Astronomer and educator Ann Martin’s letter to her 14-year-old self

Dr. Ann Martin (Twitter: @Annie314159) is a postdoctoral fellow at NASA Langley Research Center, working on the NASA Innovations in Climate Education (NICE) project. Cont’d below.

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ann_3rdgrade-1

Dear Annie at 14,

I know the things I want to say to you in this letter would not be the things you would want to ask me. At 14, the world feels impossibly big, and, while people are telling you that you have so many options, so many things you could do with your life, it’s tough for you to have a sense of what that means.

Your parents talk about grad school, and you aren’t sure you know what that means, or that you know anyone who has gone to grad school (though you do!). You love space, but aren’t sure what the options are in that field. You love reading and writing as much as math and science, and it’s a lot easier to see how you could be good at doing something in those fields, so you plan on becoming an English teacher. You don’t know exactly what you really *want* to be, but you’re pretty sure nothing exists that involves writing and communicating and science.

“The job you will have when you are 28 is a job that you don’t know exists at 13.”

But you figure all of that will work itself out, and that your teachers and parents can tell you where to go, and so you want to ask me about life, not about careers.

To get all of that out of the way: there will be friends. There will be love. There will be puppies! You’re not, sadly, going to be an astronaut, though you are about to go to Space Camp twice. Eventually, you’re going to figure out that the people who run Space Camp have the gig you want, and it’s not “astronaut.” But life is going to be good. You don’t need to worry about that nearly as much as you do.

In a little while, an opportunity will come up for you, one that won’t make a lot of sense at the time. Your high school’s computer services department employs students to help set up all the computers in the district each summer, and during the school year those student employees learn to help teachers and staff use new technologies.

“When you are doing this work, there is no divide between the Annie that loves literature and writing and the Annie that loves science and math, because both of them have been invited to the table.”

It’s going to take years for that to transform itself, slowly, into a career path. This is going to be the hard part for you. You’ll spend a lot of nights wishing you could just want a job that has a very clear path between education and employment. You’re going to have a really hard time letting go of that, so you’re going to decide that people who like astronomy get a Ph.D. and become professors. And that’s going to be the right move for you, but not because you’re going to become an astronomer or professor. It’s going to be incredibly frustrating for you.

There are going to be days ahead when you feel that you can’t continue. There will be courses in your undergrad physics major that make you think you certainly don’t belong (and that feeling will be exacerbated by the joke in the physics department that there are more Michaels — 4 of them — than women — just you — in the major). There are going to be months and years in graduate school when you are pushing so hard for that goal of tenured professorship, but your heart is dreading that very idea. And then there are going to be the times when you feel like you could fly, and you have to learn how to stitch those together into your own contribution to science and education and communication.

But the good news is that there’s going to be so much cool stuff along the way, and there’s going to be so much help. Your boss at that high school job, Mr. Vagliardo, is a lot like you, so maybe ask him about this. The physics department is going to hire a cosmologist just when you are realizing that you want to try pursuing astronomy research. The English department is going to keep you going, and you’ll never regret for a moment pursuing both. Your graduate school advisor, Martha, is going to help you in ways innumerable; she sends you to amazing telescopes in Puerto Rico and California, and also provides the support you need to head off to your first conference about science education and outreach. There will women and men that you look up to who become your friends, and friends who grow up into women and men you look up to. All of these people, and many more, and your experiences with them will help you figure out how to have a job that lets you really be you. It feels all over the place for you now, but it all comes together, in time.

— Ann at 28

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Ann graduated from the University at Buffalo with a B.S. in physics and a B.A. in English, then from Cornell University with a Ph.D. in Astronomy in spring 2011. While at Cornell, Ann studied galaxies using the Arecibo Observatory, but also spent a lot of time on projects to engage and inspire adults and kids through astronomy and science, and ultimately decided to pursue science education, outreach and communication rather than astronomical research.

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