As children, we are often asked what we want to be when we grow up. For Second Century Initiative Fellow Alexandra Yep, the answer was easy. She knew she wanted to be an astronomer. Intrigued by the light of the stars and the words of J.R.R. Tolkien, Yep became an avid star gazer. But her road to becoming an astronomer would be nowhere near easy. In fact, it almost didn’t happen.
Yep, from Calgary in Alberta, Canada, began her college career at Emerson College in Boston where she received her Bachelor of Fine Arts in Writing Literature and Publishing. She later attended California State at Northridge where she obtained her Master’s degree in Physics with a concentration in Astrophysics. She is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Astronomy at Georgia State University.
Yep was introduced to astronomy at a very early age. She said her love for astronomy can be credited to writers Tolkien and H.A. Ray, whose books left an impressionable mark on the young star gazer.
“J.R.R. Tolkien is the reason why I chose to study astronomy. The way he talked about stars in his books was just really cool to me,” said Yep. “I also owe some credit to H.A. Rey and his book, The Stars: A New Way to See Them. I looked at the science section of the book, saw the constellations and my mind was just blown. I’ve never really gotten over it. It kind of just stuck with me.”
Yep said that she has always been interested in astronomy but admits that she almost chose a different career path after being told astronomy was not a “real” career.
“I’ve always loved the stars, but I didn’t practice astronomy in undergrad. I was just a casual star gazer. The problem was, my dad told me astronomy was not a career. I was around 6 or 7 at the time so it shouldn’t have affected me, but he told me it wasn’t a real career because it’s not a really well-known career,” said Yep. “It’s not something that a lot of people do, and I was very young, so I didn’t question it. I just decided to do something else instead.”
So, she decided to venture down a different career path. She initially began her undergraduate degree with the goal of becoming a lawyer. It was when she started applying for law internships that she realized she had no passion for the practice.
“I started to realize that I was not interested in this and that it was really boring,” said Yep. I realized that it wasn’t very important in a very grand sense and I just wasn’t interested in those little details at all.”
It wasn’t until her senior year at Emerson that she decided to make a career switch.
“I was going for a walk with my boyfriend and out of nowhere, he turned to me and said, ‘Alex, space is the new frontier.’ And I thought about it and decided he was right,” said Yep. “I called my parents that night and told them I didn’t want to be a lawyer anymore. I wanted to be an astronomer. I finished my undergrad degree because I was close to finishing it and then I switched over to science.”
She says the switch is the best decision she’s ever made.
Yep ultimately credits her decision to attend Georgia State to pursue her doctorate degree because of the reputation of the university’s stellar astronomy program. She does admit; however, that her boyfriend residing in Atlanta played a significant role in her decision-making process.
“Georgia State has one of the best stellar astronomy programs in the country. I’ve always been interested in studying young stars and I really believe Georgia State is the perfect place to do that,” said Yep. “My boyfriend also lives here so both of those things were very important things that I considered when I was making my decision.”
Yep is researching the formation of young stars in the Gum Nebula, an emission nebula that extends across the southern constellations. Southern constellations reside south of the equator and can be better seen from the southern hemisphere. According to Yep, the formation of these stars is specifically interesting because unlike most stars, these stars formed with the help of an external force: other stars.
“Whereas a lot of stars form from just a huge clump of gas and dust, these stars formed in a smaller clump with the help of external energy coming in from some nearby hot stars. These hot stars shined on these clumps of gas, producing a high radiation environment that helped them collapse into stars,” said Yep. “We’re interested in seeing if the stars formed in this high radiation environment would look any different from the stars formed in this typical, gravity based, big cloud of gas and dust.”
After she earns her Ph.D., Yep says she would love to teach astronomy and conduct more research. She says the financial assistance of the 2CI has helped her tremendously.
“It helps me eat and that’s really a huge help,” said Yep. “The less time I have to spend chasing dollars, the more time I can spend researching.”
For students interested in pursuing a fellowship or doctorate degree, Yep has this advice: start early.
“Do well in school. Good grades do count for something and they can have a huge payoff,” said Yep. “Also, make sure you do pick something you like and if you figure out you don’t like it, go ahead and switch. It’s not worth sticking around if you know you’re on the wrong path.”
– Kiana Colquitt, Graduate Administrative Assistant, Office of the Provost