‘Looking Skywards’ is part of a multi-post series where the writers of Some Nerd Girl share their Origin Stories – in other words, when and how did the nerdening happen?!
It’s hard to say when I first became a nerd. My earliest memories include my mom reading me J.R.R. Tolkein’s Letters to Father Christmas, and, later, excerpts from Anne McCaffrey’s The Dragonriders of Pern series. I’ve always been fascinated with the natural world, and was a pretty outdoorsy kid. And from an early age I loved stargazing. However, even if I can’t narrow my entry to nerdom specifically, there are a few discrete events that definitely set me on my current path.
The first one I can think of is when I was 7 or so, my parents took me to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in D.C. At some point during that trip, they decided to treat my twin brother and I to a showing at the IMAX theater. The film we saw was a documentary narrated by none other than Leonard Nimoy, entitled Destiny in Space.
To be honest, the film actually hasn’t aged all that well, but at the time, the imagery absolutely captivated me. Soaring over the newly radar-mapped terrain of Venus. Watching Mars become slowly more Earth-like as it was terraformed. Astronauts spacewalking above the surface of the Earth. From that point on, I had been bitten by the space bug, and I got it bad.
A few years later, at a Scholastic Bookfair (remember those?) my brother picked up a beautiful illustrated paperback, entitled Extraterrestrial: A Field Guide for Earthlings. It was the first book I had ever come across that presented the possibility of alien life as a serious scientific topic. It imagined how actual extraterrestrial lifeforms might evolve under a variety of environmental conditions, what sense organs they might use, possible body layouts, and even speculated on more radical forms of life that we might not even initially recognize. While it didn’t seem like as a big of idea at the time, the idea that aliens were a concept that could be seriously addressed scientifically stuck with me.
As I hit middle school, I became increasingly interested in the sciences. Unsurprisingly, I also got more into science fiction, as well. After cutting my teeth on my mom’s old Andre Norton and Anne McCaffrey paperbacks (guess where I got my scifi gene from?), I started exploring the science fiction and fantasy section of the local library. First, I read mostly McCaffrey, but soon serendipitous discoveries lead me to other authors. The cover of Ringworld intrigued me, and introduced me to Larry Niven, who’s hard science fiction I devoured (I was particularly fond of the Known Space series). Via The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, I discovered Robert Heinlein, though I found a lot of his writings a bit more difficult to get into (I did slog through most of I Will Fear No Evil, but I had additional motivation). Later my list of favorite authors would include Alfred Bester, Rodger Zelanzy, Neal Stephenson, Lois McMaster Bujold (who’s Vorkosigan Saga is one of my current favorites), Connie Willis, Ursula K. LeGuin, and Neil Gaiman.
Also, as an aside, I became a massive band geek, and would later have the distinction of being That One Guy in the Piccolo Section, but that’s another story for another day.
As I made it into high school, naturally I began to think about college and careers. Unsurprisingly, I looked at space-related careers – considering being perhaps an astronomer or astrophysicist, or maybe an aerospace engineer. I would later back down from both of those careers as, at the time, I thought they’d be too math intensive for me (ironically, my actual work now is focused pretty much exclusively on mathematical modeling). In any case, the question was somewhat incidental – from age 12 onward, I knew what I really wanted to do was be an astronaut – but I figured I should at least have some options.
However, towards the end of high school, I somehow stumbled upon a new and upcoming field of study: astrobiology, the study of the origin, evolution, and distribution of life throughout the universe, including beyond Earth. While I was still fascinated with studying life beyond Earth from a scientific point of view, I had no idea that this was a real area of study, with NASA support and everything. I suddenly knew what I wanted to do with my life.
In college, wanting to cover all my bases, I double majored in astronomy and biology, and did my senior paper for my astronomy degree on the possibility of biosignatures on Mars. During the summer before my senior year, I also got the opportunity to intern at NASA, analyzing images of Jupiter’s moon Europa from the Hubble Space Telescope; to date, that experience remains the best summer job I’ve ever had.
At some point, I went to a talk given by former astronaut Kathy Thornton, who mentioned off-hand that having a terminal degree (e.g., a PhD or an M.D.) was a requirement to have a serious chance of being selected into the astronaut corps. While I don’t want to say this single-handedly persuaded me to go to grad school, it certainly sealed the deal.
I eventually located a graduate school that had an astrobiology lab (there are about a dozen universities in the U.S. that are involved in astrobiology research), though, ironically, rather than astronomy or biology, it was actually housed in the geology and environmental science departments. I got my first chance to do real scientific research – the topic I eventually focused on was using mathematical modeling to help understand microbial ecosystems that exist in extreme environments (underneath glaciers, in hot springs, and so forth). The hope is to use these models to try to characterize what constitutes a habitable environment for life (for example, if we find microbial communities underneath the ice sheets of Antarctica, is it possible similar communities exist underneath the polar cap of Mars), and what sorts of detectable effects those ecosystems have on their environments (this may sound dry, but it isn’t; my master’s thesis involved this place).
At the moment, I’m currently working on my PhD in the subject. My dream job is to be a researcher for NASA, being on the cutting edge in our search for life throughout our Solar System. Following this path has allowed me to embrace my nerdiness to new levels, turning a passion into a career (and if you think cons are nerdy, wait until you experience a science conference). I’ve gone from reading science fiction to pretty much living it (I’m a gender-changing scientist who hunts for aliens- tell me my life isn’t the plot of a New Wave scifi story from the early ’70s). And I’m sure there’s even greater heights of nerdiness awaiting me on my journey.
And for the record, no matter what, I still fully intend to become an astronaut.
Tessa is a 28 year old PhD student, and perhaps the world’s only queer trans astrobiologist. A nerd going way back, her interests include science fiction, space exploration, sustainability, science communication, and feminism and gender. Her hobbies also include horseback riding, playing the flute, social dancing, knitting, and occasional attempts at writing fiction. She currently resides in Tempe, AZ with her even nerdier fiancee and a mastiff mix who thinks he’s a lapdog. She tweets occasionally @spacermase.