Laura Peticolas

Space Sciences Lab, UC Berkeley

My dad was a professor of Chemistry and is a person who loves science in general, so I was exposed to science during most of my childhood. Until sixth grade, however, being a scientist wasn't my only idea. I also considered being an architect, a firewoman, a high school teacher, a veterinarian, a professional french horn player, and several other professions. Then, in the sixth grade, I had a substitute teacher for a week. He was very interested in astronomy and taught us something about astronomy every day. These lessons were my favorite lessons of the day. From that week forward I knew that I wanted to be an astronomer.

I got a lot of support from science teachers regarding my new career path, many of whom felt it would be great to have more women in astronomy. In ninth grade, I took a career development class where we were tested to find out what skills we had and what professions would match those skills. With the skills I had, astronomy came up as a possible profession. That made me very happy indeed! To get an A in this class I had to interview people in the profession I wanted to go into. So, I scheduled interviews with astronomers at the University of Oregon (in Eugene where I grew up).

The first astronomer was super excited about the prospects of my becoming an astronomer. He said that I should study physics first, however, since astronomy is all based on physics. The second astronomer told me that women were not good at physics or astronomy and he didn't think it was really worth my time to try and become an astronomer! He did say, as a qualifier, that if I really wanted to try, maybe I would be an exception. What a shock!

Luckily the first astronomer had been so supportive and the second astronomer seemed so ridiculous in his thoughts that I didn't take him too seriously. The third astronomer asked if I liked math. I said that I did. He said that was good because all he did all day was math! That sounded fun to me.

After these interviews, I decided I wanted to be an astrophysicist since physics seemed to be such an important part of the astronomy. So, I took the first astronomer's advice and decided to start with physics. In high school I took all the science classes I could and reached calculus my senior year. What I remember most about taking physics and calculus at the same time was just how connected the two were. Learning is always more fun for me when I find connections in two seemingly different fields. The connection between physics and calculus was especially fun for me. I didn't know at that point that calculus was largely created by a physicist, Isaac Newton!

I was looking forward even more to studying physics in college. I went to the University of Oregon, Honors College. The physics department tried to get me to drop the honors college because I had to take so many English and history classes in the Honors College that they thought it would disrupt my physics studies. However, I enjoyed having a broad education and finished my degree within the Honors College.

When I was a junior in college, I applied to summer positions at universities with the Research for the Education of Undergraduates (REU) program. I was accepted at Utah State, not to study astronomy but to study the ionosphere. I did not even know what the ionosphere was when I went to Utah! It was the REU program that led me, then, to study space physics rather than astronomy.

I received a B.A. degree from the University of Oregon in physics and math. After four and a half years of studying, I decided I needed time off from school. I knew that I wanted to go back to get a Ph.D. in physics but I wasn't ready to do that right away. This was especially apparent since I applied to four top-notch physics graduate schools and did not get accepted to any of them. I took off to the mountains to ski and work at the ski-lodge cafeteria with my sister. After a winter of skiing, I adventured to Alaska with some people I had met at the ski resort. We cleaned fish and the fisheries, camped, hiked and had a great time. I fell in love with Alaska and wanted to find a way to live there. I also knew that I was getting ready to go back to get my physics degree. So, I looked to see if Alaska had a physics graduate program. They did!  

In August, 2000, I received a Ph.D. in Physics from the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, after studying how auroral electrons caused the light of a specific type of aurora known as flickering aurora. In addition to performing science research on the aurora, I now work to share NASA science with students, teachers, and the public. This work involves many diverse projects from designing lessons around physics concepts important in space physics discoveries to working with the Berkeley music department to map solar wind data to music.


Multiverse skin is based on Greytness by Adammer