Friday, June 15, 2018

Student Highlight: Ashley Walker

Ashley Walker in the Hörst Lab at Johns Hopkins University

Ashley L. Walker is a native of Chicago, IL. She is a candidate for a Bachelor’s of Science in Chemistry in her senior year at Chicago State University (CSU) and a recipient of the Chi Sci scholarship. She has worked on galaxy surveys with the Undergraduate ALFALFA (Arecibo Legacy Fast ALFA) survey team, astrochemical scavenger hunts, and Hydrogen Cyanide in Protoplanetary Disks at the Banneker & Aztlán Institute. She is interested in astrochemistry with a focus on early stages of planet formation. Currently, Ashley is conducting an internship at Johns Hopkins University with Dr. Sarah Hörst as her advisor. Her projects focus on Venus as well as Saturn’s moon, Titan. Recently, she was selected for and gave a talk at Science Speaks Chicago at the Adler Planetarium. Networking is one of Ashley’s strongest skills along with mentoring, activism, and leadership. She hopes to inspire a new generation of scientists, encouraging teenagers, adults, and Black women to continue their education regardless of their background and other obstacles in life. 

1) You were recently selected as a speaker for Science Speaks Chicago. Congratulations! What did you present?

Ashley: Thank you. I was extremely excited to talk to the younger generations about a future in science. My talk focused on how I got started in astronomy, some of my challenges and experiences, and my research at the Banneker & Aztlán Institute at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, which focused on modeling ice chemistry in early planet-forming disks. 

2) Please tell us more about yourself. What’s your story?

Ashley: Which story? Hmmm….I’m a very interesting person. Growing up, I knew that Black scientists existed but I just didn’t meet any of them. I consider the Englewood neighborhood in Chicago my home. I live there and grew up around there. My grandparents’ home is still there. We’ve been in the neighborhood for over 50 years. We don’t see people that look like me become chemists, astronomers, or physicists. I want the people in my neighborhood to be exposed to what people of color (POC) scientists really look like and NOT the TV version. I first learned about astronomy at the age of 5, when my uncle bought me a telescope. It was red. As generic as it sounds, it was pretty cool. My aunts took my cousins and me to the Adler planetarium when I was about 9 or 10. I had ALWAYS wanted to go back. If you would’ve told me 12 years ago, that in future I’d be a scientist, I wouldn’t have believed you. 

I’m a non-traditional student. After transferring into CSU from a junior college, I was curious about the astronomy research that was being offered at the time. Dr. Kim Coble, my mentor, encouraged me to pursue astronomy research as a chemistry major and as a career. 

Currently, I’m doing an internship with Dr. Sarah Hörst. The group’s dynamic is so amazing. I fit right in. My main project is about Saturn’s moon, Titan. In the Hörst lab, we recreate planetary atmospheres, whether it’s early Earth, moons, or exoplanets. My job is to understand the effect of the prebiotic chemistry on Titan. 

Ashley with fellow Undergraduate ALFALFA Team students at the Greenbank Telescope

3) What kinds of self-care do you practice? What are the things that bring you joy and make you feel alive?

Ashley: I roller skate, draw, play flag football on a team in Chicago, aerial acrobatics and different types of dance from hip-hop to interpretative dance for my self-care practice. They all bring me joy along with my mom and my cats Pepper, Precious, and Smokey. 

4) What inspired you to pursue a career in astrochemistry?

Ashley: My mentor, Dr. Kim Coble, inspired me to pursue a career in astrochemistry. I was her first research student majoring in chemistry and the last research student she advised at CSU. Dr. Coble is amazing! She believed in me during the darkest time in my life and continues to do so. 

When I had was working with the Undergraduate ALFALFA Team, I saw that they had a special talk with a speaker for astrochemistry and my eyes lit up. I asked a lot of questions. While I was searching for career options in astrochemistry, I read about Emmett Chappelle. He’s the first black astrochemist I had ever heard of and he’s still living today at 92 years old! I want to increase the number of the African Diaspora in astronomy and the subfield of astrochemistry.

