Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Student highlight: Moiya McTier

Moiya McTier (Harvard '16)
Recipient of the 2016 Chambliss Award 

Meet Moiya McTier, recipient of the 2016 Chambliss Student Achievement Award. This award is granted every year by the American Astronomical Society (AAS) to recognize exemplary research by undergraduate and graduate students. Moiya is currently a senior at Harvard University. She won this award for her work on determining exoplanet habitability using orbital eccentricity. She conducted this research last summer, when she was a member of the Harvard Banneker Institute. This work ties directly to her senior thesis, a science fiction novel set on the planet she studied, which she eventually hopes to get published. After graduation, Moiya plans to get her PhD in astrophysics and, if she still has any energy left, a master’s degree in medieval European folklore.

This interview is the first of a series of posts on the Astronomy In Color blog dedicated to recognizing achievements by outstanding astronomers of color. Feel free to contact Jorge Moreno (jorgemoreno AT cpp.edu) if you know any other person of color in astronomy who has recently won an award or made any other accomplishment.

MorenoWhat was your reaction when you first learned that you won the 2016 Chambliss Prize?

Moiya: I had almost forgotten that I had entered the contest by the time the winners were announced. So when I got the email, I had to read it a few times before the news really settled in. And then I called my mom and we celebrated together on the phone. 

Moreno: Please tell me more about yourself. What’s your story?

Moiya: This is going to sound fake, but I promise it’s true. I actually grew up with in a log cabin in the middle of the woods in Pennsylvania without running water. We didn’t have TV and I was an only child, so I spent a lot of time cracking small codes and cyphers that my mom would create. I wanted to be a cryptographer pretty much all the way up to my sophomore year of college, when I took my first astronomy class. 

MorenoWhat inspired you to pursue a career in astronomy?

Moiya: My finding astronomy was a total fluke. I needed a fourth class one semester and one of my friends asked if I wanted to try out a class on extra-galactic astronomy with her. She ended up not taking the class, but I kind of fell in love with the topic. From there, I took the typical route: internships, term-time research, grad school applications. And there were definitely times when I thought it would be less painful to give up and go back to my hometown to become a coal miner, but I had friends and advisors at each step to remind me how much I loved astronomy and how good I was at it. 

MorenoIn your opinion, what qualities makes you so unique and compelling?

Moiya: I absolutely refuse to confine myself to a single defining box. As a result of that, I’m actually studying both astronomy and mythology in school. That means I have years of experience in tackling problems using an interdisciplinary approach. In order to be successful, you have to be able to adapt to new situations and think of new solutions to old problems. My work is unique because I approach it in a way that most people aren’t willing to. 

MorenoAs a woman of color, what challenges and obstacles have you faced in your career? How have you overcome these challenges?

Moiya: Growing up, I was one of maybe five black people in a part of Pennsylvania where it’s not uncommon to hear racial slurs being thrown around, so I’m no stranger to overt racism. But in my time at Harvard, I’ve learned that systemic – or subtle – racism, and not its overt counterpart, is what really stands in my way. People sometimes ask why it took me so long to believe that I could become a scientist. Well, I don’t know how I could have been expected to realize it sooner when I had never seen anyone who looks like me doing anything like what I’m doing now.  

I’ve overcome that obstacle by repeatedly telling myself that if I succeed, maybe I can be the reason a young woman of color decides to pursue a STEM career in 20 years. 

MorenoPeople of color, especially women of color, are severely under-represented in our field. What ideas do you have for making astronomy a more equitable and inclusive community? For dismantling racism and sexism in general?

Moiya: I do genuinely believe that we can fix this problem that exists in our community, but I think it will take two things: education and time. I think it needs to become standard in astronomy departments everywhere to hold mandatory seminars and workshops about the different kinds of inequalities that exist in our communities. We can’t expect people to help us fix the problem if they don’t know it exists. Once that happens, I think we just need time to let changes happen. 

MorenoWhat advice would you give to other young women of color interested in following your path?

Moiya: I know it’s difficult, but please, please, please try not to compare yourself to your peers. In my experience, nothing has been more damaging to my emotional or mental wellbeing than basing my self-worth on the accomplishments of those around me. Just the fact that you’re even thinking about pursuing this type of career means you’re already cooler than words can express.

MorenoAny final words?

Moiya: Just that I really hope my winning this prize shows people that anyone can succeed in astronomy. And I can’t wait to see the changes that happen in the field in the coming years! 

*Jorge Moreno is an Assistant Professor at Cal Poly Pomona. He is also a member of the AAS Committee on the Status of Minorities in Astronomy (CSMA).


  1. I remember teaching Moiya in middle school at our very rural school in Pennsylvania. She was a very intelligent girl and an excellent student. I'm sorry to see her say she experienced 'overt racism' in school, however. I never saw any instances or had her report them to me. I hope she isn't falling into the trap of inventing hardships that were overcome. She's accomplished a great deal in her young life and doesn't need to pad her "discrimination resume". So far as I could see, she was always treated exactly the same as every other student in our school.

  2. I remember Moiya. An excellent student. I don't remember ever seeing or hearing of any racist comments.

  3. was made aware of these comments after listening to a podcast in which they were referenced. I am very disappointed and disheartened that two educators would respond to everything that was addressed in this interview by focusing on the idea that just because they didn't witness any "overt racism" that it must not have existed. They were not there to witness it when the N-word was dropped or she was referred to by racial epithets so obscure that they clearly originated from parents or grandparents and were echoed by children. They were not there to witness it when complete strangers reached out to touch her hair without even asking permission first, when comments were made about her skin color, when people suggested that her success was due to special treatment or different standards because of her race, or when she experienced multiple other comments or actions that were clearly racially motivated. I think it is very delusional or, perhaps, to be charitable, overly optimistic to believe that a student is going to approach a teacher, counselor, or staff member with these kind of problems. When she attended, there were four students of color in the entire school district. There were no people of color on faculty; there was once an African-American football coach, but he and his family left the district after one year, for reasons unknown to me. Frankly, the fact that an educator dismissed these problems by implying that this is a case of "falling into the trap of inventing hardships" to "pad her 'discrimination resume'" to me illustrates very well the hardships and discrimination people of color and other minorities faced within the district and proves that West Greene has a long road to improvement when it comes to racism and other discriminatory, prejudiced, and privileged attitudes and behaviors.