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Learning About the Life of an Astronomer

“Staring Into Space for a Living” was the title of the talk Meredith Hughes, an associate professor of astronomy at Wesleyan University, gave to students and faculty at Westminster April 8. She discussed her career as an astronomer and how she got into the field.
 
Professor Hughes explained that about one-half of her time is spent teaching and the other half on research, studying planet formation by observing the disks of gas and dust around young stars using radio interferometers. She travels to conferences, participates in panel discussions and research groups, spends time programming, writes grant proposals and communicates extensively with students and the broader world.
 
Growing up, she did not know what she wanted to do for a career but knew she liked science and math, and had many other interests. She told the students in the audience that it is really import to explore different things at their age. It was her participation in a summer science program in high school that opened her mind to the possibility of becoming a scientist and showed her that “normal people” could do such a job and maybe she could too. “I met scientists and students who wanted to be scientists,” she said.
 
She ended up completing additional summer internships in college that involved conducting research and found out how rewarding it is to discover something about which nobody else in the world knows.
 
She explained how earning a Ph.D. involves getting paid to do science for five to six years and becoming an expert at something. Not knowing if she wanted to become a professor with her advanced degree, she first did some science education outreach, including at the Museum of Science in Boston and Bryce Canyon National Park, and learned she could have a broad but limited impact in such settings and preferred to have a more sustained impact as a university faculty member. “I wanted a deeper educational purpose and long-term relationships with students,” she said.
 
She described the challenges women face in astronomy and said that while some progress has been made, real work needs to be done to make science an equitable field for women.
 
She also shared the things she loves about being an astronomer, including discovering new things about the universe, teaching scientists and nonscientists, traveling to conferences and telescopes, and sharing the universe with others.
 
“Astronomy has taken me to amazing places around the world,” she said. “Being a scientist is wonderful, and whether or not you are interested in a scientific career, I hope you will think about the science that is going on all around you. It has been in our faces the last two years because of the pandemic. What better time to think about how importance science is to everyday lives.”
 
She concluded by saying, “Astronomy is more like poetry, where it requires us to reflect and think about our place in the universe.”
 
Following her presentation, Professor Hughes met with students in two astronomy classes that are taught by Head of the Science Department Lee Zalinger. She discussed planet and star formation, radio astronomy and some lessons learned from the Orion Nebula.
 
Professor Hughes graduated summa cum laude from Yale University with a B.S. in physics and astronomy, and went on to earn A.M. and Ph.D. degrees in astronomy from Harvard University.  She was a Miller Fellow in the UC Berkeley Department of Astronomy before joining the faculty at Wesleyan University in 2013.  Her research investigates the structure and evolution of circumstellar disks across the evolutionary sequence. 
 
Professor Hughes is the recipient of the Harvard Astronomy Department’s Fireman Fellowship for outstanding doctoral thesis and Bok Prize for research excellence by a Ph.D. graduate under the age of 35, as well as a Cottrell Scholar Award, recognizing outstanding teacher-scholars. 
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