Over the past few semesters I have been involved in a mentoring group at ASU called Sundial. In Sundial, older undergrads and graduate students come together to mentor incoming freshman. We share about our own college experiences, provide resources on things from finding tutoring to research opportunities, and in general provide a friendly space for everyone to feel accepted and welcomed.
This year, as we were getting to know the mentees, I was asked by a freshman if I would be willing to help her with a project for another class. She was required to interview someone in her major so that she could learn more about the direction she wants to take through college. I was happy to be involved and ended up responding to the questions via email. As I finished up going through the questions I realized these were fun questions that others may enjoy reading my answers to! So; here they are 🙂
Why did you choose to pursue this major?
I liked being able to problem solve. I felt that I was good at finding solutions or thinking critically about a problem. It allowed me to apply my skills in math to something that felt more practical or realistic and I wanted to keep learning new things. Also – I think it’s cool 🙂
What made you major in Astrophysics?
Really early on I knew I liked science… I grew up being fascinated when I learned how the world around me worked, I enjoyed reading biographies about physicists like Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein… and I always thought I would be a middle school or high school science teacher. It took a while before I realized I could envision myself as the person who does science rather than just the person who teaches it. I had some really great teachers who pointed me in that direction 🙂 In my high school science classes I learned that I was much more inclined to physics than other sciences. I liked that I could use equations/math to predict things. I got to college with the intention to major in physics. I took classes in astronomy because I had always thought it was cool, with no real thought to whether or not it was practical. My physics degree required that I take a computer science class, and with just the most introductory glimpse, I was enthralled. Remember how I liked using equations to predict things? Well, now I could use computers to do that for me! I could write programs to recreate the world around me, I could tweak things just to test what would happen. It was like I could do experiments on the universe. After just a little searching I realized I could combine all of my passions into one thing: Computational Astrophysics.
Who do you work with during research?
I work with Evan Scannapieco, an astrophysics professor at ASU, as well as Marcus Bruggen and Wladimir Banda-Barragan at the Hamburg Observatory. Marcus is an astronomer that has previously collaborated with Evan on work very similar to mine. Wladimir is a post-doc at the observatory who has had the most experience with the types of simulations I am doing.
Who did you talk to about research?
In my undergrad, I talked to one of my professors about working with them. I had taken one of their classes in my first semester, I liked them, and I wanted to have some kind of research experience. She was very accomodating and gave me resources to learn about what she studied. After that first meeting, we would get together to discuss what I had read and how I could build a project to do my own kind of investigation. After working with her for a while, she recommended me for a summer research position with another faculty member who became my mentor as I applied to graduate school.
For graduate school, I talked to a lot of people in the process of applying. I had mentors who helped arrange meetings and I was encouraged to go to talks given by people who might be doing what I was interested. I talked to graduate students who were working with advisors I was considering. Ultimately, when I applied to a school I had to have a list of people I was interested in working with as part of my application. Upon being accepted to ASU, it was already decided that I would be mentored by one of the people I had mentioned. Not all graduate schools work this way, sometimes you need to discuss working with potential advisors in your first semester before concluding on one. Some programs, like ASU’s physics department facilitate this by having new graduate students work in several labs in their first year as a requirement of the degree.
What type of research do you do?
I study the gas escaping and interacting with galaxies. As stars are born, live and eventually die, they cause gas to flow out of the galaxy like a wind. This gas impacts the evolution of the galaxy and others that may form nearby. I am learning about what this gas looks like, what is it made of, and what kinds of physics affect its behavior so that we can understand these winds’ roles in the greater evolution of galaxies. I do this by running computer simulations of this gas and studying how it evolves, this makes me a computational astrophysicist. My work is primarily doing what are called hydrodynamic simulations which means that they predict the way fluids (the hydro part) move (the dynamic part), my most recent simulations also consider what magnetic fields do and how they change how the gas moves and they are called magnetohydrodynamic simulations. My simulations are run on supercomputers and take several days to complete. Most of my time is spent making plots of the simulations and managing all the data created into something we can understand and make conclusions from.
Would taking a coding class help with this major?
Yes! Being familiar with programming would be very helpful in astrophysics. Even if you don’t do computational work like I do, most data analysis is done by writing code to understand the data. Coding can help you make plots, calculate important values and even automate things like searching through images. Most people who end up in astrophysics without a previous coding background find that they are teaching themselves programming in order to do their best work.
Would taking classes during the summer be good for this major?
It depends on what else you are trying to accomplish. In general if you are able to just spend your time on the major you should be able to get them done without taking classes over the summer. However, if you are wanting to double major, or you want to minor in something not science related, summer classes can be a good way to spread out your load so that you have more time to devote to each class. If you’re not pressed for time to complete all the necessary classes, I would recommend leaving your summers open for internships, research experiences and summer jobs. Being well rounded makes you good scientist too 🙂
What advice do you have for someone who is going into this major?
I would advise taking the time to learn about all the different topics included in the major; instrument design, planets, galaxies, cosmology. If there’s a talk you’re vaguely interested in, go to it! There are a lot of things under the astrophysics umbrella 🙂 I would also advise staying on top of your math classes. A lot of physics hinges on being able to intuitively understand the equations that describe it. You will inevitably run into something that stumps you (for me it was using linear algebra to do quantum mechanics) but having the ability to work through and understand the math will give you an easier time of figuring things out! Finally, I would always recommend finding people in the major to relate to; to bounce ideas off of for homework, to commiserate with over a tough test, or to share your excitement with when you learn something new. 🙂
What are the options for jobs for people with this major?
When considering just astrophysics you have some limited options for a job – mostly staying in academia to work as a professor or research scientist. These jobs will let you continue to do research in astrophysics and will allow you to apply most of your expertise. However, there are also a lot of options open that don’t work with astrophysics directly. You can work for commercial companies looking into space, or national labs. You can also apply your skills in data analysis, critical thinking and problem solving to other industries. Vaguely; tech companies, medical fields, environmental causes.
How is astrophysics going to help me in the job field?
If you aim to work for a research group or as a professor, all of your astrophysics experience is going to be very helpful. If you end up looking for jobs outside of astrophysics directly, you will have to leverage your experience into something more applicable to the job. This means you’ll have to highlight the other skills you’ve learned along the way over your knowledge of how the universe works. Pursuing a degree in astrophysics gives you great problem solving skills, it teaches you how to look at problems from different perspectives and to how interpret data to make a conclusion. You learn how to communicate complex topics to others and how to reduce data down into something useful or relevant. These are the kinds of skills that you’ll pick up while also learning about something really fascinating at the same time 🙂