teaching, writing, presenting, research, travel, and more. I meet a lot of people who are interested in what I do, and it is always satisfying to help them learn more or change the way they think about science or scientists, even slightly. I think if everyone understood science just a little bit more, the world would be a better place for it.

Advice for future STEMinists?
Two pieces of advice:

1. Find what you enjoy, even if it’s not what others expect of you. When you enjoy what you’re doing, it won’t be a chore to devote yourself to it and excel.

2. Just because you have achieved a degree of success doesn’t been it is available to everyone. Take an honest look at your path and your community and figure out what you can do or change to make science open to and supportive for others who might be interested. We will all benefit from developing an equitable and diverse STEM community!

Favorite website or app:  Astronomy Picture Of the Day:

Twitter: @emilulu