Student Essay Contest

I Wanted to be an Astronaut

2015 AWM Essay Contest: Undergraduate Level Honorable Mention

By: Mackenzie Carlson Dartmouth College (Hanover, New Hampshire)

“I wanted to be an astronaut,” Robyn Millan, associate professor of physics at Dartmouth College, says from her office in Wilder, just steps away from the school’s snow-covered astronomical observatory. When she was young, her Coast Guard father showed her the stars, the small twinkling lights that never changed even as her family moved all over the country. But when her elementary school self saw a picture of an astronaut in a book, she decided that she wanted to be the first woman on the moon.
Growing up during NASA’s shuttle missions and inspired by women like Sally Ride surely sparked Millan’s love of science. She hasn’t only been intrigued by space, though. As a child, while her family lived in Maryland, she often visited the Smithsonian Museum to marvel at its collection of rocks and gems. So, she began collecting rocks and dreamed of being a geologist. A few years later, her family re-located to Hawaii, which Millan hoped would be a volcano-infested geological paradise. Unfortunately, the island that she lived on had no active volcanoes, so she set out to be an orthopedic surgeon.
High school came and went, and at this time Millan lived in sunny California. She remained there and completed her undergraduate and graduate degrees at UC Berkeley. Although now she happily lives in rural New Hampshire, her time at Berkeley truly shaped who she is today.
“I did really poorly in my first college physics class.” Although, as a child, Millan pursued the sciences because she was good at them (and, of course, she enjoyed the subjects), she came to the brutal realization during her freshman year as an undergraduate that visualizing mechanical systems was really not her forte. Struggling academically and unsure about her future, she just decided to keep moving forward. Her next class, a lab-based course in observational astronomy, allowed her hands-on learning, a chance to write computer code, and a welcoming network of peers and mentors. Although the work was still very difficult, just being surrounded by post-docs, professors, undergrads and grad students who loved their work and were excited about physics and astronomy was really encouraging to Millan. These people gave her the support that she needed to recognize her skill in astronomy and physics, and they gave her confidence to persevere through any challenges she might face in academia.
“Ultimately,” she said, “in anything you do, you will reach a point where things get hard. You’re going to have bad days, and you have to know that you can push through it. Failure is not necessarily a bad thing.” For her, failure is exactly the thing that made her most successful. Having experience at failing while she was an undergrad made her better able to cope with disappointments when she got older.
Through her challenges in mechanics, she learned to rely more on mathematics than her own intuition. She says, “Math is a common language that we use to very precisely describe things. It is easier to understand physics through the math.” As a result, Millan was able to excel in her electricity and magnetism physics courses, using mathematical concepts to drive her understanding. Once you know how to describe physics using math, she notes, you can discover something new about how a system behaves under different circumstances. “It helps you probe deeper and explore. Math is creative.”
Encouraged and confident, Millan completed her undergraduate degree in 1995 as a double major in physics and astronomy. She continued at UC Berkeley and completed her Ph.D. in physics in 2002. She found joy in space physics, in particular, and just after completing her Ph.D., she came to Dartmouth as a NASA Space Grant Visiting Young Scientist. In 2005, she became an assistant professor of physics at Dartmouth, and conducted research using balloons to study the earth’s radiation belts. Then in 2011, she became an associate professor, primarily teaching introductory courses in physics to first-year undergraduate students. Currently, she teaches the honors introductory physics sequence and is the principal investigator of BARRELL, a NASA-funded investigation of relativistic electron losses in the earth’s radiation belts.
Now, as an experimentalist, Millan uses mathematics to solve computational models and compare them to her experiments. Even with reliable mathematics, though, she says it is a long road to progress in physics. Tangible results don’t come quickly or frequently. But, while she keeps pushing forward on her experiments, she likes to spend time on hobbies that have more immediate outcomes: she likes to play guitar, cook, and make crafts like jewelry, origami, and pottery. Primarily, though, she does search-and- rescue with her two dogs, Siggy and Finn.
While her dogs are not eligible to become astronauts, Professor Millan still is. Each day in the physics department brings opportunities to explore the unknown and dive deeper into topics than ever before. No doubt, Millan has the persistence and patience to overcome challenges. Maybe being the first woman to visit Mars wouldn’t be so unreasonable.
About the Student:
Mackenzie is a 3rd year engineering and mathematics student at Dartmouth College and former NASA intern. An explorer at heart, she has a passion for research and the great outdoors (and coffee, because it fuels all of her endeavors).