This week’s #WCWinSTEM, is Charee Peters, a Yankton Sioux astronomer whose PhD thesis focuses on astronomical events that change in brightness over time!
As compiled by Léolène Carrington, Ph.D.
The first in the Yankton Sioux tribe to obtain a B.S. in Physics, Charee Peters is now a Ph.D. candidate in astronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Charee studies how some of the most energetic phenomena in the universe change in brightness over time. We’re delighted to feature her as this week’s #WCWinSTEM!
Responses may be edited for content and brevity.
Where/when did you go to school?
- B.S. Physics, Metropolitan State University of Denver, University of Denver
- M.S. Physics, Fisk-Vanderbilt Master’s-to-PhD Bridge Program, Fisk University
- M.S. Astronomy, University of Wisconsin – Madison
- Ph.D. Astronomy, University of Wisconsin – Madison (in progress)
What do you do right now?
I am currently a graduate student studying astronomy. For my PhD thesis, I am studying astronomical events that change in brightness over time. Some of the most energetic phenomena in the universe have drastic changes in the amount of light that they produce. Some of these phenomena change on timescales that we can observe, which is pretty cool since most astronomical changes take a lot longer (I wish we could see a planet form in our lifetime!). I primarily work with a radio survey called CHILES that is conducted at the Very Large Array in New Mexico. Using CHILES, I’m working to understand if there is way that we can characterize these changes in radio brightness to understand the physics and distinguish between different events, such as the explosive deaths of stars (supernovae), black holes that rip apart stars (tidal disruption events), and supermassive black holes found at the center of a galaxy that spew out giant jets of material (active galactic nuclei).
What made you choose your STEM discipline in the first place?
Out of high school, I knew that I wanted to pursue something where I could apply math. I decided that I would try physics and enjoyed my classes. As an undergraduate, I was fortunate to work on a project with Jennifer Hoffman that modeled light from supernovae. I fell in love. I enjoyed contemplating the concepts and physics, being creative, and being challenged.
What’s one piece of advice you wish you had when you started your STEM journey?
“Failing isn’t always a failure. So long as you are able to learn something, every experience can be worthwhile.”
I used to think that if I received a low grade on a homework assignment or test that it would hold me back from being able to pursue astronomy. However, those problems that I missed helped me understand what I was doing wrong. The low scores never defined me as a person; it’s the ability to learn from those mistakes and move forward that got me where I am today.
Do you have any woman of color in STEM sheros? Who and why?
I have so many WOC sheros in STEM. I’m biased towards the people that I’ve had opportunities to work with, because it’s so easy to see how much hard work they put in not only to their research but helping their communities as well. I would not be where I am today without the inspiration, encouragement, and support of Jedidah Isler, Dara Norman, Lia Corrales, Audra Hernandez, Rose Perea, Fabienne Bastien, and Brittany Kamai. All of them are my STEM sheros!
Tell us something you’re interested in outside of STEM…
I live and LOVE roller derby. I skate and coach under the name SiouxperNova (as a nod to my heritage and career). It’s something that a postdoc suggested that I try out. I went to one practice and have been skating for over four years now. I will often take skates with me to conferences and meetings and skate with local teams. It’s helped me balance my work with play and helped me stay mentally and physically strong throughout graduate school.
Why do you think it’s important to highlight women of color in STEM?
When I started in astronomy, it seemed like the only accomplished people that I was taught in classes about were white men and on a rare occasion a woman, which felt wrong. I wanted to know that there were others out there like me, so I did my own research to find people who were Native American and women of color. Each WOC that I found made it seem like the path that I had chosen was do-able and that I could belong here. Each of them was an icon of success and social justice in STEM.
“Without knowing that there are WOC in STEM, I would likely have left STEM because it didn’t feel like a place where I belonged. Highlighting the success and presence of WOC in STEM is a reminder for many of us that we belong.”
Are there institutions, groups or organizations you would like to give a shoutout to?
I’ve been a part of many groups but some of the ones that stand out to me are SACNAS, AISES, the Bouchet Honor Society, the Fisk-Vanderbilt Master’s-to-PhD Bridge Program, the American Astronomical Society (specifically, the work of the Committee on the Status of Minorities in Astronomy a.k.a CSMA), and the Wisconsin Space Grant Consortium. I also would love to give a shout out to the all of the awesome people that work on the CHILES collaboration.
Thank you, Charee for all that you do for the field of Astronomy. We admire you for your research, roller derby and social justice work. Keep up the good work!
*All images courtesy of Charee Peters.
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