Lastly, I’m inspired by my mother. When I was younger, she knew that this is something that I loved doing. My mom is making sure that I can do it. She is currently enrolled in school and will become a lawyer a couple years from now. She’s my shero!

5) What challenges or obstacles have you faced in pursuing your interests in astronomy? How have you overcome them?

Ashley: I’ve faced the loss of loved ones, racism, discouraging/abusive mentorship, and sexism. My father passed away from lung cancer at the beginning of my third semester (Fall 2016). A few months later I discovered that I was mistakenly declared deceased by the Social Security Administration. I was unable to attend classes in the Spring because of this unfortunate event. I set up a GoFundMe page and with the help of well-known scientists, I was able to re-enroll in school. The issue didn’t get resolved until a few months later. 

However, none of this has stopped me from trying to pursue my goal of being an astrochemist. I’ve overcome all of this through hope, standing up for myself, and self-care. I’ve given myself confidence and helped other people who are going through similar issues. Sometimes, life can get tough and we need something that’ll uplift us. I hope to be an inspiration to them. My mom played a HUGE role in my self-care and the reason I’ve gotten this far. She makes sure that I’ll be okay. My friends have also been a great support system for me! One of them is Elizabeth Gutierrez, whom I met a little bit before we attended the Banneker & Aztlán Institute. She has been one of my most supportive and influential peers. She has incredible strength, wisdom, and brilliance. 

Ashley with her "astro siblings" at the Banneker & Aztlán Institute

6) What are some of your pie-in-the-sky career dreams?

Ashley: I want to work for either NASA Goddard Flight Center or NASA Ames in their astrochemistry lab. I want to co-host a podcast with my friends Elizabeth Gutierrez and KeShawn Ivory. Also, we will have our own planetarium for POC which highlights their contributions to astronomy where KeShawn will be the director, Elizabeth will be the Equity & Inclusion coordinator, and I will be entertainment and planetarium events coordinator along with being the dome theater narrator while speaking in AAVE (Ebonics) for all of the movies. 

Eventually, I want to become a commentator or a narrator on a science show because I’m funny and energetic. I also want to be a Christmas lecturer at the Royal Society like my favorite scientist, Michael Faraday. My facial expressions and some..okay all of the things that I say make people laugh. I want people to have fun while learning cool science. Later on down the line, I want to become a professor at Chicago State University and start a formal astronomy program. 

7) Black women are severely marginalized in our field. If astronomy were an ideal community for Black women, what would that look like for you?

Ashley: An ideal community for me would be having more women of the African diaspora in positions of power. We would be appreciated more, our ideas would be heard, and not stolen or used against us. Our schools would have more young girls and women of African descent in physics and astronomy classes. The workspace would be would be comfortable for us, we would have more support groups, and better pay for Black women. There would be more opportunities for Black women to thrive and survive. Self-care would be mandatory for Black women when things are stressful so that they could decompress and release any negative energy before working or attending classes. 

8) If you could travel back in time, what advice would you give yourself about your career in astrochemistry?

Ashley: I would say follow your first instincts and ask more questions. Don’t settle, limit yourself for certain criteria, or even have self-doubt because of someone else that is clueless about your choice of career. If your first mind says do it, be like Nike (Just do it). 

9) Any final words?

Ashley: My support team is awesome. I thank my mom, Dr. Kim Coble, and Dr. Kristy Mardis (my current research advisor) all the time. I kind of feel like I was tagged teamed in order to go down this route. My family, friends, people at Banneker & Aztlán Institute, UAT, and other mentors such as Drs. Lucianne Walkowicz, Nia Imara, Sarah Hörst, and sooo many more people have supported me and beyond what I could ask for. 

I want more Black/African descent girls and women to be confident in the skin that they’re in. Continue pursuing your goals, standing up for what is right, being confident in the work that you do, ALWAYS know that your happiness comes first, and self-care is THE BEST care!

The Hörst Phazer Lab Group 2018-2019

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