My Story

Z-Dome and the Toeller Observatory at the Milwaukee Astronomical Society Observatory.

“Someday you’ll find your place. Someday you’ll find your people,” my mother would say to me as, teary-eyed and frustrated, I’d come home from school. Days like this were common when I was younger: my unconventional pastimes–math, writing, and astronomy–made me feel alone, out of place. Skeptical of my mother’s advice, I grew hopeless, thinking that I would forever be alone. Eventually though, I found my place.

            The field is pitch black, silent. Large domes dot the landscape, their hemispheres silhouetted against the dark, starry, night sky. Between the domes, several smaller buildings open to the heavens, their telescopes pointed up, following the stars. A wall of pine trees encases the observatory, separating its solitude from the bustle of nearby Milwaukee.

            Within that wall, I lie in the grass, covered in dew, staring at the sky. Hundreds of brilliant shards illuminate the heavens as a discrete line of glittery haze forms a complex galactic arch above. Surrounded by telescopes and constant conversations about star hopping and theoretical astrophysics, I am home.

            The Milwaukee Astronomical Society (MAS) Observatory is not a place for a teenager: a typical night there could feature heat exhaustion or frostbite, exotic bugs or field mice, advanced technology or decade-old computers, and worst of all, until months ago, no internet. Yet, despite it all, I have fallen in love with it—the domes, the sky, the stars, everything. I have spent countless nights there, propping up an air mattress in the observatory and sleeping under the stars while gathering data on distant galaxies or stellar nurseries.

            The observatory has become my second home, and the very foundation for my activities in astronomy. Everything from the creation of the astronomy club at my high school, to the trip to New Mexico to accept my Horkheimer awards last summer, as well as every single period of growth, newfound ambition, academic improvement, and experience deepened my conviction that I would pursue astronomy, can be solely attributed to the club’s members. Beyond that, I have reached out across the nation and the world to astronomers including Torsten Böker at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, and John Friedman, Distinguished Professor of Physics at UW-Milwaukee, with whom I converse regularly. Through MAS and the world of astronomy, I not only found my place in the cosmos, but my people under the heavens, just as my mother knew I would. 

            Through my skepticism, my mother knew that I was not the first in our immediate family to go through the same thing. Her father–my grandfather–an engineer and astronomer, died just months before I was born. Though I never knew him, my family tells me he was curious, intelligent and polymathic. Feeling out of place himself, he joined MAS and found his people; from the age of Sputnik to the early 2000s, he was a dedicated member of the club, serving as President and leading several research operations at its observatory.

            The remarkable coincidence of our involvement with MAS has my family convinced that I am his reincarnation; as I fulfill the dream I’ve had since I was four of becoming an astrophysicist and a science communicator, I hope to become as intrinsically connected to astronomy as he was.

            Nevertheless, as I stargaze at the same observatory my grandfather once presided over, I am surrounded by people who represent who he was: curious, lost in the stars, dedicated to fostering the next generation of astronomers and science enthusiasts. And by finding myself, my place and my people, I realize that I am embodying the grandfather my parents told me about.

            Perhaps that is why I love looking up at the night sky: I can see not only the past, as we normally see in the stars, but I can see my future. I can see the person I am becoming, through the people who helped me find my place.