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“Astronomer at Night, Zombie Hunter at Day”: A Weird Interview with Grace Wolf-Chase

“Astronomer at Night, Zombie Hunter at Day”: A Weird Interview with Grace Wolf-Chase

If you had to explain to your grandfather what you do your research on what would you say?

So, I will tell him that I study how stars and planets are born. We have discovered in recent years that stars and planets have a lot in common with animals and people! Because they tend to be born more than one at a time…well not like all people… and they are born in groups and clusters and they form when gravity pulls together large clouds into different stars. They are also like people in that when you have a lot of brothers and sisters and you’re sitting around the table you might compete for food. Stars also compete for gas to build up what they eventually become.

What is one of the topics you work on?

I’m interested in how the really young baby prenatal star clusters evolve. The beautiful Orion nebula is a wonderful example of a stellar nursery where new stars are born. The gas in the nebula is lit up by these bright stars that have already been formed. We are interested in knowing what regions like Orion might have looked like a few million years ago.

If I am thinking of a baby before it’s born, I can’t see it but I can look at it through ultrasound to detect it. If I have a dusty cloud in space, like the Orion nebula, in early stages I can’t see into that dusty cloud to see the baby stars but I can use infrared and radio telescope to pear in and see what’s happening. With a human baby you can see inside the mother’s belly and detect if it’s a twin. But with stars, there could be hundreds of pre-natal stars developing in those big dusty clouds.

Those kinds of questions we’re addressing through the Milky Way project, a citizen science project in Zooniverse that has people looking through all sorts of awesome infrared images and telling us what they see in those pictures so we can study really young regions where stars haven’t lit up the gas yet.

Computers are not very good at seeing patterns in images, but people are. So instead of me going through a million images, a million people help me go through a million images through Citizen Science projects.

Great, moving to the weird part. If you could pick any fictional characters, who would you want to be?

Oh man…see, I grew up at a time where most of the fictional characters that I would admire were men and yet even though I admired them I didn’t necessarily want to be just like them. Being a person who watched first generation Star Trek I was really drawn to the character of Lieutenant Uhura. Even though she didn’t have a huge role in the series. She was on the bridge of enterprise. She was an African American woman at a time when you didn’t see women at all whether black or white or any ethnicity, and she was a strong leading figure who went on as her real self and really helped inspire young girls to become astronauts so I would say looking through my little-girl-eyes I just wanted to be like Lieutenant Uhura. I didn’t necessarily want to do communications I wanted to do science so maybe I wanted to be a hybrid of Mr. Spock and Lieutenant Uhura. There’s not one character as much as a mix.

If you could have any fictional pet, what would you choose?

I’d want to have a bunch of Tribbles. So, Tribbles are these little furry Star Trek characters…they purr and they make all sorts of noises and they would be so comforting to go to sleep with and I can have all my Tribbles around me. On Geek days here at Adler Planetarium, I bring a non-living example of them! They make nice noises, like headless, furry cats…but they also eat and replicate a lot. Watch the Star Trek episode Trouble with Tribbles! I’m a tremendous cat person…but I also have always thought it would be cool to have a dog like Lassie who did about everything…OR even better a dolphin friend like Flipper!


If you could hang out with any sitcom family, who would you hang out with?

That’s a no-brainer, Big Bang Theory. I love the characters, each and every one are endearing and I would love to sit on the couch and kick back and drink a beer or be on the set as a guest. I have seen a lot of interesting people on the show.

Who’s your fictional Arch enemy?

I am a really really hardcore Walking Dead Fan…so Negan. I like post-apocalyptic kind of films because I like exploring how people evolve in a situation that is really bad. The end of culture as we know it and the Walking Dead is a show that I think has done an excellent job exploring that. It’s about Zombies, but it’s not really about them, it’s about how people behave towards each other and different groups. Think of the start of civilization all over again and there are people who start out as pretty decent people who wind up as not very decent, likewise, there were people who didn’t do really well in the normal world and discovered the good in their character and the best qualities were brought out. So, Negan, is endearing, a very charming actor who plays a very despicable role…he’s the one with the baseball bat and the chicken wire! This guy has gotten a phenomenally large number of people working for him and it’s still a kind of a mystery how he gets to do that. As the seasons progress, the enemy gets more threatening. This is somebody that has an army that is controlled by fear and you see how one individual can control that many people by fear.

What is something you did as a student that you’d go back to tell yourself don’t do it!

I would tell myself, before my undergraduate years were up, to really spend some time investigating where my deepest interest lay and what are qualities I am looking for in a person to work with. When I went through undergrad at Cornell University I was like almost the only female physics major around and that was tough culturally and climate wise and I didn’t know how to look for an advisor with whom I had a good dynamic later on. My advice would be to use any opportunity you have professionally to make connections with senior people and to figure out the best method of selecting an advisor and to look for what specifically not to look for. My focus was too much on courses and not enough the big picture.

Learn more about Grace’s work here.

I asked Grace what she likes the most in her office”My cabinet museum of antiquity: Computer cards, equivalent to today’s coding, magnetic tape a way of storing data, equivalent of DVDs and at Cornell I worked for a planetary scientist who did radar work on Saturn’s Rings and this was the Fortran code, printed out on old computer paper, just like an excel sheet. This tells the story of who I am and how I got here and how science progressed and what we can do today in 10 seconds on a computer while I had to stay in the basement of the computer building waiting to run my batch job.”

#scienceoutreach #WalkingDead #interview #academia #UniverseEvolution #ScienceCommunication #Zooniverse #startrek #Astronomy #Astrophysicist #BigBangTheory


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