Dr. Molly Peeples is an Aura Assistant Astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland. She received her B.S. in Physics from MIT and went on to complete her MS and PhD in Astronomy at Ohio State University. Molly was then awarded a Southern California Center for Galaxy Evolution Fellowship during which she worked at UCLA. In 2013, Molly joined the Space Telescope Science Institute as a postdoctoral fellow, and a year later she became a member of the staff and continues to do amazing research there. Molly joined us for an interview to tell us more about her life and science.
People Behind the Science Podcast Show Notes
Life Outside of Science (2:01)
There are a lot of great parks around Baltimore, so Molly likes getting outside to go hiking in her free time. She also enjoys cooking, reading, trying new cocktails, exploring new bars in town, and playing board games with friends.
The Scientific Side (3:46)
Molly’s research is improving our understanding of galaxies and helping to reveal why galaxies are different from each other and how galaxies have changed over time. To do this, she traces the origins and fates of heavy elements that were all originally produced within stars. Examining where the elements end up gives us information on how gas flows into and out of galaxies. Molly also does modeling and runs simulations to better understand what is going on in the universe.
A Dose of Motivation (6:37)
“Go big or go home.”
What Got You Hooked on Science? (9:06)
Molly started off really interested in math. During high school, she did a few science fair projects, and through these, Molly discovered she was interested in pursuing a career in scientific research. She preferred the physical sciences to biology, but she wasn’t sure what field to pursue. In college, a combination of being paired with an unsupportive particle physics advisor, working with a really helpful relativity professor, and the release of exciting results from a NASA space probe (WMAP1) prompted Molly to chose astrophysics as her field of study.
The Low Points: Failures and Challenges (21:58)
Towards the end of her postdoctoral appointment at UCLA, Molly started applying for jobs and had a really tough time. She was shortlisted for a few jobs but didn’t get any offers. With time running short and a limited support network in LA, Molly wasn’t sure what to do next. Luckily, one of her contacts at the Space Telescope Science Institute was able to secure enough funds to pay her for a year. This was a big relief, but it also meant she had to start applying for jobs again right away. It worked out in the end, but having a plan B would have been a good idea. Another ongoing challenge Molly faces is balancing efforts on her own research with her work supporting other telescopes and projects. The latter may have more pressing deadlines, pressure from people knocking on her door asking for things, and more open-ended tasks, but it is important for her to make sure she dedicates enough time to her research.
A Shining Success! (26:06)
Molly spent most of the summer co-authoring a long review article, and there was a time crunch at the last minute to get it submitted by the deadline. Looking back, she was pleased with how it turned out since it was a nice article, had superb graphics and figures, and going through the literature allowed them to gain a more holistic perspective on the field. They spent a few months working really hard on the paper, and it felt good to get it done. As a bonus, she’s looking forward to getting a cool mug from the journal when the paper is published.
Book Recommendations (31:13)
The Three Body Problem Trilogy by Liu Cixin
Most Treasured Travel (33:07)
There was a conference in a remote area in Tuscany that Molly attended with about 60 other scientists working on astrochemistry. The conference events were held in a building that used to be a monastery, and the attendees stayed in nearby farmhouses. Each day, they had a gorgeous scenic walk overlooking the Tuscan countryside on their way to the conference, and the food and wine were phenomenal. On the final night of the conference, there was a walking buffet with a wide variety of amazing food items and wines to sample.
Quirky Traditions and Funny Memories (37:02)
The people Molly works with are wonderful. Even after pushing really hard for a deadline and exchanging hundreds of emails with these people, she still gets excited to send them texts with pictures of her celebratory drinks. They have a developed a habit now of texting each other pictures of martinis after finishing proposals or papers.
Advice For Us All (42:48)
Work with the people who you want to work with and who you enjoy spending time with. You’ll enjoy your science and your career much more if you do.
Molly mainly works on topics in galaxy evolution, using the heavy elements as tracer particles of the flows of gas into, within, and out of galaxies. She is particularly interested in the interplay between galaxies and the intergalactic and circumgalactic media, with a focus on how star formation and stellar deaths affect galaxies and their surroundings. Molly uses different theoretical models (empirical, semi-empirical, analytic, semi-analytic, hydrodynamic simulations, etc.) to both extract from the data as much information as possible and to get at the underlying physical processes giving rise to the observations. As part of her duties at the Space Telescope Science Institute, Molly is on the Hubble’s Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS) team. The STIS acts like a large prism to separate light from the cosmos into its component colors. With this “wavelength fingerprint”, she can determine the chemical composition, temperature, density, and motion of an object they are observing. She is also one of the creators of the Hubble Spectroscopic Legacy Archive. In addition, Molly is a member of NASA’s WFIRST team which aims to answer important questions about dark energy, exoplanets, and infrared astrophysics. She is a co-chair of the WFIRST Wide Field Imager Simulations Working Group.
*This episode was originally published on January 9, 2017.