Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Student Highlight: Xzavier Flowers

Xzavier Flowers, undergraduate Astronomy and Astrophysics major at
Florida Institute of Technology and Founder and CEO of Future Astronomers.
Xzavier Flowers is a first-year undergraduate and Astronomy and Astrophysics major at Florida Institute of Technology (FIT) and a member of the National Society of Black Physicists. He has a passion for astronomy and has already demonstrated strong leadership in his community, as Vice President of his local Society of Physics Students chapter and Founding Member and Vice President of Triangle Fraternity at FIT.  In 2016, Xzavier started his own company, Future Astronomers, to "motivate and support minorities and those underrepresented in Astronomy and STEM fields." This summer, he will be conducting his first summer research experience at Princeton University's Undergraduate Summer Research Program.

Burgasser: Congratulations on being accepted to the Princeton Undergraduate Summer Research Program! How did it feel when you got word you'd be doing Astronomy research at one of the top institutions in the country?

Flowers: It felt absolutely amazing when I found out that I was accepted into the Princeton Undergraduate Summer Research Program! I was anxious about getting in or not ever since I sent in my application. A few days after the deadline I couldn't take it anymore and sent an email asking if any decisions have been made yet and Prof. Michael Strauss (the one who brought this program up to me) told me I was accepted. I couldn't stop smiling for 5 minutes. It's just so surreal that I got into this program in my first year.

Burgasser: Please tell me about yourself; what is your story?

: My name is Xzavier Flowers. I am an 18 year old African American male. I was born in Florida and moved to Louisiana where I spent most of my life living with my Mom, Dad, and older brother until the end of my Freshman year in high school. I moved to Texas with my Mom and Step-dad and finished high school in Texas (Sophomore year to Senior year). During my senior year I applied for Florida Institute of Technology where I was accepted into the Astronomy and Astrophysics department and this is where I currently am now.

Burgasser: Who or what inspired you to pursue a major - and future career - in astronomy?

It's kind of funny how my interest in astronomy started. For starters, I've always been interested in the sky and wondered what was out there. Since I was little I had this overwhelming feeling that there is other life out there and that we will meet them; I actually think I'll have an encounter with them in my lifetime (now that I am older I wonder if it's even best that we contact alien life the way we are now but I digress). So it was my sophomore year at Lancaster High School (the school I moved to in Texas) and my biology teacher told the class that there was a NASA Space Design Competition that our school was competing in for the first time and was asking people to sign up if they were interested. This was before I wanted to be an astronomer but I thought, "Hey, it's NASA why not?" and signed up. Only about 10-13 people were picked and I fortunately was one of them. That NASA experience to me is kind of the first real push for me heading down this astronomy path. During the competition I met awesome people who I am still friends with to date and it was so cool to get to work on a project with complete strangers and to have 24 hours to create a working proposal. The project was to design a space station that orbited either Earth or the Moon (I forget) in 2033 and it had to be structurally sound, living and cost efficient, appropriately designed, etc. And it was just a lot of fun to work on. After I came back from that I had a real interest in STEM, and I learned about myself that I wanted to do something along those lines, and I saw my grades start to go up and each year they got better and better until my senior year where I made straight A's for the first time in my life. I was one of two of the only people in my class to have straight A's that year. 

Shortly after I came back from the NASA trip, my sophomore year, I was talking to my step dad about Ancient Aliens every night because we both are big believers in aliens. One day I was watching the show and I saw someone come on, his name was Hakeem Oluseyi and he was an African American male on the show so that really caught my interest. It said Astrophysicist at Florida Institute of Technology and I was was like "What is astrophysics and what is Florida Institute of Technology?". I quickly did research on both of these things and unexpectedly found my destiny. I fell in love with space and realized that if I could do one thing for the rest of my life that made me happy no matter about salary or job availability, it would be to learn and study space. This is what finally lead me to pursue astronomy. Seeing that Dr. Oluseyi taught at Florida Institute of Technology made me look into the school and decide that I loved it and wanted to attend there. It was perfect to me: It was in Florida where I always said I wanted to return one day, it had an amazing Space Science program which is what I was passionate about, it was close to NASA, and it was next to the beach; what more could I ask for?

Burgasser: What challenges or obstacles have you faced in pursuing your interests in astronomy? How did you overcome them?

Flowers: I have never really thought of myself as "naturally gifted" in areas, whether it be sports or school. I have always had to work hard for my success. Coming into college I was intimidated and terrified that I was not good enough. I didn't think I deserved to be here and I wondered if they made a mistake in letting me in. I often thought to myself, "There's no way you're smart enough to be here. Look how smart everyone else is; can you even handle the level of work you're going to be getting here?". Thinking you're not good enough is definitely something hard to overcome, especially when you think you were not properly prepared from high school. I have to admit that it was hard my first semester academically. I was not doing as well as I wanted to do around midterms and I remember calling my parents and crying because I felt like a failure. They just reminded me that I'm a fighter and this isn't a new situation for me, that I am often backed against a wall and I always give it my all and overcome my problems with my determination and hard work. They were right. During midterms I had a D and a C and the rest As and Bs. I finished that semester with all As and Bs and a 3.5 GPA. This happened because I started seeking help in the things I was struggling with; it was initially hard to admit that I needed help. This happened in the form of having my friends teach me, going to office hours (highly recommended), looking over the textbook, and taking sample quizzes online for extra practice.  

