ExplorersBio

Knicole Colón

Astronomer

Young Explorers Grantee

Photo: Gran Telescopio Canarias in the Canary Islands of Spain

Photograph by Knicole Colón

Photo: Knicole Colon

Photograph by Kristina Nyland

Birthplace: California

Current City: Gainesville, Florida

What did you want to be when you were growing up?

I was born in California, and when I lived there I would often "listen" for earthquakes by lying on the floor and putting my ear to the ground. Considering that I wasn't even five years old at the time, my family pretty much knew I was destined to be a scientist! Over the years, my interests evolved from meteorology (I wanted to be a tornado chaser) to archaeology (I wanted to look for mummies) and eventually settled on astronomy after seeing the movie Contact with Jodie Foster. My dad encouraged my interest in astronomy, and I would say I was about 12 years old when I officially decided that I wanted to be an astronomer.

How did you get started in your field of work?

My undergraduate degree (from the College of New Jersey) is actually based in physics, but I took advantage of several different opportunities during college in order to maximize my experiences with astronomy. I took the few astronomy courses my department offered, worked at the campus observatory, and did a semester-long independent research project with one of my professors in the spring of 2006 (which involved studying the properties of an eclipsing binary star system). Then, I spent the summer of 2006 participating in a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program sponsored by the National Science Foundation. The program was held at Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, and my project involved studying a massive star-forming region using data taken with the Arecibo radio telescope. That program was truly a life-changing experience for me, and I'll never forget how much fun I had while I was there! Between these experiences, I was sold on astronomy and proceeded to apply to astronomy programs for graduate school.

What inspires you to dedicate your life to astronomy?

To paraphrase a quote from Contact, we know that the universe is a big place, with billions and billions of stars. We also know that some fraction of stars have planets. Even if only a very tiny fraction of those planets are inhabited, well, that's enough of a reason for me to dedicate my life to astronomy.

What's a normal day like for you?

A "normal" day involves going to my office, analyzing data, writing papers, writing observing proposals, you know, the "usual" stuff. In reality, each day can be very different depending on what deadlines are coming up and what projects I am working on. Currently, I am working on finishing up my dissertation, and I'm also preparing a talk that I will be giving at a workshop on M dwarf stars in Hawaii.

Do you have a hero?

Well, each member of my family will always be a hero to me in different ways. Besides them, I'd have to say that Ellie Arroway, the main character in Contact, is truly a hero to me. Even though she is (basically) a fictional character, she fights for what she believes in and never gives up. I find her to be very inspiring. Correspondingly, I'd say that Carl Sagan is also one of my heroes, along with Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler, and basically all the people that first looked up at the night sky in wonder thousands of years ago.

What has been your favorite experience in the field? The most challenging?

I've only had a few experiences in the field, as most of my data is acquired through a "queue" observing process and is sent to me while I sleep (kidding ... sort of!). Of my most recent fieldwork, I would say my favorite experience was the first time I laid eyes on the enormous 10.4-meter Gran Telescopio Canarias, which is the heart and soul of my Ph.D. work. I basically looked at it in awe and understood for the first time how lucky I was to have access to such a powerful telescope. There have been different challenges throughout my fieldwork, but what I consider to be the most challenging is admittedly traveling to and being at observatories! They are located on these remote mountaintops (as they should be), so you have to take many planes and crazy roads to get there. Then, when you are up there, you can feel very tiny, as though you are all alone in the world. Compared to that, technical challenges can seem easy.

What are your other passions?

My passion is to just live my life the way I want to live it! And, well, any book by Sharon Shinn, any game developed by Blizzard Entertainment, Vera Bradley, the NFL, things like that.

What do you do in your free time?

I guess because my field of work is so unique, I spend my free time doing pretty standard things! On normal days, I really enjoy winding down with a good book or movie, or I play computer games. I've also had a chance to visit numerous theme parks during my time living in Florida, which has been a lot of fun. I have to say that doing nothing is usually a pretty ideal way for me to spend my free time though!

If you could have people do one thing to help save space exploration what would it be?

Do whatever you can to keep the Kepler mission going!

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In Their Words

To paraphrase a quote from Contact, we know that the universe is a big place, with billions and billions of stars. We also know that some fraction of stars have planets. Even if only a very tiny fraction of those planets are inhabited, well, that's enough of a reason for me to dedicate my life to astronomy.

—Knicole Colón

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