Beginning a Career in Astronomy Research

What follows is my reflection on my overall STEP signature project. For anyone interested in more details about my time at the telescope, check out my blog here!

For my signature project, I had the opportunity to take part in research. My work focuses on eclipsing binary star systems and the funding from the project allowed me to fly out to Kitt Peak in Arizona to operate the telescopes at MDM Observatory, present my research at a conference, and continue working through the summer.

I wasn’t very confident in myself after freshman year. I struggled with the transition to college and there were times that I worried that I didn’t belong in astronomy. Before this project, I had no idea how research was done, let alone how I would get involved with it. Then I joined STEP. Because I had some funding already taken care of, the first professor I approached agreed to take me on his project. Being a part of research made me significantly more confident in my own abilities and the possibility of a future for me in the field of astronomy. It was like finding somewhere I belong.

I spent my first semester reading papers that overwhelmed me with new information and learning a coding language I’d never even heard of, but I left every research meeting feeling more optimistic about my future than I ever had been before. The next semester, it came time to go observing. My research advisor described collecting data as a dreadfully boring process, so I didn’t expect much. I was just looking forward to the opportunity to visit Arizona. As it turned out, I genuinely loved observing! The process was a bit repetitive, sure, but it was so easy for me to learn how to use the telescopes that before long, I was monitoring both of them while my advisor napped in the adjacent room. Because it was so repetitive, it was easy for me to set the telescopes to take a bunch of data while I stepped outside and stared at the stars. It was the most stars I’ve ever seen in the night sky. The simple act of looking up reminded me that what I was doing really mattered.

I worked with the data collected on this run through the rest of that semester. By January of the following year, I had done enough work to justify attending the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics to present a poster. Being surrounded by other women in my field was reaffirming, especially when many of the undergrads shared my insecurities. I had the opportunity to discuss my experiences with women from many institutions and find common ground. I left it feeling much less alone.

As the end of my junior year approached, I was accepted into the astronomy department’s Summer Undergraduate Research Program (SURP) and had the opportunity to continue my work on this project all summer. Doing research without the distraction of classes made me so much more productive and less stressed. It gave me a glimpse into a possible future, one that felt more attainable than it had while I struggled with class. Over the summer alone I feel like I tripled my research skills and my confidence grew with it. Having financial support to do this was invaluable.

There were points in my academic career where I was legitimately afraid that I didn’t belong here. I still have fleeting moments of uncertainty, where I’m not sure I can make it in this field. Now, it’s easier for me to fight back. When I struggle in classes, I remind myself of how I thrive in research. This STEP Signature Project opened the door for me to realize that. It feels like what I do matters and showed me that I am capable of making contributions to astronomy. Along with this, it has helped me to learn more about what areas of research interest me. This provides me with a clearer path forward. I can say with confidence that my life wouldn’t be the same otherwise

Nikki