Astrobiology’s rising star
UCI new hire seeking life on other planets also has more down-to-Earth mission: boosting STEM diversity
Aomawa Shields studies the climate on distant planets. Her aim: find those most likely to host alien life. The Clare Boothe Luce Assistant Professor of Physics & Astronomy at UCI is also a classically trained actress, a secret “superpower” that helps her make science accessible to others.
Shields is among a bumper crop of 24 University of California faculty new hires this year to come from the UC President’s Postdoctoral Fellowship Program, which helps prepare outstanding Ph.D.s for academic careers. The program has been lauded as a national model for expanding faculty diversity.
After receiving a bachelor’s degree in Earth, atmospheric & planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Shields detoured into acting, earning an M.F.A. at UCLA, before returning to her first love. She completed a master’s degree in astronomy and a dual Ph.D. in astrobiology and astronomy at the University of Washington and, most recently, has been conducting postdoctoral work at UCLA.
Here, Shields discusses the search for extraterrestrials, the link between art and astrophysics, and her work mentoring middle school girls to create a new generation of star scientists.
Q: What is astrobiology, and how does your work fit in?
A: Astrobiology is the study of life in the universe: How it got started on this planet, how it has evolved over time and how widely distributed it might be elsewhere. The way I come to the question of “Are we alone?” is to find planets that might have environments suitable for life to develop and sustain itself. I use climate models of all different types – most recently ones that are three-dimensional – to look at the collaboration among surface, atmosphere and incoming starlight and how those interactions affect the climate of a planet.
Say there was a habitability pageant for planets. You wouldn’t want to select those that would only be warm enough for surface water under very specific conditions. You’d want planets that could be warm enough for liquid water over a wide range of atmospheres, orbits and surfaces. Our goal is to generate a list of planets that are “most likely to succeed” in the habitability category. That can tell us where to point our telescopes.
Q. What planets are at the top of your list now?
A. A planet was discovered just a few months ago called Proxima Centauri b. That one is particularly exciting because it’s orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri, the closest star to the Sun and just 4.2 light-years away from us. And it’s in the habitable zone – the region around the star where you might expect the planet to be warm enough to have water on its surface. But as my work has highlighted, just because a planet is in a star’s habitable zone doesn’t make it habitable – and just because it’s habitable doesn’t mean it’s inhabited.
Q: How did you first get interested in the question “Are we alone?”?
A: I started looking up at the stars when I was 12, when my seventh-grade class watched the movie “Space Camp,” about this group of kids who were launched into space. Up until that point, I had wanted to be a ton of things: a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader, a secretary, an orthopedist. But it wasn’t until seeing this movie that I was like “That’s it!” And unlike the other aspirations, this one never really went away.
Q: Your career wasn’t exactly linear, though. You took a decade off from astronomy to work as a professional actress. What led you down that path, and how has it influenced your career as a scientist?
A: At first, when I was in college, it seemed that science wasn’t all I thought it was cracked up to be. I was very focused on problem sets and exams, and I forgot the bigger picture: that those are the things you have to get through before you can get to the exciting stuff, which is research. Science, as I came to find out, is a very creative endeavor. But at the time, I felt like science was over here, and my creative life was over there – and that creative life was just so much more fun.
It took me a long time to feel connected to what I created as a scientist, rather than detached from it. Eventually, I came back to the field. I realized that this was what I was supposed to be doing. And it finally occurred to me in grad school that this nontraditional background, which I had thought was an Achilles’ heel, was actually a superpower. It allowed me to communicate the impact of my science in a way some other classmates and scientists had trouble doing.
Q: When you’re not looking for life on other planets, you run Rising Stargirls, a program that uses creative arts to inspire middle school girls to explore the universe. What interested you in mentoring young girls, and why use art as a path to science?
A: There was always this feeling that I had to be a certain type of scientist. There were parts of myself that I felt I had to downplay – whether it was by wearing subdued clothes, not wearing makeup, looking very stereotypically masculine or not displaying emotion. I don’t believe that anymore. I want young girls, especially girls of color and middle school girls, to understand that they can bring all of themselves into their interest in science. Art, writing and theater, which are more readily accepted as being personal, can be a gateway to help girls be personally invested in what they’re learning.
Q: As a woman of color, as well as a returning graduate student, what helped you succeed in a field where you were often the odd one out?
A: In one word: mentors – the people who answered my questions by sitting down with me for 15 minutes or an hour; who gave me tips, feedback, lessons learned, things they wished they’d known; who helped me negotiate for things I needed to bring my vision to my institution. I adopted this attitude of: Whoever has done what I want to do, I’m going to go ask them how they did it. And if they don’t want to share that with me, that’s fine. I’ll go and ask someone else. In my experience, pretty much everyone I’ve asked for help has provided it, in whatever way they could spare. And it’s led to a series of successes that have put me in the position I am today. The UC President’s Postdoctoral Fellowship Program is part of that. If I trace back what I know now about how to be a successful researcher, PPFP played a crucial role in my development.
Q: You write in your blog, Variable Stargirl, about your struggles with imposter syndrome and the feeling of “Is this me? Can I do this?” How did you deal with it?
A: I used to think that I was the only person who suffered from it. I remember a lecturer at a workshop asking if anyone had experienced imposter syndrome, and everyone raised their hand – including professors who were white males. It’s more of a wide-ranging phenomenon in academia than I would ever have anticipated.
But at least for me, as someone who comes from a community that has been marginalized – both as a woman and as an African American – the propensity to be susceptible to imposter syndrome is especially acute. And as an older returning student, I had this feeling that “Oh, my gosh, everyone who is 20-something has the jump on me. They remember more. They were just in physics courses two months ago, and for me it’s been 11 years.”
As scientists, evidence is what we value most highly. It’s about following what the data says, not letting preconceived notions dictate your conclusion. I’ve had to take an active role in looking at the evidence. I’m a visual person, so actually being able to read the email that said “You passed your qualifying exam” or looking at the 4.0 that I got in extragalactic astronomy – those things helped me retrain my mind. What that’s done for me is take those old voices saying “Everyone else but you is a part of this field” or “You can’t do it” and dial the volume way down so that it’s chatter in the background instead of an obstacle to proceeding with one’s day or one’s academic career.
Q: What drew you to UCI?
A: I’m thrilled to join the Department of Physics & Astronomy here. My sense as I get to know people is that everyone is warm and welcoming. There’s a desire to move the department and the field of astronomy into the next era – both in its research on exoplanets and also in terms of equity and inclusion, making sure everyone has a seat at the table.
Q: Any parting words of advice for aspiring scientists?
A: My personal mantra is “It’s never too late.” The word “should” can be debilitating. If possible, I’d say, eliminate it from your vocabulary. It’s about what you want now and who has it – and what you can do to get it too.