Meet Briley Lewis, this week’s CU Women in STEM subject, who can answer any questions you might have about planets

Bwog Science is back with CU Women in STEM, where we highlight the amazing women in science at Columbia. Today’s profile is from Briley Lewis (CC ’18), astrophysics major and Pluto enthusiast!

Major: Astrophysics

What subjects are you interested in? Exoplanets and planetary science

How did you get interested in your subject? Can you remember the moment that got you hooked? When I was a kid, I always wanted to be a vet. But in middle school, when you have to dissect frogs and everything, I realized that I am INCREDIBLY squeamish – so, being a vet wasn’t quite an option, and I needed to find a new interest. One of my best friends ended up giving me the book Death by Black Hole and Other Cosmic Quandaries by Neil deGrasse Tyson, and I absolutely loved it. I wanted to learn more about space, and I just kept on learning until I got to where I am now.

Most important research/extracurricular experiences so far: I’ve been a part of two research projects as an undergrad, and both were incredibly important to me. First off, I’ve worked at the American Museum of Natural History for two years (since the summer after sophomore year) as a part of Dr. Rebecca Oppenheimer’s group; we work with an instrument called Project 1640, built at the museum and operated on the Palomar Hale Telescope in CA, which surveys nearby stars to discover new exoplanets through direct imaging. Secondly, I spent last summer at Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, MD, working with data of Pluto from NASA’s New Horizons mission.

What are your career goals? I want to continue pursuing research, earning my PhD and eventually either becoming a tenured professor or maybe a civil servant at NASA. At the same time, I hope to be actively involved in shaping policies about space exploration and astronomical research funding, and also to continue doing lots of outreach and teaching.

Favorite science building on campus? I totally have to pick Pupin; it’s basically where I’ve lived the last four years. Also, it may not have the best classrooms, but it TOTALLY has the best roof – go there when the department does public outreach events to see one of the best views!!

Favorite scientist? All my colleagues (especially all the astronomers)! There are so many great scientists that are alive and working now, and I feel so lucky to know some of them! Whether they’re undergrads, grad students, post docs, or professors, we have lots of great scientists in all these different stages of their careers here at Columbia (and also at AMNH) and it’s worth getting to know them and the cool work they do.

What do you do BESIDES science? At Columbia, I’m a sister of Alpha Chi Omega, and I’ve been involved in a bunch of things about science outreach and writing over the last four years. I was also an OL for NSOP three times, so I can say I’ve been to every NSOP of my college career! I’ve been spending my senior year trying new things (come see the Varsity Show!!) and giving more time to my non-science hobbies (like running, reading, sewing).

What advice would you give to someone interested in a STEM major? My favorite piece of advice anyone has ever told me is: “Dumb questions aren’t bad. Don’t be afraid of asking dumb questions. Use your dumbness like a sledgehammer to break down all that you don’t know yet.” So, don’t be afraid to ask things! Whether that’s asking a professor about some content in your class, asking for help on what classes to pick, or asking things about how research works – chances are, someone else is looking for that info too, and you asking will help everyone out.

Favorite classes/professors at Columbia? Plot twist: it’s not a science class! “Science and Sensibility” with Meehan Crist. This creative writing class really made me realize that science writing and communication is something that I am passionate about. Also, it definitely made me a better writer by making me much more conscious about how complex and interesting science writing can be, and taught me that communicating science should be so much more than just blandly conveying information. Not to mention, Meehan is basically the coolest person I’ve ever met. (Close second favorite: “Exoplanets and Astrobiology” with David Kipping. Because what is there not to love about planets?!)