This is the sixth and final scholar spotlight of 2017. This week, our TAURUS director, Caitlin Casey, sat down with her mentee in the TAURUS program, Jonathon Brown, a rising junior at MIT majoring in physics, about his journey and interest in astronomy in astrophysics. Jonathon is working with Prof. Casey on understanding the physical nature of candidate galaxy clusters identified by the Planck satellite.
CC: Tell us a bit about yourself. What’s your story?
JB: Hi, my name is Jonathon and I grew up in Monroe, Michigan, which is between Toledo and Detroit. I lived in Tennessee for seven years as a kid, but moved back to Michigan when I was seven. I have two younger sisters who are now 16 and 19. My family has had a difficult time dealing with the death of my father when I was a junior in high school, but we’re trying to persevere through that. I’ve been at MIT for two years now studying physics.
CC: What draws you to science and inspired you to pursue a career in astronomy (or physics)?
JB: I’ve always been interested in astronomy, often looking up at the stars as a kid and wondering how they work and where they come from. As I progressed through school I realized that I had an affinity for math and science. It just made sense to me! I started to ask myself questions about how things work, why they move a certain way, and what the math and science was behind it. After learning some calculus, everything started to make sense and I found that really eye-opening. I decided I wanted to know more about how things came to be, so that’s how I chose to study physics.
CC: What are you most proud of?
JB: To be honest, probably getting to MIT. I know that having a degree from MIT will open up doors I never knew of before; I’ll have quite a few opportunities I wouldn’t have had before, especially as a first-generation college student. It’s also important for me to be a role model to my sisters, showing them that we can change our lives, and things don’t always have to be the way they might have been in the past.
CC: What has been the most challenging obstacle you’ve faced as an undergraduate? What have you learned from that challenge?
JB: Hardest thing for me has been coming to terms with how people change, especially in the context of dealing with family tragedy. My dad’s death has been hard on everyone and it has changed my family’s dynamics in a way that has been difficult to deal with during college. Juggling my studies with that dynamic has been difficult. Sometimes my peers will say “let’s try to get through this homework set,” but my mind will be elsewhere. I feel as though I always have to perform really well, despite dealing with extra pressures in my life that some of the other students don’t have. It’s a challenge.
CC: Have you learned anything from these challenges that could be helpful to other students in similar positions?
JB: Always take care of yourself first. It’s easy to forget about yourself when you’re worried about something else happening in your life, but ultimately you’re in charge of you. Eat right, get sleep, and seek out help when you need it. Don’t let the things you can control slip away.
CC: What mentors, teachers or role models have been the most inspiring to you in your life?
JB: My dad was a major role model for me. He taught me quite a lot and was always very supportive in my learning. Some of my teachers in high school were also very encouraging and pushed me to be more ambitious with my college plans, shifting focus first from community colleges to state universities, and dream colleges like MIT. And now I’m there. At MIT, one mentor of mine, who is a staff researcher, has been helping me figure out what I might like to pursue for research. I really appreciate his effort to help me navigate my time as an undergraduate.
CC: Where to next? Where do you see yourself in 5, 10 years?
JB: I’m eager to finish up my undergraduate degree at MIT and pursue graduate school in either astronomy or astrophysics, general physics, or Earth and planetary science. I’m not sure which yet, though. Going through an experience like TAURUS has been helpful to get exposure to research. I’ve realized sometimes I struggle too much independently and I’m reserved about asking for help, but I see now that that’s a natural part about learning how to do research. I’m learning a lot of python and getting a good idea of what doing astronomy research is like, which I’m eager to pursue in graduate school.
CC: Any advice for students who might like to participate in the TAURUS program in the future?
JB: Definitely apply! You won’t know what research feels like unless you come here. More generally, I encourage you to reach out to people in the field and let them know what your interests are and seek out lots of advice.