Lucia A. Perez

Computational Astrophysicist & Cosmologist

"Voices" in the Blue Doors Magazine of the Nightingale-Bamford School

June 21, 2021

This was the full text I submitted, and pictured below is what was abridged and published and shared with the Nightingale-Bamford community.

To do science is to first know what question you want to ask. There is (quite literally) an entire universe full of questions, most of which are, at best, partially answered thanks to the careful scaffolding of past research. Getting a PhD entails choosing one or two of these questions. You dive headfirst into a deep and turbulent river that looks still and understandable on its surface, swim desperately until you’ve figured out the general flow of the current, and then ride it to a place where you contribute to the next level of understanding. 
I’m in the last year of my PhD in astrophysics at Arizona State University. My job has been to rigorously try to become an expert in a tiny sliver of extragalactic astrophysics, summarized most succinctly as: what does the clustering of galaxies in space tell us about the underlying physics and cosmology that formed the galaxies? Out of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, I analyze observations from Chilean telescopes and huge cosmological simulations to probe these questions. In the slow cycle of exploration, failure, and discovery entailed in creating knowledge, other questions come up, that I imagine some fellow alumnae have themselves wondered: Am I good enough? Am I on the right track?
These questions rarely come out of a vacuum. Astronomy is arguably the most equitable of the natural sciences with 40% of PhDs going to women, yet so few go to Latinx, Black, or Native American women each year that you’re lucky if you can count them on two hands. It is emotionally draining to often realize that you are the only in a room. To realize you’re popping people’s narrow preconceptions with everything you do, and to have to consider how you present your ideas alongside the ideas themselves. As I come to my own as an independent researcher, I become more grateful for the institutions that nurtured my resilience and sense of self: Prep for Prep, Wellesley College, and our beloved Nightingale.
Prep for Prep helped me first understand the enormous potential that existed in me, and opened up a world of opportunities that my Venezuelan immigrant family from Queens would have otherwise never known existed. There are many children of color as capable as I that simply aren’t given the tools they need or the chance to thrive. I am proud that Nightingale continues to partner closely with Prep, and is working to create a more inclusive and anti-racist future. Because good scientists are not just geniuses that learned calculus in kindergarten; good scientists are voraciously curious about the world around them and stubborn enough to try and figure it out. You can always learn more math or coding, but the love of the questions themselves and the resiliency to keep trying to answer them are more important. 
I credit attending an all-girl’s school and a women’s liberal arts college to developing my self image as someone who belongs in and can contribute to science. Research shows that girls in co-ed classes stop speaking up as often after sixth or seventh grade, and the pipeline of girls that continue into higher level STEM classes starts leaking early on. I didn’t realize how much I valued being in math and science classes filled entirely with other young women until I wasn’t in them anymore. 
When studying abroad in college, I was one of maybe 15 women in a class of 200--and I felt my voice shrink into myself even as I knew I deserved to be there. What a blessing it is, in contrast, to be in a classroom where there is no pressure to justify your presence, only the expectation that you try your best and learn. Being part of institutions whose purpose is to empower and celebrate a key aspect of my identity helped me build the confidence that my path in science has needed.
Nightingale was central to my growth because it made me feel celebrated in all aspects of my life. My experience as a Nightingale girl often surprises my colleagues: I played on our championship-winning lacrosse team, did a creative writing senior project with Ms. Kirk, took life drawing with Ms Harris, wrote for The Spectator, and more. And I started off bad at all these things! Ms Tobin loves to tell the story of this truly terrible painting I made in eighth grade of a giraffe, yet how after a few years of classes, the Head of School chose one of my paintings for her office. As a Nightingale girl, it didn’t matter if I was bad at things to start, just that I enjoyed them. I was always made to feel that I belonged and that I mattered, regardless of how I performed. So now when I sit at my computer trying to detangle a problem that feels too big for me, my time at Nightingale reminds me that I have done equally difficult things before, and that I am so much more than the sum of my accomplishments.
Lucia Perez's 'Voices' reflection for The Blue Doors publication


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