MAP speaker inspires students to pursue astronomy

January 21, 2015 — by Caitlin Ju

Dr. Jill Tarter, an astronomer and astrophysicist, was invited by the Media Arts Program and PTSO to speak with the Saratoga Community on Jan. 15.

The importance of science education and the desire to explore were two of the main themes in an address given by  Dr. Jill Tarter, an astronomer and astrophysicist who was invited by the Media Arts Program and PTSO to speak with the Saratoga community.

A wide audience gathered at the school library on Jan. 15 to listen to Tarter.

Tarter works at the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute and holds a Bachelor of Engineering Physics Degree with Distinction from Cornell University and a Master’s Degree and Ph.D. in Astronomy from UC Berkeley. She has additionally received two Public Service Medals from NASA, and in 2004 was named by “Time Magazine” as one of the Time 100 most influential people in the world. She is also one of three TED prizewinners in 2009 and a recipient of the Silicon Valley Women of Influence 2010 Award. Tarter has also had her work portrayed by Jodie Foster in the 1997 movie “Contact.”

The event, moderated by Saratoga High student Samir Ramakrishnan, allowed Tarter to share her knowledge and experience in astronomy and astrophysics.

Incorporating humor and interesting anecdotes, Tarter was able to easily grab the attention of the audience with her powerpoint slide and answers to Ramakrishnan’s questions.

When asked about how she chose engineering for her undergraduate studies, Tarter answered that she decided when she was 8 years old in a conversation with her dad. After her dad told her that her mom had said she “ought to spend more time with her learning how to do girl things,” she became “furious,” not understanding why she had to make a choice between “girl” and “guy” things.

“I said, ‘I want to be an engineer.’ Unfortunately my dad died a couple years later, so I got stubborn, and was like I was going to do this for my dad — get an engineering degree, and I did,” Tarter recounted.

Her switch from engineering to astronomy was more out of luck, ignited when she took courses at graduate school in all different subjects. When she happened to take a course on star formation, the topic fascinated her and led her to the path of astronomy and SETI.

When Tarter was recruited to be a part of the SETI program, she was “amazed that [she] was in a particularly fabulous place and time.”

She explained that she realized the change in the importance of science in the middle of the 20th century.

“Suddenly engineers and scientists had some new tools, and they could begin to do an experiment, an observation to answer this old question rather than accept someone else’s belief system,” Tarter said. “And I was like, ‘I’m in.’”

One student who was impressed was sophomore Kanika Seth.

“I thought she was a great person and really inspirational,” Seth said. “When I talked to her separately, she genuinely seemed interested in what I was saying. I’ve always wanted to be an astrophysicist, and this just made me want to be one even more.”

Tarter reiterated on the SETI Institute’s purpose and her belief that science is the best investment.

“The whole arc of the SETI story has been to change the verb ‘to believe’ to the verb ‘to explore,’” she said.

Through all her personal stories, she carried a message for aspiring female high students considering a career in science: “Do it.”

“Think of the privilege of going to work every day and working on questions that you posed, questions that you want to find the answer to, questions that illuminate, explain things no one else understood before,” Tarter said. “The thing I like about science and I like to tell students is when you’re a scientist, you never have to grow up. You have never have to stop asking why.”