(Contributed by Jim Smith)
Meredith Hughes was one of those kids drawn to science and nature. But growing up in small-town Rhode Island, she didn’t know any scientists.
“The people I knew who liked science were teachers and doctors,” recalled Hughes, a new assistant professor of astronomy at Wesleyan this year. “So I figured that’s probably what I’d be.”
Then, during her junior year of high school, a patient of her mother, a women’s health nurse practitioner, recommended a program for budding scientists called The Summer Science Program (SSP). Hughes applied, and became one of 25 students from around the world to spend the summer under the pristine skies of Ojai, California. “We spent the summer determining the orbit of 4 Vesta, the second largest object in the Asteroid Belt,” she said. “It was my first exposure to professional scientists and real research, and by the time the summer was over I had begun to think that maybe a career in science wasn’t such a crazy idea.”
Little more than a year later, she was enrolled at Yale. Despite the inroads into astrophysics she had made at SSP, she embraced the philosophy of a liberal arts education and spent her freshman year avoiding astronomy and instead exploring fields as diverse as cognitive science and music theory. During the summer she had an opportunity to stay in New Haven and do astronomical research with Professor Meg Urry, director of the Yale Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics. Hughes found it exhilarating to apply the physics she had learned in the classroom to investigating the properties of the supermassive black holes at the centers of distant galaxies.
“After that summer, I was hooked,” she said. She went on to complete A.M. and Ph.D. degrees in astronomy at Harvard in 2007 and 2010, earning the department’s Fireman Fellowship for an outstanding Ph.D. thesis in the field of experimental astrophysics.
After Harvard, she accepted a postdoctoral fellowship with the Miller Institute at the University of California-Berkeley. Former Miller Fellows have included Nobel laureates and Fields medalists, but Hughes says she was most excited to follow in the footsteps of former Miller Fellow Carl Sagan. “His career was exemplary in combining a deep understanding of research with an incredible gift at communicating his knowledge and passion to non-scientists, which is a combination I strive to emulate,” Hughes said. She was at Berkeley when she learned about the opening at Wesleyan that offered what she said was “exactly the balance of teaching and research I was looking for.”