Stephanie Hamilton, PhD

she/her/hers

Where to find her: 

Education:

  1. I did my undergrad at Michigan State University (2010-2014) 
  2. I majored in physics (with a minor in music!)
  3. I did my PhD in physics at the University of Michigan (2014-2019)

I’m currently unemployed *sad face* but searching for something in science communication or informal science education (even better if it has an astronomy focus!)

What experience first got you interested in science and is that field the same one you went on to pursue?

I can’t necessarily pin my interest in science to one specific experience, though science has always been my favorite subject in school. I remember learning about rocks and minerals in 4th grade and loving that. But I am an astronomer by training and passion, and that passion first kicked off when we started the astronomy unit in my 6th grade science class. I was so fascinated by the fact that there were entire worlds bigger than Earth out there in the Solar System that only looked like tiny points of light in the night sky!

Tell me about some people who helped or inspired you along the way, in your early training and later in your career.

I credit a lot of my passion for science to the encouragement of my parents and role models growing up. In particular, my dad always got more excited about whatever I or my brothers were interested than we did. Once I indicated an interest in astronomy, he was also all in with astronomy. Over my childhood years, I found myself with a nice new pair of binoculars, a Sky & Telescope magazine subscription, numerous astronomy books, and even a small telescope that could track the Earth’s rotation so that whatever we were looking at wouldn’t rotate out of view. Probably once every week or two, we’d check NASA’s website to see when the International Space Station would be visible from my town, and my dad would drive me up the hill by my house to watch it pass overhead. My mom also inspired me because she was an engineer and a math teacher — I never thought I didn’t belong in STEM because my own mom was a woman in STEM! 

As I progressed through my STEM career, I started to realize how incredibly important role models like that are for young aspiring scientists from underrepresented minorities, and so that’s now one of the things I’m most passionate about. 

Finally, both my high school physics teacher and undergraduate research advisor were so instrumental in encouraging me and helping me succeed. I truly would not be where I am without them.

Can you tell me about any moments of doubt you had as a student or early in your career and how you dealt with it?

Oh, my gosh. I think if you *don’t* have some sort of career existential crisis at some point, you’re one of the few. For me in particular, I decided I didn’t want to do research for a living about halfway through my PhD — you know, that degree that is entirely based on research? So I had a period of about six months where I didn’t know what to do — I didn’t want to do research, but I also didn’t want to leave my program because I didn’t know what else to do. I discovered the wonderful world of science communication around that time. Prior to that time, I didn’t actually realize that people had full-time jobs doing science communication. I thought that was something one did as an extracurricular in academia (which honestly also says a lot about how science communication and outreach are viewed within academia). 

I began pursuing science communication opportunities at the University of Michigan — I got more involved in outreach through the Society for Women in Physics, started training other scientists how to communicate better through workshops with RELATE, organized science communication conference for graduate students through ComSciCon and ComSciCon-Michigan, and did my own outreach through Portal to the Public and Nerd Nite

Can you share two or three surprising twists or turns in your early scientific training and your later career path.

Probably the first surprising twist for me in my scientific career was that I didn’t actually do any astronomy research in undergrad, despite having LOVED astronomy since I was ten. Instead, I found myself doing high energy physics (HEP) research. I got a research position immediately after starting college through a program with Michigan State’s Honors College, and the position happened to be in HEP. I learned a lot, got to work at Fermilab in Chicago for two summers and CERN in Switzerland for one summer, witness the discovery of the Higgs Boson (which gives mass to everything), and basically learn a lot of physics that I couldn’t learn in classes. I knew for sure I would go on to graduate school. Once there, I decided that I wanted exposure to something other than HEP, so I tried a dark matter experiment for a summer. I didn’t love it, so I went back to HEP. To my surprise, I didn’t love that anymore either. Cue my first existential crisis in graduate school — I went to grad school for HEP, and now I didn’t like HEP?? 

During those six months that I didn’t have a research group, I was grateful for UMichigan’s weekly faculty seminars for first-year grad students, where faculty essentially advertised their research to new students. Through those lectures, I found my PhD advisor. He had just started using an extragalactic astronomy survey to look for new small Solar System objects out in the Kuiper Belt — basically repurposing the data for something it wasn’t designed for at all. That was the first time since entering grad school that I had felt truly excited about a potential research group. I believe my exact words to him after his talk were, “Your research sounds SO COOL, can I work for you??” So I ultimately found my way back to astronomy in the end!

Can you give some examples of how you have incorporated your non scientific interests into your work.

One of my bigger non-scientific interests is teaching, and I’ve taken advantage of several opportunities to teach while in graduate school. My favorite class I taught was a month-long astronomy class for senior undergraduates called “Ground-based Observatories,” which took place in Southern Arizona. I’ve actually taught this class twice! Throughout the class, the students learn about telescopes and observatories, how/why they’re built where they are, and the complex interactions between observatories and the surrounding environment or communities. They also get to complete an astronomy project from start to end, from writing a proposal to staying up all night to take data to analyzing the data to produce results. It was an incredible experience for both me and the students, complete with learning lots of astronomy and sight-seeing around southern Arizona. 

I also think that my passion for science communication stems directly from my love for teaching. Not only am I involved with teaching people about astronomy and my own research through public talks and writing for blogs, but I also have come to love teaching workshops for other researchers on how to communicate their science more effectively.

Is there some advice you could you share from your own experience to help someone with a science degree who is just starting off on their own career path.

FOLLOW YOUR PASSION. Seriously. It has led me to the absolute best experiences and people. If you aren’t happy with your current situation, change it! Your advisor won’t be offended, I promise (and if they are, they aren’t a good advisor anyway). And on that note, finding good mentors is *everything.* I stayed in high energy physics research for four years because of my advisor. And I didn’t actually realize that was the reason I had stayed until he was no longer my advisor. Find people who will support you and help you grow in the things YOU’RE interested in — and this doesn’t have to be your primary advisor either 🙂

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