Aomawa Shields: Life in Unlikely Places
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because when’s the last time you read about an astrobiologist?
By Taylor Mayol
The stars, they do align — but usually in a way that you could never have fathomed.
Eighteen years ago, Aomawa Shields had an undergrad degree in planetary sciences from MIT and had put in a year on a doctorate in astrophysics, but she dropped out to pursue another passion: acting. She was looking for her big break in L.A. and answering phones at Caltech to support herself when, on a whim, she auditioned for a public-television science show. Surprise! Shields was chosen to host.
But the big break, in her telling, came in a phone call with, um, a star — an especially luminous one named Neil deGrasse Tyson. Degrasse Tyson, she says, told her to buckle down and commit to that Ph.D. or else she’d just be another pretty face who wanted to be on TV. Shields says now it was just what she had needed to hear.
Fast-forward a few years, and the 40-year-old Dr. Shields is among an elite cadre of astronomers on the most whimsical of quests: finding life on other planets. More than that, Shields is looking in a way that few had thought to. Some assume that in order to support life, planets must be a certain distance from the star they orbit. But Shields figured that a planet’s atmosphere and climate matter at least as much. So she spends her days making models that predict the climates of planets trillions of miles of away, asking whether they might be suitable for life, as she describes in her TED Talk above. One of her big findings: Planets orbiting cooler stars can actually be warmer than those orbiting hotter stars.
One day, she hopes, these girls will add to the ranks of African-American women with Ph.D.s in physics or astronomy — fewer than 100, by her count.
Indeed, Shields’s own bio seems to eschew the notion that anything is unlikely. After ducking out of that first Ph.D. program, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she took a decade-long detour, getting an acting degree from UCLA and snagging a role in a film that showed at Sundance. Along the way she worked some odd jobs — waitressing, museum guiding at Griffith Observatory and working the help desk at the vaunted Spitzer Telescope at Caltech. From there, a leap to that PBS science show and then the conversation with deGrasse Tyson. Today she has not one but two prestigious postdoc fellowships on her CV. Shields is “basically the only one” studying the effects of snow and ice on dimmer red stars, says scientist Manoj Joshi, whose work on planetary climate inspired Shields’s own.
As a child, the California native had a tendency to dream up different future careers — Dallas Cowboys cheerleader, orthopedist — and would run to her family’s set of encyclopedias to look up her profession of the day with an ultimately fleeting interest. But that all changed in middle school, when a teacher showed her Space Camp, a movie about kids who accidentally launch into space. The explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger, when Shields was in seventh grade, didn’t dissuade her. She had decided: She’d attend MIT to study planetary sciences (check), get a Ph.D. in astrophysics (check) and apply to NASA (check, check).
She received financial aid to attend the prestigious prep school Exeter, which she says she chose for its observatory. “I was raised with the idea that there was no limit,” says Shields. When Shields was a kid, her mother, who has a Ph.D. in music composition, would drag her to lectures, where she would nod off listening to presentations about musical theory. And she isn’t the first STEM-er in her family either. Her grandmother was a math major at Tennessee State University in the 1930s, the only Black woman. It seems the spirit runs in the family.
Thanks to her acting background, Shields is outgoing in a way that gives her an edge over the more nervous scientific types. As in her TED Talk, Shields likes to describe herself as contradictory — a Black female astronomer who’s an actor and loves fashion magazines — but sometimes those contradictions have triggered her deepest doubts. At Madison, she penned and published a poem that asked: “What do you do when your own mind is your biggest racist?”
So today she holds astronomy workshops with girls just like her seventh-grade self, using theater and writing to show that there’s no one way to be a scientist. In one activity she asks Rising Stargirls to draw a scientist, who often turns out as a white-haired man in a lab coat. Shields is their real-life rebuttal to those stereotypes. One day, she hopes, these girls will add to the ranks of African-American women with Ph.D.s in physics or astronomy — fewer than 100, by her count — so that in the future, girls like her won’t feel an “endangered species,” the way she does.
Next up, though? Perhaps a trip into space. She’s applying to become an astronaut for the third time. This time she’s a little more aware of the costs, but if her past record is any indication — she underwent laser eye surgery just to be eligible the first round — she’ll likely have a hard time saying no if she gets a yes.