Star-Struck by Science

Simone Hagey, U of S physics (astronomy) student.

What do you want to be when you grow up? It’s a question we ask children as young as four or five years old, hoping to get an impossible and adorable answer. Then we ask again and again over the subsequent years, each time wanting a more realistic and serious response. There seems to be an expectation for young adults to enter the world following a meticulously structured and detailed plan. However, as USRA recipient Simone Hagey realized, taking a few detours may just lead to a future laden with worthwhile and otherwise unnoticed opportunities.

Changing Focus

Three years ago, before she came to the U of S, Hagey thought her academic future would involve becoming a chemistry major at the University of Calgary. Passionate about science but harbouring a strong dislike for physics, she believed it was the perfect fit. However, this soon proved to be an ill-suited discipline, much to the chagrin of this bright, aspiring scientist. “I didn’t like it, and I was disappointed because. . . I was so excited to be in science!” Hagey explains. After taking a year off to re-evaluate her direction of study, Hagey enrolled at the U of S, where she took an online astronomy class that changed the course of her entire academic calling. “. . . I just fell in love with it! But I realized I had to get a physics degree if I wanted to be in astronomy, because they are related, so I thought, ‘Well, let’s try physics!’”

Getting FYRE-d up at the U of S

This online class, Astronomy 104, was pivotal for Hagey not just deciding on a different major, but also launching an academic career, which she had wanted to delve into since her first year of university. The class included a First Year Research Experience (FYRE), part of the Undergraduate Research Initiative that supports faculty to provide students with an introductory course-based research project, with the guidance of senior students as research coaches. Hagey’s passion and aptitude for research were evident to her professor, Dr. Daryl Janzen, who asked her to consider working as research coach for the same class the following year. Hagey wasted no time in enthusiastically accepting the offer. “I thought that was really awesome, because I’ve always wanted to teach – hopefully at the university level someday – so I thought that this was a good way to get in that [and] get some experience.”

The U of S campus observatory, where Hagey's first research poster is on display.

Research coaching provides a paid opportunity to work closely with a professor to implement a research project in a first-year class, and then to guide students through the research process and skill development. This was a position that Hagey was hoping to fill, but she didn’t expect to get involved in this way so early into her degree. “I just assumed that it would be something that happened when I was older . . . I never would have thought to apply in my current year.”

Though first- and second-year research coaches are rare, Hagey said that to her understanding, professors seem less concerned with a coach’s age and experience than they are with attitude and effort in the classroom. “I guess I was offered these coaching jobs because my professors knew who I was . . .  I asked questions and I went to them after class and I went to their office hours to ask for help, and even if I wasn’t doing perfectly on everything, they knew who I was, they knew that I cared, and they knew that I was interested, so when it came down to finding someone to fill these roles, I came to mind.”

An Eye on the Future

The invaluable experience of coaching others through research projects have reinforced Hagey’s goal of working in a research-based career, and she recently set her her sights on a 2017 summer position with the Dunlap Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Toronto. After receiving notice that she had not been selected, Hagey was faced with the disappointing reality that she may not have the research-filled summer she envisioned. “It’s not dire, I guess, to have a research job after second year, but I really wanted one. I didn’t want to go back and work [customer service] for another summer.” Determined not to let the change in circumstance set her back, Hagey faithfully scanned the U of S’s student employment site (CareerLink) every day, where she eventually stumbled upon an engineering research opportunity facilitated by funding with the Undergraduate Student Research Assistantship (USRA) program through the Office of the Vice President Research-Strategic Research Initiatives unit. Despite being a physics student, Hagey applied for the position within engineering and was hired the day after her interview.

Simone Computer Research
Hagey examines data in Dr. Noble's lab.

This project, led by Professor Scott Noble, involves the creation and testing of an optical system that will measure light reflected off plant leaves. The data collected using this system will then be used to model the surface characteristics of the leaves as part of a larger initiative sponsored by the U of S Plant Phenotyping and Imaging Research Centre (P2IRC) and the Global Institute for Food Security (GIFS). This initiative, entitled “Designing Crops for Global Food Security,” aims to develop technology that allows for efficient methods of plant phenotyping, such as through satellite or unmanned-drone data collection. Such an endeavour would enormously increase efficiencies in farming and mass crop production, allowing for greater food security both locally and globally.

Transferable Skills

Although working in an engineering laboratory was not the direction that Hagey had in mind for the summer, she recognized hidden potential in the deeper processes involved with the project. She is helping to design an optical system which will be used to study the way that light reflects off plant leaves. “It’s not super applicable to astronomy at first glance, but with telescopes, you’re always working with optical systems, so I think it’s really good to get that experience of learning how to build them myself,” Hagey explained. She also has the potential to work with remote satellite data later in the project, which parallels processes used in planetary astronomy, such as mapping the surfaces of cosmic bodies. Finding these transferable skills in her current project made Hagey realize that “You don’t always have to take a job that’s exactly what you want to do in the future, because you can always learn something from everything you do.”

Shoot for the Stars

Hagey is learning plenty from her assistantship – working on a team with two mechanical engineering students, two research associates, and one of Scott Noble’s doctoral candidates has been invaluable to her professional development. While she felt a bit inexperienced jumping into a project with such a steep learning curve, Hagey soon realized, “That’s the point of being a summer student – you get guided . . . It’s [a chance] for you to learn, because if you didn’t have that opportunity, you’d come out of your undergrad and get thrown into grad school without having any idea what [you’re] doing, so it’s a way for you to prepare.”

Simone Optical System
Hagey explains her work on developing an optical system.

Her best piece of advice for student researchers is to defy the doubt and fear that arise from uncertainty, and instead choose to take the opportunities that interest you, even if they diverge from your intended path. “I just really want to stress being open to changing your plans, because like I said, I hated physics in my first year – I would’ve laughed at someone who told me I was in it now . . . so things change quickly. It’s important to roll with it and not stress yourself out about staying on the same track. It’s okay to change your plans!”

By leaving Calgary to discover her true passion at the U of S, Hagey set herself apart from those who remain unwilling to explore new pathways. This growth mindset and openness to experience seem to have launched her academic career in teaching and research in ways rare for junior undergraduates. Hagey plans to take the experiences gained from these invaluable opportunities and apply them to future research-focused endeavours, including re-applying for a position with the Dunlap institute in 2018. Though, true to form, she remains open to possibilities that may arise in the coming months.

Written by: Megan Fairbairn