This is the fourth of six profile pieces about the 2017 TAURUS Scholars. Meet Pa Chia Thao, from Mt Holyoke College working with Dr. Andrew Mann, who writes about Pa Chia's passion for and growing experience in astronomy.
This summer, Pa Chia joined us from Mount Holyoke College as a TAURUS scholar. Pa Chia will be working on Spitzer data taken on two young planetary systems, which she will use to study the atmospheres of these planets, and more generally, understand how exoplanet atmospheres change over their lifetimes. I spoke with Pa Chia about her story, background, research interests, and future plans:
Pa Chia’s story begins back with the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War and is intricately tied with the recent history of the Hmong. When war spread from Vietnam to neighboring Laos, the U.S. recruited Hmong heavily to fight communism, with the U.S. offering independent and autonomous control of their homeland. When the U.S. withdrew from Vietnam, the Laotian Government declared Hmong enemies of the state, forcing them to flee. Pa Chia’s parents ended up in a refugee camp in Thailand, where she and her two brothers were born. It was years before her family were allowed entry into the United States.
Not long after her arrival in the U.S., Pa Chia quickly discovered her love of STEM. By sixth grade, she was transferred to an aerospace elementary school, which peaked her interest in astronomy and aerospace specifically. Since then, she has always been curious about how the world works and has strived to become a scientist. Her interest only grew when she began to do research for herself.
In college, Pa Chia got involved in a broad range of astronomical research. She is currently working with Jason Young, examining warm Spitzer data of low-surface brightness galaxies with warm Spitzer data, which will become her senior thesis. She has also been identifying signatures of ram-pressure stripping in blue compact dwarf galaxies in Virgo. Last summer, she took part in an REU at the University of Toledo with Noel Richardson, searching for high-mass members of Galactic open clusters. Although most of her background has been in Galactic and stellar astronomy, Pa Chia has a passion for a wide range of topics and has shown the greatest enthusiasm toward working on exoplanets this summer.
Pa Chia was particularly drawn to the TAURUS program because she felt the program’s mission to improve representation in astronomy is extremely important and that the goals ‘spoke to her, directly’. She also welcomed the opportunity to broaden her research experiences beyond stellar and extragalactic work and to sample a wider range of astronomy before picking a specific path in graduate school. She is eager to leverage her TAURUS research-project to improve her programming skills and is particularly looking forward to the trip to McDonald to gain more observing experience with a larger telescope.
After completing her undergraduate degree, Pa Chia plans to take some time off from academics. She has particularly expressed interest in helping others abroad through the Peace Corps. After this, she plans to apply to graduate school and eventually pursue a career in astronomy. As Pa Chia progresses through these experiences, she hopes to follow in her parents’ fearlessness as they overcame tremendous odds and is continually thankful for the sacrifices that they both made so that she can have the opportunities that her parents never had.