For astronomer and artist Lucianne Walkowicz, it’s not hard to pinpoint the moment she knew she wanted to pursue astronomy. “I had been in a high school research program run by the NY Academy of Sciences in the summer between junior and senior years, where I worked in a solid state physics lab,” says Walkowicz. “I liked it so much that after the summer ended, I asked the coordinator if she knew anyone I could work with during the school year. She suggested I try astronomy, since I really wanted something that combined my interest in chemistry and physics.”

 

Walkowicz took her coordinator’s advice and started working with an astrochemist at NYU, studying the atmosphere of Jupiter.

 

When Walkowicz began her undergraduate career at Johns Hopkins, she went in with confidence in her goal to become an astronomer. While she majored in physics, she continued doing research in astronomy throughout her undergraduate career, including working on detector selection for the Advanced Camera for Surveys — the camera that is currently on the Hubble Space Telescope.

 

Walkowicz currently works as an astronomer at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago (adlerplanetarium.org)

Walkowicz currently works as an astronomer at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago (adlerplanetarium.org)

While her passion for science and her desire to pursue astronomy were strong, Walkowicz’s journey did not come without obstacles. “[I remember] when I was midway through college and struggling in a physics class, I told my professor that I was thinking of switching majors and quitting physics. He told me I shouldn’t, and I took his word for it.” Walkowicz remembers this as a turning point in her journey, going on to note that the support and encouragement of her mentors have made an incredible difference throughout her educational and professional careers alike.

 

After graduating from Johns Hopkins in 2002 with her B.S. in Physics, Walkowicz went on to receive her M.S. and Ph.D. in Astronomy from the University of Washington. She gained a wealth of experience over the course of her career, including her work as a Kepler Fellow for the Study of Planet-Bearing Stars at UC Berkeley and as an Associate Research Scholar at Princeton University. She currently works as an astronomer at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago.

 

“I study stellar magnetic activity — the equivalents of sunspots and solar flares on others stars. I am interested in these phenomena for their own sake, but in particular in how they impact the habitability of planets that orbit these stars,” she shares. “Practically speaking, this means I use data from NASA’s Kepler Mission. I write a lot of computer code to analyze the data, so on a day-to-day basis my job looks a lot like computer programming (rather than being at a telescope all the time, which is what many people envision astronomers doing!). I couldn’t actually go to the telescope I use if I wanted to — it’s too far away and in space!”

 

It’s fascinating to hear about the specific focus of Walkowicz’s work on planetary habitability, particularly considering the ever-growing popularity of the topic as we become increasingly aware of our ecological footprint. The concept of potentially being able to find other habitable planets in the universe is not unfamiliar to most, but it is usually introduced in dramatized or imagined scenarios in movies. Rarely do those who are not particularly involved in the science world hear the details of real-life efforts to assess planetary habitability beyond Earth.

 

Being able to develop a more prevalent connection between these scientific endeavors and the public can be a major step toward raising awareness about these pursuits, solidifying their importance, and helping society frame a realistic notion of what the true quest for planetary habitability looks like.

 

Walkowicz discovered her passion for astronomy after participating in a high school research program run by NY Academy of Sciences (speakerpedia.com)

Walkowicz discovered her passion for astronomy after participating in a high school research program run by NY Academy of Sciences (speakerpedia.com)

For Walkowicz, the quest is as real as it can be. “I think it’s important to find other planets that have Earth-like conditions because these planets can teach us about our own place in the universe.” She says. “For example, are such planets common or rare? If we find life, is Earth-like life common or rare?”

 

According to Walkowicz, in the past five years, the Kepler Mission has shown that there is an abundance of planets in the universe similar in size to Earth. “Possibly the most abundant planets in the universe, in fact!”

 

Of course, while such a discovery is immensely significant, it doesn’t quite suggests we’re anywhere close to finding a planet that can support life like Earth.

 

“Make no mistake,” Walkowicz advises, “we are very far away from ever being able to visit these worlds; Earth is the most habitable place we know, and for now, we are bound to our own solar system. The more you look for Earth-like planets, the more you appreciate the Earth we have.”

 

At MUIPR, the passion to communicate stories that matter is part of who we are and what we do. Technology is always growing, and the stories of the people behind the gadgets and innovations we utilize daily are just as important as the breakthroughs, themselves. Check back next week to see Part 2 of our feature on Lucianne Walkowicz, where we talk about some of the ways that Walkowicz makes science more approachable and relatable to the general public. She shares her own unique approaches to the task, including how she managed to translate her love for art into a form of scientific communication.

 

If you are a woman working in STEM and are interested in being featured in our ‘Women Leaders in STEM’ series, shoot us an email at blog.muipr@gmail.com or tweet me @tamarahoumi