Women In Science Series: Emily Levesque

 Photo Courtesy of uclan.ac.uk

Photo Courtesy of uclan.ac.uk

Today, we're moving onward into space and talking about a scientist who focuses primarily on stellar astrophysics. She works out of the department of Astronomy U.W. as an assistant professor. It is a true honor to write an article about the intelligent, Emily Levesque. 

 Photo Courtesy of Washington.edu

Photo Courtesy of Washington.edu

Emily became someone I looked up to for many reasons, but initially it was because we shared a common hero: Carl Sagan. Washington University did a great piece on her bio page, where they posted a Q&A. I think posting those questions and her answers will help you get to know her genius and personality a little better.


What got you into astronomy? What’s your first memory associated with astronomy?

My answer to both of these is the same! When I was 2 years old Halley’s Comet was making its most recent fly-by, and my older brother, Ben, had a school assignment that asked him to go out and observe it. The whole family headed out to the backyard, and according to my parents I was completely transfixed. From then on as I got older people would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up and my answer was always some variation on “an actor or an astronomer”, “a marine biologist or an astronomer”, “a violinist or an astronomer”, and so on. Astronomer is what stuck!
— Emily
 Photo Courtesy of space.com

Photo Courtesy of space.com

What do you find most challenging and rewarding about being an astronomer?

One challenging aspect of being an astronomer is balancing the core scientific motivations that drive you with some of the more mundane day-to-day tasks that keep everything up and running: arranging work travel, making slides, writing budgets, debugging code. This can actually go either way: sometimes you hate dealing with the little things, and sometimes it’s much easier to cross “book flights for conference” off your to-do list than “formulate five-year research plan for studying Thorne-Zytkow objects”. It’s important to step back periodically and go “hey, I’m doing all of this because I’m studying the evolution of massive stars a billion light years away!”, but you also don’t want to let the big picture overwhelm you and keep you from the little individual steps that drive your day-to-day progress.

For me, the most rewarding aspect of being an astronomer is getting other people excited about science and astronomy. I love giving public talks and answering questions from people who aren’t in the field. Little kids are always a blast, but I really love seeing adults get drawn into the topic. Inevitably someone will say “Oh, I’m sure this is such a silly question, but…”, and then go on to ask something really thought-provoking or fundamental to current astronomy. I like reminding people that “silly” questions are often the starting point for great science, and it’s always fun to ignite some enthusiasm and curiosity in people about astronomy and how our universe works.
— Emily
 Photo Courtesy of technology.org

Photo Courtesy of technology.org

In the not-so-distant future, you’re sent to explore and live on a habitable planet in a nearby star system. What 3 items (physical or abstract) would you make sure you bring and why?

Assuming that people are disqualified as “items”, and that whoever/whatever is sending me will throw in the basic survival provisions (food, water, power source, a Hitchhiker’s towel, etc.)…

–My laptop, so that I can take notes on what I see, keep a journal, take a few pictures, and have some basic portable research tools at hand.

–A simple handheld spectrograph. I’m primarily an observer and mostly work with spectroscopic data, so that’s probably the first thing I’d want to point at anything interesting that I might spot!

–My little stuffed frog. He’s a travel good luck charm, and that’s going to be a pretty long trip. Plus those would be some pretty funny photos from a new planet…
— Emily

Did or do you have a science role model? What makes this individual’s qualities important to you?

Carl Sagan. He was a talented scientist, a wonderful writer, and I think he’s largely responsible for our modern picture of what a successful “science communicator” or “science celebrity” should be. He got an entire generation interested in science and space (I was very nearly named “Sagan”; my parents were both big Cosmos fans), and I think we need a lot more people like him working in today’s media!
— Emily
 Photo Courtesy of carlsaganday.com

Photo Courtesy of carlsaganday.com


Below, is a video of a public talk Emily preformed in Boulder, Colorado on the topic "Weirdest Stars In The Universe". I hope some day soon, I'll get to see her speak live! If you'd like to follow her on social media, she tweets @emsque.