Astrophysics, Fashion, and DJ Carly Sagan: An Interview with Emily Rice

People get worried about being on this direct path, especially for something that’s perceived as competitive, like science or academia, but really there’s a lot of people that took a more winding path or forged their own way.

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Interview by Alex Hanson

Emily Rice is an astrophysicist, assistant professor at City University of New York, research associate at the American Museum of Natural History, co-founder at the astronomy-meets-fashion blog STARtorialist, host of Astronomy on Tap in New York City, parody video creator, and overall kickass lady. She is a master of combining the expressive and the scientific, and her projects contribute to a sense of community within astronomy, as well as showing the general public that science can be fun and creative. I got to interview Emily over Google Hangout about her work, STARtorialist, and her DJ alter ego.

Alex: What do you do at the Museum of Natural History?

Emily: My full time job is CUNY (City University of New York) faculty, so I’m a tenure track assistant professor at the College of Staten Island. Because my CUNY department is actually Engineering Science and Physics, and there’s only a couple of astronomers, I don’t do a lot of research there— I focus on teaching. But at the museum they have this really nice arrangement where all of the CUNY faculty in astro, because we’re all in physics departments or science departments, are in research associate positions at the museum. This is actually common, it’s not only astronomy that does this, it’s also some of the other biological sciences that are at the museum, and it’s a great way to provide this awesome resource and community for sciences and scientists that would otherwise be very dispersed in the city.

What classes do you teach?

I most often teach an astronomy intro class, like astronomy for non-science majors, and every once in awhile they need me to teach something else. I’ve taught a couple upper-level physics and astrophysics classes when the department needs me to.

The intro astro one is a big lecture class. I love the performance aspect of it. I like the challenge of having the kids in the back that are sleeping, but I’m going to try to wake them up, or I’m going to make them regret sleeping through it. Not to say I didn’t sleep through classes as an undergrad, but I like that the challenge is always there.

What inspired you to start STARtorialist?

Ever since grad school in the back of my head I was starting to see clothes with stars on it, and there was Black Milk, this Australian clothing company that made leggings with Hubble space telescope and other real space images on them. They were out of my budget at the time, but when I moved to New York a couple years later they were popping up more and more and I was like, “This is a thing!” I wanted to keep track of it but I didn’t want to have to buy everything in order to keep track. I tossed around the idea of starting a blog, but I didn’t know what to do or have the motivation to do it. I happened to be mentioning it at an event and Summer Ash was there, who is the director of outreach at Columbia astro, and she was like, “That’s awesome, I’ll help you!”

So we started planning in a Google Doc and finding things from Etsy or ModCloth and different online shops, and trying to figure out names— we have probably a full page of science facts and name puns. Once we had the name we ran with it: we got the Tumblr and all the social media accounts and started testing the waters at the end of December. By the end of that next year we had a thousand followers, we got some press coverage that January, and now we have almost 20,000 followers on Tumblr and over 1,300 posts. We post three or four times a day sometimes.

That is so fun!

It was a very grassroots, organic thing. I met Summer a bunch, she went to Astronomy on Tap, and we met once at a coffee shop to talk about our goals and tone. The rest of it is all over email and Twitter— we joke about having the same brain, because we’ll start writing the same post at the same time even though we rarely ever see each other.

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Emily and Summer, STARtorialist editors, via startorialist.com

Did you always know you wanted to work in astrophysics or did you have other career goals when you were younger?

I’m still not sure I want to be an astrophysicist! That’s a good thing: I am doing what I want to do because I want to do it now, not just because I’ve always wanted to do it. When I was growing up I was always into school— science, but also English and history. I kind of always thought I would be a politician. I was really into women in politics. By high school, math and science took over, so that’s what I planned to do in college. I wanted to major in math, but I happened to read a popular science book by Timothy Ferris that was suggested by my math teacher. It was then I realized that stars are not just points of light that never change! They live and they die and they’re variable and they move! And I had no idea it was described by this same physics that I had been learning. So I signed up for an astronomy class that happened to be the first class in the major and I loved it. I didn’t have a long term goal, I just kept wanting to do the next thing.

It’s a different way of thinking about it, because I don’t have a long term plan, but I don’t stress about having to be a full time professor at Harvard or something like that. People get worried about being on this direct path, especially for something that’s perceived as competitive, like science or academia, but really there’s a lot of people that took a more winding path or forged their own way. For me, it was talking to of those people and learning that a lot of successful people also didn’t know what they were doing at the time. We pretend that we do, which is really just hope. Some people think they know what they’re doing, but they’re delusional.

What has been the most exciting moment of your career so far?

