Profiles of Astronomers: Aomawa Shields

Aomawa_Shields_studio_hires

Credit: Martin Cox

Who are you and where are you from?

My name is Aomawa Shields, and I’m an NSF Astronomy and Astrophysics Postdoctoral Fellow and a UC President’s Postdoctoral Fellow at UCLA and at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (I don’t actually commute back and forth every week, or even every month, but spend the academic years at UCLA and the summers at Harvard). I’m also a TED Fellow, and a proud UW grad Astronomy alum. I’m originally from Berkeley, CA, but I’ve lived all over, mainly on the East and West coasts.

How did you become interested in Astronomy?

When I was 12 years old my 7th grade class was shown the movie Space Camp about a bunch of kids at Space Camp who get accidentally launched into space on the Space Shuttle. I decided that day that I wanted to be an astronaut and an astronomer.

If you’re an astronomer, what do you study?

I study the possible climates of potentially habitable planets in multiple-planet systems orbiting low-mass stars, using computer models and observational data.

What’s the coolest thing (not literal) in the Universe?

The fact that there are hundreds of billions of stars in our galaxy alone, and there are hundreds of billions of galaxies in the observable universe, means that there are a lot of planets out there. Like Jodie Foster said in the movie Contact, “If it’s just us, seems like an awful waste of space.” Knowing that it is likely that there is at least one other habitable planet out there that is actually inhabited by some form of life is just the coolest thing ever, and it’s one of the main things keeping me going in this field. I want to find that planet.

What’s the coolest thing outside of your field?

I recently learned that astronomers discovered a supermassive black hole residing at the center of a very tiny, ultra compact dwarf galaxy. This is changing the way we think about how galaxies form and evolve. We thought the largest galaxies would have the largest black holes. But that may not be the case. Or large galaxies might undergo some pretty violent stripping of their stars by passing neighbors. It’s exciting to think about. Also, landing a spacecraft on a comet is just freakin’ awesome.

What is your favorite non-astronomy hobby?

Well, I left astronomy for a long time to train and work as an actor. Though I work in astronomy full-time now, I still love movies and talking about great actors. I also love writing, reading (for fun, not papers!), and traveling with my husband. We both love playing with our two cats and eating great food. I’ve also recently gotten into knitting, and find that very calming. And massages are my thing. I get at least one per month, and may step it up to 2x/month now that I can do that. They’re wonderful. Spas are heaven. They really are my “mothership” to use a Legally Blonde reference.

Is there anything else you’d like the public to know about you?

I used to have a subscription to the magazines Sky and Telescope and Glamour. That pretty much sums me up in a nutshell. I’m a glamorous astronomer (I hope!). Now I just get Glamour, because, well, it’s mostly all astronomy all the time, and a girl’s gotta have a little fashion in her life.

Also, I’m on a mission to encourage people not to settle in life. Do the thing that you most love to do, in spite of the negative voices that might tell you it’s too late or you’re not good enough. Don’t listen. It’s never too late. Like Nike says, “Just do it”. And make it your own. There’s no one way. Ever.

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