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I step through the silence towards the metal doors, bathed in the fluorescent glow that accompanies me to my destination. The air gets colder. I stare at my breath, now a cloud, and move through the stale, unflattering light onto the platform. The pure white dome beckons to me–silent, promising–and I step inside. Admiring the giant in the room–a solitary, intimidating block of metal and glass–I know it is my friend. Life floods in, and as the roof splits in half, my lonely, dignified giant swivels on its mount, letting me peer into its eyepiece. Smiling at the sparse walls of the William and Mary observatory, I feel myself shift from observer to researcher-the transformation I live for.
Ever since kindergarten, I can remember deep slumbers giving way to giggles and whispers, sleepy shoe tying, and grass-soaked backs at 1 AM. First came the knock at my door, then the sweet anticipation of another meteor shower as I capered down the stairs into the yard. Against the backdrop of the Milky Way, shooting stars flew everywhere. I asked so many questions, I often fell asleep mid-sentence: “Why didn’t they touch down in the yard? What makes them so fast? Why do there have to be clouds? They ruin everyth-” …out cold and carried to bed by dad. The next morning at breakfast, I would create lines of shooting stars with my Cheerios on my placemat of subatomic particles, and chatter incessantly about burning hunks of rock in the upper atmosphere. Who could blame me for falling in love with the Universe?
As I progressed through school, I became enchanted by the mystery of distant galaxies, constellations, and nebulae- all things out of this world. I pored over The Astrophysical Journal, A&A, even old Sagan manuscripts. However, I remained a bystander; a stargazer- until my summer trip to Oregon for a visit with family. The planets shifted.
I can still feel the dust thick in the air; hear the whirring, chewing and grinding of machinery around me. My uncle, an avid woodworker, was showing me the ropes of his impressive shop. He caught me staring into space, and asked, “So what do you love doing, Tanya?” “I like looking at stars,” I replied, without missing a beat. “Just looking?” he replied. “You know, thinking is wonderful, but making an impact is even better.” It was as if his words awakened me from a trance. “Can I see those goggles?”
Suddenly, I had an irresistible urge to begin building.
It was not enough anymore to love the stars all by myself-the wonder was too grand a gift to keep. I had to share it. So, I applied all I knew, and created a program that enables amateur astronomers to inexpensively analyze emission spectra of stars with pinpoint accuracy. To my delight, it was nationally honored at the Junior Science and Humanities Symposium, and has also been implemented as an instructive tool for the Williamsburg Astronomy Society.
Working in the observatory, I was able to take photos critical to the testing and troubleshooting of my program, specifically optimizing error reduction and evaluating the negative effects of photo exposure. But more importantly, I discovered my calling–the formalized poking and prodding of scientific research.
My experience at the observatory also motivated my past summer at the High School Honors Science Program (MSU). During seven weeks of snack-filled, seemingly eternal nights, I theorized an efficient and versatile quantum electrical component, and so advanced the future of high power computing. I hope, one day, to help perfect the tools with which we study our precious Universe.
Debugging code and fiddling with focus knobs, I discovered my place in the world–striving to understand the impossible. I will always be the awestruck little girl sprawled out underneath the Milky Way; but now, I observe with the spirit of a true scientist.Published in