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Jenny Calahan

Her story: Originally from Park Ridge, Illinois, Jenny first became interested in Astronomy when she joined her high school’s Science Olympiad Team and had the chance to explore different areas of science. With her interest in Astronomy beginning to peak, she attended an astronomy summer camp at Kitt Peak in Tucson, Arizona where she had the chance to meet real-life astronomers, graduate students and postdocs and realized that astronomy could be a possible career path for her.

In 2014, Jenny began her undergraduate studies at the University of Arizona where she majored in astronomy and physics. Early on, she concentrated her research on exoplanets but eventually shifted to star formation. “It was this research experience and the astronomy community in Tuscon that gave me the confidence to apply to graduate school and really pursue astronomy as a career.”

When Jenny was looking into graduate programs, she applied mainly to those that had strong star and planet formation groups – automatically placing the University of Michigan at the top of her list. She admired the trailblazing work of Professors Bergin and Calvet, and wanted to be part of making discoveries. Michigan also stood out to her as a place that cared about their graduate students and implemented strong DEI initiatives that she did not see at many other schools.

Her interests: Jenny is predominately interested in all things star and planet formation. In her first two years at Michigan, she successfully determined the two-dimensional temperature structure of two disks: TW Hya and HD 163296. Currently she is interested in focusing on the planet forming regions of the disk, namely the midplane and the inner regions close to the star. As her research progresses, she has begun to turn her attention to water and how the unique molecular characteristics of water molecules can affect the temperature and chemistry within the planet forming zone of a disk. “There are so many open questions in protoplanetary disk characterization and planet formation,” said Jenny. “I’m excited to see where my research will take me.”

Her advice for future astronomy students: Jenny’s advice for future astronomy students mostly boils down to “ask a lot of questions, especially early in your career.” According to Jenny, when she was younger she was shy and worried about asking ‘stupid’ questions.

“First of all, if it can’t be answered by a quick Google search, it’s not a stupid question,” said Jenny. “Second of all, early in your learning journey is the best time to ask ‘stupid’ questions. Coming up with and asking questions of experts in the field is the best way to learn, and is invaluable. You then gain the skill of being able to hold a scientific conversation, which is a key skill to have in the field.”

A second piece of advice Jenny has to offer is to simply find your people. “I would not have survived the undergrad and graduate experience without fantastic friends both inside and outside of the Astronomy program. Science is not a solo event, and neither is learning. There will be both ups and downs in your journey, and having a supportive network for the worst times will keep you sane and healthy.”

What’s next for Jenny?: After earning her PhD, Jenny would like to go on to a postdoctoral research position focused on protoplanetary disks. “I would love to continue to do independent astronomical research for as long as possible, either at the faculty level or in an astronomer/scientist position.”