Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Student Highlight: Moiya McTier

Cross-posted, with permission from Astronomy in Color

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 if you know any other person of color in astronomy who has recently won an award or made any other accomplishment.

Moreno: What 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.

Moreno: What 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.

Moreno: In 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.

Moreno: As 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.

Moreno: People 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.

Moreno: What 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.

Moreno: Any 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).