On Wednesday evening, Dr. Aomawa Shields delivered this year’s Kibbe Science Lecture titled “The Search for Life (and A Life) on Planets, Including This One.” The event was held in Kresge Auditorium, with Shields presenting via Zoom. Attendees could either livestream the talk or attend in person.
Shields, the Clare Boothe Luce Associate Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of California, Irvine, conducts research focused on the climate and habitability of small planets in the Earth-sized regime using data from NASA’s Kepler mission in coordination with computer models and observatories.
In addition to her career as an astronomer and astrobiologist, Shields is also a classically trained actor. She received an MFA in acting and has appeared in several films including “Nine Lives” (2005). Shields describes her presentation style as untraditional and engaging, which she credits to her background in theater.
For the majority of her professional life, Shields struggled to marry her passions for acting and science. She worked a day job at the help desk of Caltech’s Spitzer Space Telescope while auditioning for shows and movies during her free time. Eventually, she found an opportunity that provided her the opportunity to blend her two careers.
“I hosted a science TV show called Wired Science, which was my first indication that maybe these two loves that I had—acting and astronomy—didn’t have to be so disparate, that there might exist some dimension in which they could coexist,” Shields said.
Shields cited her grandmother, who majored in mathematics at Tennessee State University in the 1930s, as one of her biggest inspirations.
“As rare as African-American women are in STEM fields today, in the 1930s in the south, they were virtually nonexistent,” Shields said. “She was always learning, and passed that love of mathematics on to me. I dedicated my PhD dissertation to her.”
With the hope of bringing a love for science to other young women of color, Shields started Rising Stargirls in 2015.
Rising Stargirls works with middle school girls and explores astronomy through writing, theater and visual arts. The organization aims to encourage young girls who might not otherwise study the sciences to discover astronomy in a fun, engaging environment.
One of the personal accomplishments that Shields is most proud of comes outside of her career. She speaks often about her work-life balance and how she manages to balance her work with her family.
“I have a husband and a four year old daughter and lots of hobbies and things I like to do outside of the office,” Shields said. “And I’m here to tell you that it’s possible to have a very fulfilling full career and work 40 hours a week or less. I am living proof.”