Postdoctoral Fellow & Program Evaluator on the NASA Innovations in Climate Education
Organization: NASA Langley Research Center
What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
When I was a little kid, I loved everything about space that I could get my hands on. My parents were both really interested in the history of the manned spaceflight program, so I grew up watching shuttle launches on TV, taking family trips to the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum, and memorizing the names of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo astronauts. I even went to SpaceCamp . . . twice. I loved science and math, but I also loved my English classes where written and oral communication was important.
Ultimately, I majored in both English and physics when I was in college. Now I have a PhD in astronomy from Cornell, but a career in science research isn’t for me. Instead, I’m interested in working on science education and public outreach/communication, and especially in increasing the diversity in astronomy and other STEM fields. That brings both of my skill sets, thinking like both a scientist and a communicator, to the table.
What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
During my dissertation work, I was part of a large research collaboration, called ALFALFA, led by my advisors at Cornell and involving over 30 other institutions. We used the Arecibo Radio Telescope in Puerto Rico to take a census of nearby galaxies, studying their reservoirs of hydrogen gas, which is the basic ingredient that galaxies use to cook up new generations of stars.
As part of this work, I ran the world’s largest telescope for many nights, trained other students and faculty members to use it, traveled to the telescope in Puerto Rico and to others in California, discovered and published information about unknown galaxies, and wrote my dissertation on the properties of our sample of over 10,000 galaxies – it was an amazing experience!
Now that I have worked in astronomical research for so long, it’s can be too easy to forget that thrill of discovery. But sometimes on a clear night, the night sky (especially a good naked-eye view of the Andromeda galaxy) will take my breath away. In those moments, it hits me that I’ve been so lucky to be able to call myself an astronomer. I still can’t believe I’ve been a discoverer of galaxies!
Role models and heroes:
In grad school, I shared an office with another grad student working on ALFALFA, Sabrina Stierwalt. Sabrina has taught me so much about science, but even more about being true to myself while working on a career in science. For us, that means finding a satisfactory balance between our work and our personal lives, working to improve our communities, and not being shy about the “feminist” part of being a STEMinist!
Sabrina helped me get involved with a lot of the astronomy education projects, like the Ask an Astronomer service at Cornell, that ultimately pointed me toward the career I’m now pursuing. It is really helpful to have such a good friend, colleague, and role model who reflects my aspirations and pushes me to think about my place in the world.
Starting many months ago, Sabrina and some of our other STEMinist friends began to notice that the “Doodles” appearing on the Google homepage from time to time had a disturbing pattern – we were seeing far, far too few women represented! With Sabrina’s advice and encouragement, I started a blog called Speaking Up For Us and posted an open letter to the Google Doodles team. We all know that role models are very important for women in STEM, and the Google Doodles could be such a great platform for sharing the contributions of women with everyone who doesn’t have a Sabrina in her or his life.
Advice for future STEMinists?
A support network is such a critical thing, whether that means your friends, your family, your advisors at school, all of the above, or some other (formal or informal) mentor. Seek out this support wherever you can find it, and learn about ideas like impostor syndrome so that they can’t slow you down. If you’re a student, MentorNet.org is a great place to start. Research and personal experience has shown that this support helps young women — and members of other groups underrepresented in STEM — stick with it and pursue their dreams.
Another, more personal piece of advice: There are so many interesting, twisting and turning paths to fulfilling careers in STEM. It took me a long time to find my own path, and in the end I realized that I couldn’t push parts of my personality aside to try to force myself to stay on a path that wasn’t working for me. Incidentally, it also turns out that those other skills and priorities have a lot of value in the STEM world. We all have something to bring to the table, and it’s OK if your path turns out to be a little twisty like mine was.
Favorite website or app:
I couldn’t do my work without Google Reader, an RSS feed aggregator that lets me do one-stop shopping for updates on my favorite blogs. It helps me keep up with everything from scholarly journals to the latest STEM education news to my friends’ blogs.