A clear answer to this question is that I feel that thinking I wasn't good enough and not putting in the necessary effort to succeed were initial problems that I faced. I overcame these with the boost of encouragement I got from my parents and peers that I could do it and realizing that I could myself, and then making the effort to succeed and give it my all.

Burgasser: I was really excited when I learned you'd started your own company, Future Astronomers. Tell us a little about that.

Flowers: Future Astronomers is a company I started, with the help of my parents, about 2 months ago (started in February). The intent of this company is to inspire the younger generation who show interest in having careers in STEM. What I would like to do is go around and speak to elementary, middle school, and high school students, also other undergraduates. Some of the things I want to do is offer advice and tips that I have found to work for me, share my story and experiences thus far on my path, keep  their passion fueled and ignited so that they have the will to keep going, and also just be there for them as an outlet and/or mentor if they choose to see me as that. Someone once described what I was doing as being a role model for others and I don't see a problem with that. I feel that it is important for people to have a constant reminder that they can achieve their dreams, no matter what their race/ethnicity or background is. Future Astronomers focuses on minorities and underrepresented people (such as women) because I feel that there is a strong need for people in these categories in Astronomy and Science/Engineering fields.

Xzavier showing off a Future Astronomers T-shirt (available for purchase!)

Burgasser: As a Future Astronomer yourself, what astronomical research do you find most exciting? 

Flowers: Without a doubt my favorite area in astronomy is Extra-solar Planets, a.k.a. Exoplanets. This has been my most passionate area ever since I realized what an astronomer was. I think, in fact I am sure, that it ties back to my strong belief in alien life. Like I said, I feel that one day I will meet alien life and what better way than to find the planet that harbors this extraterrestrial life. At least that is how it started. Now I'm interested in exoplanets for more reasons. I love the fact that we have advanced so far in civilization that we can now detect other planets outside of our solar system. The idea of that is amazing and sounds far-fetched but it's entirely true. One day I believe we'll have the technology and knowledge to intensely study these planets and see what their conditions are truly like. This is great to me because we have a chance to learn more about the formation of planets and more about ourselves and Earth. Why are we different? Why haven't we detected life already? Are there other planets identical to Earth that have lifeforms on it? Is someone studying us right now? Questions like these can be answered with astronomy and I absolutely love that.

Burgasser: What do you see as the future of astronomy?

Flowers: As far as advancements, I see astronomy continuing to make great strides in discoveries and uncovering new things in the upcoming years. I see a time where there is more diversity and fairness in the field. I see people of all different types of nationalities, genders, backgrounds, cultures, and religious and political beliefs, coming together and contributing to astronomy. I hope we get to a point where no one is discouraged from astronomy because it is such a wonderful topic that anyone can contribute make great advancements from their own way of approaching problems and seeing things.

Burgasser: Can you share any ideas you have for making astronomy a more equitable and inclusive community?

Flowers: In order to make astronomy more equitable and inclusive, people are going to have to start seeing the bigger picture and truly understanding why they're doing what they are doing. To me, and I think for others, astronomy is a way to go beyond ourselves and really make impacts on a larger scale, something bigger than ourselves. With astronomy, people are all asking the same questions no matter who you are. We all want to know why things are the way they are and how'd it get like that and what will happen in the future. Those who leave certain groups of people out of this overall mission of astronomy because of their personal judgments and discrimination, have failed in implementing the unity astronomy brings to society.

Burgasser: What advice would you give to high school and undergraduate students of color interested in following your path?

Flowers: The advice I'd give to high school and undergraduates is to follow your dreams! Astronomy needs you! There are some many different pathways to become a successful astronomer that I don't see a reason that someone can't do it. Yes, it will be extremely hard and sometimes you'll want to quit, but when you start to feel like it is too much that's when you seek the comfort of others going through, or who have been through, what you're experiencing. This can be from other students in your class/major, professors, colleagues met through conferences, or anyone else you've met in the field. Most times then not people will be glad to help you because they needed help at one point in their journey. Also, remember why it is you picked this career choice in the first place. Remember what made you fall in love with astronomy and remind yourself of that every now and then.

Another big thing I'd say is to practice the fine art of networking. It is perhaps the most important skill you can learn as an astronomer, or just in life generally. Networking has lead me to connecting to an array of wonderful people that I can call on for advice or information at anytime. Don't be afraid to "cold-email random astronomers" as Dr. Lucianne Walkowicz puts it! It is a great way to meet people and to get yourself out there in the community.

Burgasser: Any final words?

Flowers: I'd like to note that there is no way I'd be where I am by myself. There are so many people to thank that you could probably write a whole different article of me just thanking the people who have supported me. Most importantly I have to thank God for blessing me with my life and my friends and family. I appreciate everything my parents do for me and all of the sacrifices they make for me so that I can chase my dreams. I'd also like to take the time and thank some of the many people who have adopted a mentor role over me and have helped me along my journey such as: Jim Christensen (work at the NASA Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex and does outreach programs with elementary children), Prof. C. Renee James (Sam Houston State University), Prof. John Johnson (Harvard), Prof. Sylvester Gates (University of Maryland), Prof. Darin Ragozzine (Florida Institute of Technology), and many many more. 

*Adam Burgasser is a Professor of Physics at UC San Diego and is currently chair of the AAS Committee on the Status of Minorities in Astronomy (CSMA).

1 comment: