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A (Ful)bright Future

Neue Anfänge

Olivia Wilkins

Today (July 27, 2015) marks the day I embark once again to explore the invisible universe (auf Deutsch).

Today, my husband Alex and I leave Hanover, Pennsylvania, to live in the country that inspired the names of the places we grew up. For us, this is a time of remarkable neue Anfänge; we begin our lives together in a foreign country, learning a foreign language, living in foreign cities.

Over the next year, I will continue my studies of astrochemistry at the Universität zu Köln through a Fulbright grant. As a Fulbright scholar, I will research complex molecules hypothesized to exist in the spaces beyond our solar system.

This is a journey I began about 18 years ago.

I was six years old the first time my family traveled through the Blue Ridge Mountains in West Virginia. Rising above the tall trees that filled the landscape were massive satellite dishes. Even at six, I knew there was something peculiar about these white giants. I remember crudely outlining two or three of these large dishes in my sketchpad, imprinting the awe-inspiring image in my mind.

Twelve years later, my family returned to the area to investigate the complex that had caught my gaze so many years before. The “satellite dishes” as I had called them were actually radio telescopes—large metal contraptions that explored the invisible universe from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in Green Bank, West Virginia. During my visit, I learned how the telescopes served as receivers to collect radio emissions from distant stars and gas clouds, allowing radio astronomers to study the physical make-up of the vast spaces beyond our solar system. The most remarkable thing I learned about the NRAO, however, was that having an astronomy degree was not a prerequisite for being an astronomer. For instance, engineers maintain telescope structural integrity and give advice regarding observation parameters. Physicists apply equations and theories to assess an astronomical object’s state. Moreover, chemists use spectroscopic techniques to learn about molecules in gas clouds. The interdisciplinary nature of radio astronomy inspired me to pursue a path in which I could incorporate my various academic interests.

The Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope (GBT)
National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO)
Green Bank, West Virginia

In the summer of 2013, I returned to Green Bank a third time, but this time to work my dream job. I experienced first-hand the interdisciplinary nature of radio astronomy research that had so intrigued me in the first place. This experience greatly influenced my goals in continuing my education and research. I was the only non-physics, -astronomy, or -engineering student. Despite this, my understanding of astronomy as a chemistry student was not considered inferior, only different, showing me the appreciation for considering perspectives from a variety of disciplines. I also seized several opportunities to present my research, perhaps the most rewarding of which was a presentation to more than 30 high school students. This interaction made me realize the value of not only public outreach, but outreach that is engaging, that inspires audiences to get excited about the problems at hand. Finally, despite a small population of 134 in Green Bank, I was constantly interacting with scientists from all around the world and learning that collaborations across international borders are imperative for enhanced critical analysis and maximum scientific productivity.

After Green Bank, I became increasingly interested in radio astronomy efforts around the world, prompting me to visit several radio telescopes during my semester abroad. One of these telescopes was the Radioteleskop Effelsberg in Germany. After some research about the radio astronomy community in Cologne, I became even more excited about the discipline and the global values of engagement and collaboration within the research community. I was also intrigued by the rich culture of the region and by the prospect of working and living in Cologne.

And now, after a (very) lengthy application and months of crossing my fingers, I'm off to do just that.

 

The comments in this blog are not endorsed by the Fulbright Commission in any way.