Inspiring Career Advice From A Real-Life Alien Hunter

Photo: Courtesy of Ryan Lash.
Growing up in New York City, Lucianne Walkowicz didn't spend a lot of time looking at the night sky. But, thanks to the mentorship of an astrochemist at NYU, she discovered that her love for physics, chemistry, and research made astronomy the perfect career choice. Today, the Adler Planetarium astrophysicist isn't just a well-established researcher in her field. She's a total badass, exploring nooks and crannies of the universe that most of us can hardly conceptualize, let alone identify on a map. By studying the magnetic fields of stars, Walkowicz and her colleagues are hoping to identify planets that are capable of hosting life — and find out once and for all whether aliens really do exist.

While there's a lot about her gig that's hard to understand without a PhD in astrophysics, there's plenty Walkowicz can teach any young woman who's looking to break in to a male-dominated field. (She's also got a seriously fascinating perspective on what makes our planet so unique.) Read on for some inspiring advice, lots of space talk, and of course, a juicy tidbit or two about alien life.

There are so many women driving astronomical research, yet it's still considered a male-dominated field. What advice do you have for young women navigating these dynamics?

"I think finding the right mentors is really important. In my first ever research job, I worked in a physics lab headed by a woman, and worked with both female and male researchers in her research group. At the time, I had no idea how rare a female-led, gender-balanced workplace was in physics! What I saw was strong, capable women doing science, so it seemed obvious to me that I could do it, too.

"Unfortunately, it is true that the field is still male-dominated — bias exists, both conscious and unconscious. So over the course of my career, I've found it inspiring and supportive to work with other women I admire in the field, and to generally surround myself with allies of both genders. I would say my advice is to choose the company you keep wisely, ensure that the people around you are supportive, and if those people aren't already in your reach, don't be afraid to reach out to them. I met a lot of future colleagues and friends by cold emailing people and asking to talk about science or work with them."

What's the biggest misconception people have about your typical day at the planetarium?

"Probably the biggest misconceptions are that I am constantly looking through a telescope and that I work at night! In actuality, astronomers typically work normal daytime hours, and we spend a lot of our time either writing or using computer code, or communicating with others (typically through writing up our research results, but also by meeting with other astronomers and talking about our work). When we do use telescopes, we typically go to the observatory for a week or two (at most) to collect data. Unless it's a space telescope — in that case, we submit lists of astronomical objects for the telescope to observe, and then go collect our data from a database once it's been beamed down from space.

"On a side note, my job regularly lets me use phrases like 'beamed down from space' in a serious way, which is pretty awesome."

Advertisement
Photo: Courtesy of Wikipedia.


You work on the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope project. Can you explain what that means?

"The Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) will create the largest cosmic movie ever made by surveying the night sky every few nights for 10 years. When we look at pictures of space, be they on the Hubble Space Telescope's website or a pair of Black Milk tights, it's tempting to think of space as static and immovable, like it's just painted up there. The reality is that space is dynamic — supernovae exploding, comets whizzing by, stars drifting in orbits in their galaxies, all while the very fabric of space itself expands. By imaging the night sky over and over again, we can trace some of these things happening. I think it will be as transformative for our understanding of astronomy as the move from photographs to movies was for our understanding of the natural world on Earth."


I loved this quote from your recent TED Talk: "The more you look for planets like Earth, the more you appreciate our own planet." Can you elaborate on that at all?

"I think a lot about planets, in particular whether the planets we discover would be good or bad places for life in the universe — since Earth is the only planet we know of that has life, Earth is kind of the gold standard for places to live (at least for us humans!). Although we now know that the universe is literally teeming with other worlds, these other planets we're discovering are too far for us to travel to in a human lifetime, given our current technology. So when I think about our Earth in that context, it gives me a feeling of being on a very precious island in the midst of a vast cosmos. I call this 'planetary-scale thinking,' a sense of oneness with and appreciation for the value of our beautiful natural world and the many life forms that we share the planet with."

Do you have a favorite spot in Chicago for checking out the night sky?

"Within the city, I'd definitely say the Adler Planetarium! We have a nice observatory here, and on third Thursdays each month we have a 21-and-up evening event where the you can have a cocktail, check out the shows, and look through the telescope when the skies are clear. Chicago sadly has a lot of light pollution, but we're on a peninsula that sticks out into Lake Michigan, so the immediate surroundings are at least a bit shielded by the water. And, if all else fails and it rains, we still have a spectacular view of the skyline!"

If there is life beyond Earth, what do you hope it looks like?

"I hope it looks like Ewoks wearing Hussein Chalayan dresses: cute, but futuristic!"
Advertisement