Astronomer Paige Godfrey on making space accessible and the mystery of brown dwarfs

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Jul 20, 2017

Today I’d like you to meet the amazing Paige Godfrey, who recently graduated with her Ph.D. in physics. She directs the Research Department at Slooh.com, which is an online community with the goal of giving everyone access to space. As a space science and tech writer who entered into the field because of my passion for space, I especially love this mission; space should be accessible to everyone. Paige was kind enough to give us some of her time and talk about Slooh, progress for women in STEM, and the mystery of brown dwarfs (they’re higher mass than planets, but lower mass than stars — so what are they?), which is the focus of her current research.

Follow Paige on Twitter at @paigealexisg.

Swapna Krishna: Tell me about your professional life, now that you’re finished with your Ph.D.

Paige Godfrey: I just graduated in this spring of 2017 from the City University of New York with my Ph.D. in physics. I have now started a role as Director of the Research Department at Slooh. Slooh is an astronomy outreach organization that specializes in offering public access to observe the night sky through Slooh's network of ground-based telescopes. The Research Department is brand new, and our goal is to bring together the professional and amateur astronomy communities with research collaborations and outreach events.

You could say I juggle multiple roles, because like many scientists, my job isn't just doing science. I dabble in marketing, grant writing, administrative work, managing, while of course doing outreach, research, and mentoring. I also really enjoy doing science writing on the side; currently, I'm a freelance writer for SciShow Space.

SK: How did you decide you wanted to be a scientist?

PG: My path to becoming a scientist started when I was 10 years old in the fourth grade. My teacher had an affinity for science and sparked a passion in me for science as well. Since then I had even more great science teachers and I loved the idea of spending my life asking questions. After high school, it was time to pick a science, and I saw chemistry, biology, and physics as my options. Since I didn't do so hot in chemistry and couldn't stomach the human body dissections of becoming a medical doctor, which is what I wanted to do if I went the bio route, I picked physics and particularly astronomy.

I majored in physics in graduate school because my school didn't offer an astronomy degree, but my research was in astronomy. All of the physics fields fascinate me, especially quantum mechanics, but none of them clicked with me the way studying space did. When graduation was approaching, I really struggled with figuring out what I wanted to do. I like teaching, but I really enjoy it most when the audience is there voluntarily. So I asked everyone I could get in touch with if there was a job somewhere that combined outreach with research. The stars finally aligned for me and I found Slooh.

SK: Can you speak specifically about your journey as a woman in the sciences? Have you ever been treated differently because you’re a woman?

PG: My undergraduate institution was definitely guilty of having only a 10% female physics department. Interestingly, though, that never bothered me. I can't say it was ideal, and certainly it isn't fair, but I had a good cohort of classmates that didn't treat me differently. Occasionally the "Well, it's because you're a woman" comment would creep in, but I heard that in other areas of my life, too, not just in physics, so it didn't really affect me. My undergraduate advisor happened to be female, and she warned me of potential graduate school issues I could face as a woman, but it didn't make much sense at the time.

In graduate school, the female-to-male ratio remained the same, but the community around me was not as accepting of it. Going to school in NYC had a lot to do with it. The energy here is so inclusive and intolerant to discrimination. I began to learn that there is a movement in astronomy to make the field more equal and accepting of all genders, cultures, and abilities, and I realized how jaded I was to grow up believing it would always be a male-dominated field. I also had a female thesis advisor, and between her and my undergraduate advisor, I was so fortunate. I was able to watch them be amazing scientists, educators, and mentors, plus mothers, wives, friends, and family. The most influential people in my journey always told me to go for it. My surroundings were optimal, but many women aren't as lucky.

SK: Talk to me a little about your current research.

PG: My current research is an extension of my thesis work and focuses on brown dwarf and exoplanet atmospheres. Brown dwarfs are substellar objects. They are not massive enough to be considered stars, but they lie between the lowest-mass stars and the highest-mass planets like Jupiter and resemble the atmospheres of high-mass planets. Because they're more massive than gas giant planets, they are also brighter. And since they actually probably form like stars, we see brown dwarfs floating all by themselves in space, whereas planets are stuck being out-shined by their star. So their brightness and their loneliness make brown dwarfs really awesome analogs for studying gas giant planets, because we can actually see them and see them well!

At Slooh, my research will begin to take a spin in another direction, as I help foster the relationship between professional astronomers and amateur astronomers. Our members are discovering comets, asteroids, supernovae, and taking beautiful images and measuring space motions of objects all around the solar neighborhood. I will help facilitate delving deeper into these projects and connecting them to ongoing projects in the professional world.

SK: What’s your favorite part of your job at Slooh?

PG: My favorite part of my job is the fact that I can't pick a favorite part! When I tell you this was a dream job, I truly mean it. I love that I get to stay active in the research community, attending local and international conferences and doing research at the American Museum of Natural History in NYC, and I also love that I get to share my passion with a community that wants to share it too. It feels amazing to work for a company that has a mission I believe in. It's also really fun that I get to work in both the bustling city of NYC and then travel to our headquarters, which sits on a 200-acre farm in Connecticut. Last time I was there, a black bear was walking around our cars!

SK: Do you have any advice for young women — or even women who are looking at a second career — about becoming a scientist?

PG: Do your best not to let the obstacles keep you from achieving your goal, unless, of course, you decide to change your goal in the process. It's a tricky field, but with the right mentors, you can go far. If your advisor isn't the best mentor for you, don't be afraid to find a second mentor. Your mentor doesn't have to be your advisor. Also, find solace in your college peers. They can be your steady footing when the journey is shaky.

Be confident. You got to where you are because you worked hard and earned it. And you will achieve the next step the same way. I would also advise keeping your mind open when it comes to finding a career, and don't let the field force you into academia if that isn't your dream. There are many other career options out there for scientists, both in the field and out of the field. Just trust yourself. 

SK: What’s one thing you want people to know about being a scientist?

PG: I think something else that's important to know, which is often ignored, is that we are normal people! We have social lives, we dine at restaurants and read books and shop at the mall and watch TV. We play sports and instruments and have hobbies and are parents and spouses, and we don't always have the answer to someone's question. People sometimes think of a scientist as someone holed up in their attic that only sees the sunlight when they have to get the mail. So not true! My favorite things to do outside of astronomy are teaching dance classes, snuggling with my kitties, and spending time with my husband, friends, and family. It's nice to have things to go home to after a day at the office. It's a reminder that we're human, too.