Lavontria Aaron

As an aspiring first-generation PhD student, Lavontria Miché Aaron found that applying to graduate school was difficult on many levels. Her family had no experience with the procedure and she had limited financial resources. As she searched for assistance and support, Aaron amassed a detailed list of scholarships, internships, fellowships, graduate application fee waivers, travel grants and mentors. Now studying planetary science as a PhD student at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, Aaron has shared her curated resources on Twitter to help other students and aspiring students who are members of minority ethnic groups. Her original tweet from 20 March of this year has been retweeted 1,800 times and ‘liked’ 2,400 times.

What motivated you to tweet a link to all the resources you amassed?

In March, when I was at my first Lunar and Planetary Sciences Conference (LPSC) in The Woodlands, Texas, I walked into the exhibit hall and met two students of colour at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) booth. They were curious about internship and research programmes, and I mentioned that I had resources to share. I wound up talking to them for more than an hour about opportunities that help students of colour get into graduate programmes. There are schemes to help offset the costs of graduate-examination preparation courses and tests and graduate-school application fees. At around US$70 each, those outlays can pile up quickly if you apply to more than one school, and I had applied to five. The students were so grateful and asked how I knew about these resources. I was the first person in my family to go to college. A lot of the resources I found on my own; people mentioned others to me when they heard my career goals.

What happened next?

I decided to tweet that I had these resources to share with other interested people of colour. I didn’t think it would explode like it has. On the first day, I was e-mailing the information to individuals who got in touch through Twitter. Then I looked at my phone, and there were already 400 likes and retweets. Given the interest, I organized everything into a Google doc. Therese Jones, senior director of policy at the Satellite Industry Association in Washington DC, contacted me through Twitter to offer her database of space-related opportunities to combine with my resources. I posted the link on Twitter. We live in the age of the Internet, yet there are so many resources that people don’t know about.

Describe your own graduate research.

In 2014, I got a bachelor’s degree in earth and environmental science from Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, and then, in 2017, a master’s in geographic information systems from Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas. During my master’s programme, I did internships at the NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, and at the Army Geospatial Center in Alexandria, Virginia. I was also a visiting scientist at the Geophysical Laboratory of the Carnegie Institution in Washington DC. While I was looking for a PhD programme nearby to avoid an expensive move, Andrew Steele, a mentor I’d had at Carnegie, kept me on the path of pursuing my interest in Martian spectroscopy. He directed me to collaborators at Johns Hopkins University, who then connected me to researchers at the APL in Laurel, Maryland.

How diverse is the field of planetary sciences?

The field is relatively new, and still heavily populated with white people. It shows we have a lot of work to do. To be honest, while I’ve introduced myself to white people, I’ve had people who weren’t members of minority ethnic groups introduce themselves to me at conferences, but they were mostly women. Whenever I’ve seen another minority student at a conference, I’ve immediately introduced myself and exchanged information. There’s also a Facebook page for women of colour in physics and astronomy. I tweeted about diversity and inclusion from the LPSC conference this year, and used that thread to find other potential collaborators and women of colour in planetary sciences.

How does this experience fit into your overall career goals?

Once I am a working planetary scientist, I hope to use spectroscopy to study astrobiology on Venus and Mars. In addition, I want to create my own foundation to offer fellowships, scholarships and travel grants to help under-represented students achieve their dreams. Until then, I want people of colour to know about the opportunities that exist.

Was there an early experience that motivated you to study astronomy?

I spent my school years with my grandparents in Louisiana, and my summers with my mum in Houston, Texas. If my mum hadn’t lived there, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I went every day to the Space Center in Houston. I was infatuated with the space shuttle, meeting astronauts, all things space-related. I told my grandparents that when I grew up, I wanted to work for NASA. And now I’ve done just that. I’ve encountered more brick walls than anyone can count, but I made it to my goal, even if it was off the beaten path.