SciComm, Space, Spectacular Scientists

Spectacular Scientists: Laci Brock

This time on Spectacular Scientists, I got to interview Laci (you may know her as @stellerarts on Instagram)! She is an astrophysicist and planetary scientist (how cool!!) studying the atmosphere of brown dwarfs in binary systems.

Jade: Congratulations on submitting your paper! What was it about?

Laci: My research is on the atmospheres of substellar objects called brown dwarfs. I study the clouds in their atmospheres. 

Science Break!

Brown Dwarfs are astronomical objects that are bigger than planets, but smaller than stars. The temperature and pressure don’t get high enough for hydrogen to fuse into helium like in ‘real’ stars like the sun, but high enough for their atmospheres to behave really weird- they even have clouds made of metals! There’s a lot to learn, and Laci’s research will help us understand more about them!

Image result for brown dwarf

J: So you’re currently doing your PhD, what led you to academia?

L: I’ve always been fascinated by science and the natural world. I read a lot of books in elementary school about space, the weather, and dinosaurs. I loved to learn! Later in life I realized to learn as much as I could, I would need to pursue a higher education. 

J: How did you decide that astrophysics and planetary science was for you?

L: I was working on my undergraduate degree in atmospheric sciences when my oceanography professor told me about the field of planetary sciences. I honestly had no idea the field existed but realized studying planetary atmospheres would let me combine my interests in atmospheric science and astrophysics. I got involved in exoplanet research my junior year, attended my first scientific conference, and never looked back. 

J: I love your art- you’ve definitely inspired me to start being more creative! How did you come to combine your passions for science and art? 

L: I have been painting my entire life, though I lost touch with art sometime while I was working on my first master’s degree. I started dedicating all my time to science and science education research. Eventually I felt burnt out. A few years ago I reconnected with my art via my department’s annual science art show called The Art of Planetary Science. I participated in the show, submitting my art to a show for the first time, and became a co-organizer of the event. Participating in the show inspired me to keep up with my artistic side. 

A selection of Laci’s paintings from her instagram– she paints digitally, in water colours and in oil!)

J: What inspired you into science communication? 

L: After I started painting regularly again, I challenged myself to learn new mediums (oils, digital art, watercolors). I needed something to hold myself accountable. That is where science communication came in! I realized I could communicate science through my art to share the beauty of the cosmos with others while providing interesting scientific content. I made my art accounts on social media with intentions of sharing art with engaging captions but later began to incorporate more scientific content as well. I wanted to show people you can be an artist and a scientist. My pages are named after one of my favorite birds, the Steller’s Jay, to represent my love of space + birds.

J: Have you always been interested in science? 

L: Yes, my entire life! I wanted to be a meteorologist AND a volcanologist for the longest time when I was a kid. I was disappointed when I got older and realized I couldn’t easily be both. I think that’s why I pursued such an interdisciplinary path in planetary sciences. I had a rock collection, a microscope, kept reptiles as pets, and basically wanted to learn a little bit of everything in science. 

J: I definitely relate to loving lots of different areas of science, I’m glad planetary science lets you do that, I hope I will find my place in a field like that in the future! 

J: Who were your inspirations growing up, and who are they now?

L: I grew up watching Bill Nye the Science Guy and was always inspired by his ability to communicate a diverse range of scientific topics. Today, I am inspired by an extremely talented space artist named Cathrin Machin. Her story of leaving a job she was unhappy with to take a chance creating space art is incredible. It helps remind me your passions can be turned into success if you work hard enough, and it is never too late to change your mind (or take a chance). 

J: What’s your favourite thing about working in science? 

L: I love being able to work on cutting-edge research using some of the greatest technology in the world. It’s incredible that I get to study objects that don’t even exist in our own Solar System! 

J: What’s your ​least​ favourite thing about working in science? 

L: The culture in academia can be challenging and isolating. It often feels like you have to work yourself into the ground to be successful, which isn’t healthy. 

J: What’s your favourite thing to do outside of science? 

L: I love to paint, obviously, but when I am not creating art my next passion is probably bird watching. I got into birding after a car accident during grad school left me unable to walk for 6 months. All I could do was stare out the window. I hung a hummingbird feeder and realized there were so many beautiful birds in Northern Arizona where I lived at the time. I actively participate in citizen science through Cornell’s eBird platform to help gather data on bird activity and migration. Other than birding, I love playing video games and watching anime. 

J: Its really cool how you turned something bad into something positive! With all the time I spend watching birds out my window while doing school from home at the minute, thanks for sharing that resource, I will have to start submitting my observations!

Laci has travelled across the US (even to Hawaii!!) to add to her birding list- this photo is from her website, where you can see the cool places she’s been!

J: What’s the coolest thing you’ve done while studying? 

L: Early in my PhD program my research group travelled to Hawaii to observe exoplanets on one of the largest ground-based telescopes! The actual observations took place remotely in a small Hawaiian city, but we were able to travel to the top of Mauna Kea and get a behind-the-scenes tour of the W. M. Keck Twin Telescopes.

Image result for keck telescope
The Keck telescopes in Hawaii are the world’s largest ground based visible and infra red observing telescopes!

J: Who paved the way for your research? 

L: Dr. Jay Melosh, definitely. He took me on as an undergraduate research assistant during my time at Purdue University and set me up on a career path to pursue a doctorate in planetary sciences. Working with him allowed me to participate in research meetings with graduate students and presenting my research at scientific conferences. I feel like I got a taste of graduate school before I applied. He recently passed away, and I have been devastated. 

J: He sounds like he was a great mentor, I’m so sorry for your loss.

Image result for dr jay melosh
Dr Jay Melosh

J: Do you have a favourite female scientist from your field? Past or present!

L: I honestly don’t! I think every female scientist has their own unique journey, so it is hard to choose just one. The beauty of science is in its diversity and what different perspectives bring to the table. I admire them all! 

J: What are your Top Tips for aspiring scientists? 

L: Don’t take no for an answer! Being a woman or minority in STEM is challenging. I was lucky to be raised by a single dad who always supported my scientific interests. I never faced anyone telling me I couldn’t be a scientist until I arrived at college. I slowly started to realize there were people around me who felt like I didn’t belong. Don’t let anyone else tell you what you’re capable of. 

J: Would you go to space if you got the chance? Where would be your dream destination?

L: I would love to go to space! Just to visit as a tourist though- I couldn’t handle being one of the first people to Mars. I’d love to see some of the different kinds of exoplanet/object we’ve discovered, in person: brown dwarfs, super earths, and hot Jupiters!

Image result for exoplanets

J: And finally- What is your favourite fact about space? 

L: Ahhh, so hard to choose! In the atmospheres of some giant exoplanets and brown dwarfs, the temperatures allow iron in the atmosphere to condense into clouds. That means it could actually rain liquid iron!

Thank you so much Laci! Good luck with finishing your PhD, you’ve got this!

Make sure to go follow Laci on Instagram– her art is brilliant, and she shares awesome posts about space- I especially love her reels! She is a big inspiration for me as she studies one of my favourite areas of science, so it was so cool to get to interview her!

One of my favourite series of artwork from Laci is her space birds- this is a *stellar* Steller Jay, for which her account is named!

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