A Little Bit of Guidance Can Make a Big Difference

Published February 14, 2018

This Astronomer’s Career Path Started with a Simple Piece of Advice
This Astronomer’s Career Path Started with a Simple Piece of Advice

Lucianne Walkowicz, PhD

Academy Member Lucianne Walkowicz, PhD, is an astronomer studying the ethics of human exploration on Mars. She has always been interested in research and “figuring out how things work” and she knew that she would do research one day. But, she didn’t always know exactly what path her career would take.

“I ended up in the field that I’m in, fairly naturally, just by following the chain of being interested, first in stars, and then gradually becoming interested in planets that orbit stars and how the stars influence those planets,” Walkowicz said.

One of the things that really helped Walkowicz’s career path was attending a summer program at the Academy as a high school student in 1996. It was in this program that she first had the opportunity to do research in Dr. Myriam Sarachik’s physics lab at the City College of New York, and it was also the first time she contributed to a scientific paper. This hands-on experience and recognition is what helped her decide what type of scientist she wanted to become. After realizing how drawn she was to both physics and chemistry, she began looking for a way to combine these two disciplines in her career.

It was at that time that she encountered an advisor at the Academy, Kristina Berger, who suggested to Walkowicz that she look into the interdisciplinary field of astronomy because it brings together chemistry and physics. Berger also connected the rising scientist with someone she could work with during the school year, Dr. Yorke Rhodes, an astrochemist at New York University. Under the guidance of Dr. Rhodes, Walkowicz completed a project on the “chemistry in planetary atmospheres.” And it was in doing this work that her interest in astronomy really blossomed.

Today, Walkowicz is an astronomer at Adler Planetarium, and she is also serving as the Baruch S. Blumberg/NASA Chair of Astrobiology in the John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress. Her work involves creating an ethical framework that humans can use to explore other planets. Her project is titled “Fear of a Green Planet: Inclusive Systems of thought for Human Exploration of Mars.” She believes we can learn a lot from how we’ve explored our own planet.

Many young scientists know they love research or experimentation, but Walkowicz’s journey is a great example of how a little bit of early guidance and hands-on experience can help young people find the right field. "[The Academy] really influenced the direction of my career," Walkowicz told us.

Stories like this one remind us why it is so important to support and encourage young people who are interested in pursuing STEM careers. From mentoring programs to our Science Alliance initiative, the Academy is working to build a better STEM pipeline and help graduate students and postdocs transition to successful careers. Check out our latest career development events and workshops here!