Perspective Shift Spurs PhD Student to Teach Middle Schoolers Astronomy and Physics
From a young age, Sabrina DeSoto had a crystal-clear view of how a physicist should be: perfect at math, always logical and 100% sure of everything.
“Initially, I liked the idea of physics because I thought that the answer is always here, it’s right and I can prove things. I thought it was exact, and it would make me sound really smart. I was really excited about that,” says DeSoto, now a PhD student in the College of Natural Science & Mathematics. “As I’ve come into grad school, I’ve learned that it’s anything but exact. We’ve done the same things over and over to make the best approximations we can, but it’s definitely not exact.”
While she says she had excellent science teachers growing up, the higher DeSoto climbs, the more she knows—and the more she realizes she doesn’t know. Now, she wants to make sure young kids with an interest in science are aware they don’t have to be a genius-level mathematician or certain of what they’re doing at every moment to build a career in science. There was a moment deep in DeSoto’s studies where she noticed she was starting to struggle with the math, a new phenomenon for her. That reframed her views on science, education and what’s needed to succeed the field.
With that in mind, DeSoto started an after-school astronomy club at Prairie Middle School in Aurora, working with fellow students Rachel Johnson, Emma Lieb and Christopher Pickens to show future physicists that only two skills are needed: persistence and passion.
“What got me into this field in the first place was that I was very good at math and physics,” DeSoto says. “I had that support from teachers telling me, ‘You’re smart and you should go be an engineer.’ That’s fine and that’s what I thought the subject was, too, just people proving that they’re smart. But now that I’m in the field, I see that it’s not exact, and you don’t need to be a genius in math or science. It’s a lot of creativity and being stubborn. That’s why I wanted to step back and think about who we’re encouraging to get into the field.”
SPACE—which stands for student physics and astronomy club for everyone—focuses on lower-case space, which DeSoto says is “the wow factor that gets kids in” before they sprinkle in broad concepts of physics.
Space is one of science’s trickiest laboratories, offering a rare glimpse through time of massive events on a cosmic scale. Astrophysicists don’t have the advantage of working in a lab where results can be closely observed or physically handled. DeSoto works with professor and astronomer Jennifer Hoffman, focusing on exploding stars. That research coalesced into a recent presentation at the 241st meeting of the American Astronomical Society, which DeSoto says is one of the largest astronomy-focused gatherings in North America. She shared her research on supernova 2012au, showcasing animations she created to highlight the behavior of light around exploding stars, something that adds an extra layer of interpretation.
“We’re always making figures and plots to figure out what we’re doing,” she says. “But I got to make some cool animations to show people this niche field that we’re working in. I think some people were wowed by it, and I really like that it shows how we can present this information that others might overlook in a really interesting way.”
As for what’s next, DeSoto says she initially thought she’d work in the space exploration industry for a large company. But after working with middle schoolers, her future path might have changed.
“I’ve gotten pretty interested in working with these kids. I’m thinking now that I’d be more than happy to teach high school.”