I was born and raised in Richmond, Virginia, and when I was a kid I was quite a performer. Turns out I still am, but I was then too. I sang in a choir, I acted in the school plays, I made movies at home and with my friends (including a Star Wars stop motion film that will never see the light of day). And of course, I was fascinated by space.
But I didn’t grow up thinking I was going to be a scientist. You see, in science, and particularly in physics and astronomy, the giants of the field are synonymous with genius. Think Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein. I wasn’t brilliant like those guys! How could I possibly be a scientist? I didn’t really think it was in the cards. In the meantime, being an actor was tons of fun, and it came very naturally to me, so ultimately when it was time to go off to college I decided that’s what I was going to do. I came to New York in 2003 to attend NYU as a theater major.
Well that was all great, I had a blast and met a bunch of awesome people, but eventually I realized the life of an actor just wasn’t for me. What else could I do though? I spent several years feeling rather aimless. I had a good job, sure, but it was a dead-end. Wasn’t there something I could do that would be personally rewarding and also make an impact on the world?
Around 2010 or so I got the crazy idea to become a physics teacher. I hardly had any math and physics courses under my belt, but I had started reading scientific literature voraciously. I started taking classes, and eventually left my job and went to CUNY Hunter College to pursue a second bachelor’s degree in physics. I have to tell you, I really thought it was kind of a nutty enterprise, but it wasn’t very long before I got involved doing research at the American Museum of Natural History, studying giant molecular clouds, and my life truly changed forever. I was a bit older than my classmates, of course, so I didn’t really have any plans to pursue a PhD, but I worked hard to keep my grades up and make sure that I had as many options as possible when I finished the degree, just in case.
The summer before my final year I had the great privilege of working at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Socorro, NM as a summer REU. I got to see the Very Large Array! As a long-time fan of Carl Sagan, his book Contact and the phenomenal film adaptation, it was truly amazing. My work there (with my advisor, Betsy Mills) focused on the search for ammonia masers in the galactic center, and it was my first exposure to the strange and beautiful world of radio astronomy.
When it came time to apply for graduate school — now firmly in my sights — I was anxious to stay in New York, as I was dealing with the two-body problem. To my great relief, I was accepted to study at Columbia University in 2015 and I’ve been here ever since. Have to tell you, I absolutely love it here; the people are just great, and the breadth of research undertaken in this building is astonishing. It’s been my great privilege to work with David Kipping and the other members of the Cool Worlds Lab, as we work to understand the planets and moons beyond our solar system.
I tend to think there are two kinds of astronomers. I’m not talking about theorists and observers, though that’s certainly one dichotomy (don’t forget about the instrumentation folks!) No, I’m talking about those astronomers who are primarily interested in the physics of the Universe — understanding how it works and where it came from — and those astronomers who are chiefly interested in the question of finding life out there, and what that means. Of course these aren’t mutually exclusive categories! I’m sure we’re all interested in both to various degrees. But for myself, I find myself drawn chiefly and inexorably towards that second question, and all the questions that follow. Where is everybody else? What are they doing? What are they like? What might we learn from them?
We are just barely scratching the surface of these questions, and just at the beginning of our long journey to knowing the worlds that abound in the Milky Way galaxy. I don’t know that I’ll live to see the day we finally make contact, or find unambiguous evidence of life beyond the Earth. But I’m so incredibly proud to play just a tiny role in what is in my view the greatest exploration humans have ever undertaken. Academic life being what it is, I don’t know how long I’ll have the privilege of doing this work, but for the time being, I’m loving it. And if I leave academia one day, I’ll always be proud of my contributions, such as they are.