Graduate Student, University of Arizona
What is the most interesting or unusual experience of your career? Observatories at night are like spaceships. Each part moves in synchronization, automatically, controlled by a master computer, which is controlled by an observer like me. There’s always red lights glowing along the floor and steps, and stars pricking the sky above. And observatories are often on mountains, where the night air is wild and free.
What has surprised you about your career? Is it like you imagined it would be? It took a lot of math to get here–a lot of math and physics. (As a side note, if you want to be an astronomer, take math and physics!) There were a lot of times that I got 60% on tests (or worse!) and felt like I could never be an astronomer like I dreamed, and that crushed me. But I’m super stubborn, and so is God. And here’s the secret: Once you get through the classes you have to take, the math and physics actually get a lot easier. From day to day, I don’t have problems that are overwhelmingly hard for me. And if they are, there are lots of people around who are really helpful. So now I’m an astronomer, like I’d always hoped to be, and I know a lot of cool math and physics, and I’ve made a lot of friends who help me with the stuff I don’t know.
Do you have any special skills or hidden talents? I’m a science fiction writer. Shh, don’t tell. Everyone thinks I’m a normal, quiet, graduate student, but I’m writing a book called Fugitive Star about a girl who’s a space pilot. (Shh, don’t tell. Everyone thinks she’s a normal, quiet student. And if the wrong people find out who she really is, she’ll be dead.)
Bio: Melissa grew up in the rural fields of Gambia, West Africa, where the night skies are only muted by the occasional cooking fires. Her love of astronomy was fueled by her love of science fiction and an over-active imagination. When she was in fourth grade, she wanted to be an artist or a writer. Since she loved science fiction, she started writing adventure stories for kids like herself. A year or so later, she decided that science fiction was so cool that she wanted to learn as much about the stars as she possibly could. She went to the library, checked out books on astronomy, and read them all–even the long ones! She pulled out star maps and binoculars and found every constellation in the dark African sky (85 of the 88 constellations were visible from her location in Gambia–if you want to know why she couldn’t see the other three, go check out an astronomy book!). Her love of astronomy led her to earn a bachelor’s degree in physics with a minor in astronomy from Calvin College. Now, Melissa is a PhD candidate at University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory.