Amy Glazier is a doctoral student in physics and astronomy. She studies potentially habitable planets in our galaxy using the Evryscope, the first gigapixel-scale all-sky telescope that images the entire visible sky every two minutes, designed and constructed by associate professor Nicholas Law’s group at UNC-Chapel Hill. She is a 2019 NASA/North Carolina Space Grant Graduate Research Fellow.
What made you choose UNC-Chapel Hill when deciding on a program/place to study?
Two of my favorite professors in undergrad – a mathematician and a computer scientist – earned their doctorates at UNC, and they both encouraged me to apply here for graduate study. I was too timid to reach out to any of the faculty at UNC before applying for admission, but after researching the astronomy faculty, I knew I wanted to work with the astronomer who is now my advisor, Dr. Nick Law. At the time, his group had just constructed the Evryscope, which is this awesome mushroom-looking telescope that images the entire night sky every two minutes to look for things that change. The idea of working with that telescope to find planets in other solar systems was enthralling; I love astronomy as a whole, but especially extrasolar planets (or exoplanets), and I knew I wanted to study them for my graduate work. The ability to study other planets, combined with the positive experiences my undergrad professors recalled in UNC’s graduate programs, were the reason I chose UNC.
Tell us about your research.
In broad terms, I research what kinds of environments exist for planets outside our solar system and whether life might be possible for any of them. I have been looking at a really exciting star called TRAPPIST-1, which has seven small, rocky planets around it. TRAPPIST-1 isn’t like our Sun – it’s much dimmer, cooler and redder, so it would look very different from our Sun if you stood on the surface of one of its planets. Relatively cool stars, like TRAPPIST-1, are also different from the Sun in that they flare more often. When our Sun emits a solar flare that hits Earth, it can mess with our satellites; if it’s a really big flare, it can knock out our electrical grids. You can imagine that you don’t really want your planet to get hit by a lot of these larger flares – but at the same time, if your star is much cooler than our Sun, your planet won’t get enough energy from its star to do much biochemistry unless the star flares often enough to give the planet some energy. So, I’ve been studying how often TRAPPIST-1 flares, and how large those flares are, to figure out what that means for its planets – whether they get hit by too many large flares for potential life to persist on their surfaces, or whether they don’t get hit by enough flares to supply the energy they would need for life to evolve.
What does it mean to you to be a first-generation graduate student in your family?
It means a whole realm of possibilities that hasn’t been accessible to anyone in my family before me. I’m only three generations removed from farmers. Neither of my parents went to college; my mom finished high school, and my dad dropped out of high school to go into work. My older sister graduated college but did not pursue a graduate degree because guaranteed financial support wasn’t available in the humanities (unlike most STEM fields), so she went right to work in a career she enjoys. So, things worked out for my family in the end, but when I realized I wanted to be an astronomer, I figured out that meant I needed to go to college and to this mysterious thing called graduate school.
Being a first-generation grad student has definitely made me feel like an outsider at times, but spending time with the Carolina Grad Student F1RSTS and my wonderful grad student colleagues has helped me feel more at home. When I teach classes here, I have come to realize that being a first-generation grad student also helps me empathize and engage with my students from a place of understanding. I had been homeschooled my whole life, and started at a community college where many of us were nontraditional students in some way; it never occurred to me that I was “weird” until I transferred to a four-year college where nobody I knew had a background like mine. At times I wondered whether people like me just didn’t “make it” in STEM. It’s humbling and an honor to me that now I can be the kind of example to my students that I needed when I was in their place, to help them know that no matter how different they may be from their vision of a typical student, they belong here and they can succeed here, too.
What are you hoping to accomplish with your Carolina degree?
It’s an incredible privilege that, through earning my degree, I get to do work that expands humanity’s knowledge of what’s out there in the cosmos. When I was a child, we were discovering the very first exoplanets – now, we know of at least 4,000. Not only do we keep discovering more and more potentially habitable planets, we also know of so many planets that we can ask questions about planet formation in general, or the general conditions that might make planets good places for life, and get statistically meaningful answers in return. I hope to use my degree to help answer the big questions that drive so many of us: Are we alone? What makes a planet the kind of place where life can evolve? How different can a planet be from Earth and still be habitable?
I have a passion for promoting science literacy, whether through teaching classes or public outreach, and I hope to be in a position to continue doing that as well. What I’ve learned about our universe has profoundly affected the way I see the world, and I want to share that sense of wonder with others. The elements we are made of – the carbon in our cells, the iron in our blood – did not exist in our universe until they were forged in stars’ fiery cores, meaning that every single one of us is literally made from stardust. All humans evolved from the same progenitor, and we’re all more than 99.9% identical, so we’re all each other’s family. No matter who we are, whom we love, where we are from, what we look like, or what we believe, we are more closely related to each other than we are to any other creature on any planet in the entire universe. The fact that we haven’t found life beyond Earth yet tells us how incredibly rare life like ours is in the universe. If more of us understood how incredible it is that we exist, how deeply connected we are to one another, and how precariously precious our existence is, I think we would live in a more compassionate, more just world.