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Kate Napier

Her story:

Kate Napier is an Astrophysics Ph.D. pre-candidate in the Department of Astronomy. Originally from Atlanta, Georgia, Kate completed her undergraduate studies at the Georgia Institute of Technology where she studied physics with a concentration in astrophysics.

Kate chose the University of Michigan for her graduate studies because she was impressed by the breadth of research that is being done here and the opportunities that are given to students to utilize the telescopes, like Magellan. She also found the environment at the University to be welcoming and supportive of different backgrounds and interests.

“I choose Michigan because I think the environment is very supportive of the students,” Kate said. “My values of having a place that gives everyone an equal seat at the table are very represented here.”

Her interests:

In general, Kate is more drawn to observational astronomy than theoretical because she enjoys seeing and interacting with what she is studying first-hand. “I like the aspect of being able to connect what you learn in the classroom with what you see in the night sky,” she said. “I think it’s really great to see that we are a part of the cosmos rather than just here on planet earth, and it does a lot for the human spirit to feel a part of something bigger.”

During her first semester at U of M, Kate had the exciting opportunity to travel to Magellan to observe a direct collapse black hole. But while her interests in astrophysics are primarily focused on high energy areas like black holes and active galactic nuclei, there are a lot of things that interest her.

Her key mentors:

Throughout her studies, there have been many key mentors who have influenced Kate and encouraged her to pursue her interests.

  • Dr. Yvonne Pendleton – Dr. Pendleton works at NASA Ames and has been Kate’s mentor since very early in her college career. Kate spent two summers working at NASA Ames in opportunities that Dr. Pendleton helped to connect her with.
  • Ms. Valerie Kennedy – Ms. Kennedy was one of Kate’s 5th grade math teachers who made math really enjoyable every day. To Kate, at such a young age it was really important for her to have such a strong female role model in math because it was what she liked to do.
  • Dr. Mary Beth Wilhelm – Kate was first introduced to Dr. Wilhelm through Dr. Pendleton at NASA Ames. Dr. Wilhelm is an early career scientist at NASA Ames who discovered water on Mars in her early 20’s. She has been a great mentor to Kate and provided excellent advice.
  • Dr. Deirdre Shoemaker – Dr. Shoemaker was one of Kate’s professors at Georgia Tech and also her undergraduate research advisor. Dr. Shoemaker was instrumental in providing Kate with inspiring opportunities for research.
  • Dr. Diane Wooden – Kate enjoyed spending two summers with Dr. Wooden researching near-Earth asteroids. Her support of young scientists is a true gift.

Her advice to future astronomy students:

According to Kate, the most challenging part of astrophysics is trying to comprehend the vastness of the universe and be able to take small-scale concepts and apply them to the largest scales, such as space. However, she also finds this to be one of the most fulfilling parts of what she does and what draws her to astronomy.

Another huge challenge in the field is having the discipline to learn the established tools and techniques of astronomy while also having the imagination and curiosity to put forth solutions to new problems. The field of astronomy often requires taking risks and challenging yourself. For that reason, Kate has the following advice for future students:

“One of the biggest things I learned in undergrad is that there is a lot of value in plan B,” said Kate. “What you had in mind as the best possible solution may not be the best possible solution. Be open minded to try new things and don’t be discouraged if you fail. Some of the greatest advancements in science were made by people who were willing to take a risk and not remain complacent in their thinking.”

What’s next for Kate?:

Kate’s dream to become an astronaut is something that she has held on to since she was little. Her current plan is to complete her postdoctoral studies, work for a few years as a researcher, and eventually apply to the NASA Astronaut Corps with the dream of possibly going to Mars one day.