That’s a tough one, there’s so many. Weirdly, the thing that I keep going back to is this project I have that is not related to science but kind of related to science. I make parody videos. It started several years ago at a conference called .Astronomy that I went to. It’s all online collaborative astronomy tools, like new ways of doing research and outreach, and I decided I wanted to make a video. It was right around the time that the “Shit People Say” videos were really popular. A friend of mine and I had brainstormed about a “Shit Astronomers Say” video. What would astronomers say? We would talk about reading papers and getting our papers published, and travel, because we get to travel to awesome places and we still complain about it, and we would talk about coding and what people say at seminars.

We filmed it basically in a day, edited it that night, put together a rough version of it, and finished it about a week later. It was pretty good— a bunch of astronomers have seen it, so if someone at a talk says “I have a comment and a question” then everyone starts giggling because that’s one of the things in the video.

Who were your role models growing up and who are they now?

Right now it’s the people that push the envelope and take no shit and are like, “Yes I’m here, this is what I’m doing, and you better like it or get out of my way.” The one that’s going to pop into my head the most is a very non-sciencey one, and her name is Laura Jane Grace. She’s the lead singer of a punk band called Against Me!. It started with Laura and her friends, when she was a sixteen-year-old high school dropout. But at the time she wasn’t known as Laura, she was known as Tom. They had an album that was pretty big and some videos that were played on MTV, then they got less popular again and a couple people left the band. Then she came out in Rolling Stone and said “Actually I’m transgender, my name is Laura Jane Grace.” That could be the end of somebody’s career, but she just launched a huge career— Against Me!’s next album, called “Transgender Dysphoria Blues,” was amazing. Punk is a very potentially misogynistic community, a tough community, and for her to come out and be a transgender woman and still lead this band is totally badass. She’s working on a book and she’s in a video series for AOL called True Trans and she’s also done a music series with MTV called Rebel Music, that’s bringing together music from different populations and indigenous populations. She just could have faded away and lived her own life or just kept doing what she was doing, but instead she decided to take control and become this figurehead for a lot of different things. She’s a super badass. And the music is awesome.

As far as role models growing up, I don’t know. A lot of my teachers were very encouraging. I don’t know if I had a celebrity role model or anything. Mostly teachers and authors.

What opportunities do you think new media is affording for science’s place in pop culture and in the community?

I couldn’t even name the opportunities because there’s just so many, and I think a lot of them we don’t even know exist yet. The great thing about these is that anybody can do them, so it’s very democratizing. I’m excited to see what the next social media platform is, because every one of them is a little bit different with different opportunities, different ways to share things, different audiences, and different stories to tell. It’s so fantastic.

These opportunities are basically limitless. Anyone really can have an influence. Now a lot of professional research astronomers know what STARtorialist is, they send stuff to us, they buy the t-shirts that we put on the blog, they buy stuff for their kids, and now it’s a thing that we talk about and that we do. It’s okay to talk about clothes, it’s okay to care about clothes as a scientist, which is fun. I feel like we’ve helped normalize being a appearance-conscious person in science.

That is so awesome. Do you have anything else you’d like to share?

The one project that I didn’t touch on too much was Astronomy on Tap. It’s a public outreach event series of astronomy presentations in bars. I agreed to speak at the first New York City one in April 2013, and it was awesome. We very quickly made a bunch of changes, but we also very quickly had events every two or three months. The woman who started it moved away and I took over organizing it and I’ve been doing that ever since. I do one or two events each month, and share with other astronomers how we run it so they can take it to other places. They took it to Columbus, back to New Haven where it started, now Seattle, Austin, Toronto, there were events in Chile for a little while, one in Taipei, Chicago, Tucson, and hopefully the Bay Area and Los Angeles soon.

We do give public talks at observatories and planetariums, but this is much more fun, quicker, engaging, informal, creative and interactive. We do games, play music, and we do quizzes with prizes. We also started giving out glow necklaces for asking a question. That lowered the barrier for asking an astrophysicist a question, because that can be kind of intimidating. It’s so much fun. I’ve developed a kind of emcee persona. I host the events as DJ Carly Sagan.

Oh my gosh.

She has orange hair and she wears glasses. That’s the main difference between me and Carly Sagan, is that she wears glasses and I don’t. Her outfit is done by STARtorialist.

That’s another one of those things that I didn’t know how it would go over, but people love it. I’m kind of waiting for someone who knew Carl Sagan to be like, “you have to stop this” but it hasn’t happened yet.

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Emily as DJ Carly Sagan via @DJCarlySagan on Twitter

I feel like Carl Sagan would be into that, though. He’d be like, “you’re bringing it to the masses, you’re making it fun.”

I would like to think that he would like the pop music and stuff like that too.

When I’m twenty-one, you’ll see me at Astronomy on Tap. With my glow necklaces.

You have to earn them!

I will! Thank you so much for talking with me! Have a great rest of your day!

Thank you! You too!

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