Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Why Studying Astrophysics Is Worth It

AstronomyWhy Studying Astrophysics Is Worth It

By Jade Marchant, Weber State University

The author celebrates the first particle received from the self-constructed
CosmicWatch portable muon detector. Image credit: Jade Merchant.

Studying astrophysics throughout my undergraduate career has changed my life in so many wonderful ways. Currently, I am finishing up my last semester of undergrad at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah. Writing this has been a lovely way to reflect on what I’ve done and experienced in the last few years at this school. This education has encouraged enormous personal growth, allowed me to see the universe from a unique and beautiful perspective, and introduced me to so many incredible people.

The astrophysics group at Weber State, led by Dr. Stacey Palen,
stands by the Keith Terry Palen Observatory.
Image credit: Jade Merchant.

The Physics and Astronomy Department at Weber State has a unique gift for helping students find their scientific identity. One of the ways our faculty has helped students discover their passions in science is by offering numerous pathways for students to explore experimental physics. Over the course of one undergraduate degree, I was an observational astronomer taking data on eclipsing binary stars, a particle physicist who built their own portable muon detector, and an engineer who built a radio telescope out of a kitchen wok! In addition to these projects, our faculty replaced final exams with final papers or presentations so that we could explore our interests. These assignments allowed me to demonstrate my knowledge while simultaneously providing opportunities for me to become a better science communicator and they gave me excuses to explore those initial questions that drove me to study astrophysics.

The relationships I have cultivated with my peers have also greatly benefited my undergraduate experiences. The faculty and students at Weber State have created a space for collaboration that has resulted in a strong and friendly community of physicists. One of my favorite memories in lab was when we retied a friend’s hair bow after it had come loose while she kept fiddling away with wires on the rover she was building. This memory is simple, but I feel so lucky to exist in a space where physics, femininity, and friendship were able to coexist in such an effortless way. In the same vein, staying up all night to run a telescope and observe the universe is an incredible experience, but it is infinitely more fun when you get to do it with your friends who are also gigantic nerds! I am incredibly fortunate to have been a part of such a wonderful group with such diverse skill sets and passion for what they do. Through example, my peers have continually shown me how to be a better teammate and a better scientist.

Astrophysics is nothing without community and educators, but I also know that I, individually, have worked diligently to make this degree worth it for me. Deciding to go to college was a huge and terrifying step for me. My high school experience was pretty rough, and I ended up dropping out in my junior year and taking the GED. After this, I thought that my chances at pursuing further education had gone out the window. I am so glad that I gave myself a second chance, because from that second chance I learned that I had as many chances as I needed to change my mind and try again. That persistence and my love for astronomy have carried me through this degree and I know that it will carry me even further.

This degree was so challenging in so many different ways (it is, after all, astrophysics!), but I’ve always tried to maintain hope that this is what I am supposed to be doing and that there is a space for me in this field. In the future I’d love to be an educator, so that I can show more people like me that school doesn’t have to be awful, that hard things are worth doing, and that you can fail as many times as you want. I want to help others find their scientific identity in astrophysics as my peers and the faculty at Weber State have done for me time and time again. For me, astrophysics is SO worth it! 

Jade and friends do radio astronomy with
a kitchen wok reflector. Image credit: Jade Merchant.

Ed’s note: After graduation Jade will be applying physics skills and experience to a job in industry, doing work in electromagnetic compatibility testing. Congratulations!

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