In this series of posts, we sit down with a few of the keynote speakers of the 236th AAS meeting to learn more about them and their research. You can see a full schedule of their talks here, and read our other interviews here!
The Path of a Star
Our solar system is not alone in the cosmos. It is hurtling around the center of the Milky Way at over 500,000 miles per hour, surrounded by rogue stars and towering columns of gas and dust. Every so often, some of these stars may fly close enough to our solar system to create gravitational interactions that change the story of our little patch of the universe. These “stellar flybys” are a new and exciting mystery for Jackie Faherty, Senior Scientist and Senior Education Manager at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York City, and part of the range of topics Faherty will discuss in her talk, “Our Dynamic Solar Neighborhood”. Perhaps Faherty’s interest in this topic partly stems from being able to relate to the way our solar system has been transformed by such flybys; after all, the same thing happened to her as an undergraduate.
Making “Contact” with Astronomy
Faherty had never taken a physics class before entering college. Going into the University of Notre Dame, she had her sights set on a career in business. Until, that is, she went into a movie theater to see the movie “Contact”. “I walked into the movie theater with one thought about life,” she says, “and I walked out with a 180 and I never turned back… I walked out because I saw Jodie Foster as this female lead. And I thought, ‘Women at the helm of a field, which is unlocking the secrets of the universe! That’s what I want to do. I’m going to do that.’”
From then on, Faherty was all in for physics. She signed up for all of the physics classes that she needed to change her field of study sophomore year, being placed in the advanced courses for physics majors. However, she struggled at first with the high-level review in these courses given that she had no prior experience with the field. “I needed an intro class and I didn’t have it, so I was bad at it. And so I was told to leave. I was not encouraged to stay in physics at the end of my sophomore year,” she says.
This did not deter her. Faherty knew she had the skills and the determination to excel in physics; she just needed to catch up. After some research, she found a course that summer at Columbia University that would teach her the introductory material she needed. There were a few obstacles though: Columbia was an hour drive from her house, and she couldn’t afford to take the class or get the textbook. Again, Faherty didn’t let this stop her. She convinced the professor to let her sit in on the course and give her a copy of the textbook, driving two hours every Monday through Thursday that summer to take the three hour course.
Back at Notre Dame, Faherty’s grades began to improve. The Cs of sophomore year were soon replaced with Bs that in turn gave way to As. At the end of her undergraduate career, Faherty was presented with the prestigious “Prize for Outstanding Research by a Physics Major” by the same professor who had told her to drop the major back in sophomore year.
A Stellar (Or Planetary?) Career
While stellar flybys in the Gaia era are a novel area of research for Faherty, her main research interest has been the transition between stars and planets: when do celestial bodies have enough mass to start fusion and become a star? She is an expert on brown dwarfs, substellar objects that are more massive than giant planets but less massive than the least massive stars. She co-leads the Brown Dwarfs in New York City (BDNYC) research group with Drs. Kelle Cruz and Emily Rice.
In particular, Faherty believes recent missions like Gaia will enable us to learn much about the star formation history around our Sun. This, in turn, will give us clues about the lowest mass stars. “What happens at the bottom of star formation and the top of planet formation?” Faherty wonders. “Where is the end? Is there one? Or is it a continuum? I think it’s a mystery and it’s a good one because it tells you a lot about planet formation.”
Faherty has helped lead the field towards an answer with her research, particularly through the Brown Dwarf Kinematics Project (BDKP) she began in 2006 to study all of the known brown dwarfs within 20 parsecs of our sun and a few more unique, distant objects. However, there also might be many low-mass objects waiting to be found right outside our front door! One example of this is WISE 0855-0714, which is a sub-brown dwarf discovered in 2014 that resides only a little over 7 light years away from Earth. It has a temperature of around 250 Kelvin, making it the coldest object of its type discovered in interstellar space.
“It really makes me wonder, ‘Is the galaxy teeming with these things?’” Faherty asks. “You can also get objects that are ejected from planetary systems. I’d love to have an infrared Gaia that would open up our eyes to these invisible cold objects that might well be absolutely everywhere.”
Seeing All Sides
As both a Senior Scientist and Senior Education Manager, Faherty doesn’t restrict herself to just the scientific implications of her work. With every project she does, Faherty says, “My brain goes, ‘This is the high end science that we get. And this is how we reach the general audience, the high schooler, the middle school kid, and the young kid.’” How can one learn to apply the same methodology to their own work? Faherty has one word: practice. “One thing that is hard advice, but I’ll always do it, is that I record or have recorded a lot of my talks. And I compare them. I look at how I’ve done it and how I am.” After doing this enough, she says that you can start to learn to read the room and figure out where your presentations and projects need more or less explanation.
For those who dream of having a scientific career like Faherty’s, she has a very important message: don’t forget the human side of science. Faherty says that a major way she has avoided feelings of burnout is by never deprioritizing a person in her life that needs her help. “I know how flexible being a scientist is. And so I have no problem taking work, deprioritizing it, and heading off to help…Nothing from your personal world should ever fall down or fall short because of work,” she says. She applies this same philosophy to her research group. Faherty argues that mentorship is “about forming a relationship where you show them that the life of a scientist doesn’t have to just be about the science.”
Faherty truly recognizes how dynamic life can be for a scientist. It is therefore of little surprise that she and her group are at the forefront of research aimed at understanding the dynamic environment in which our solar system resides. Come check out Dr. Faherty’s talk, “Our Dynamic Solar Neighborhood”, on Wednesday, June 3rd at 12:40 PM at #AAS236!