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Department: Astrophysical Sciences

Woods Astrophysical Sciences

Deborah Freedman Woods ’01

Ph.D. Candidate in Astronomy, Harvard University

Letting curiosity lead the way

I arrived at Princeton with dreams of designing solar-powered cars, water purification systems, or windmills. Math and physics had always been my favorite subjects in school; I liked creative problem solving and I liked working with numbers. My plan was to major in mechanical engineering because I thought it would give me the background I needed for technical design work. At the end of my first semester, I decided to circle all of the classes in the course book that I wanted to take while at Princeton. I circled every class in the astrophysics department, and the only class in the engineering school that I’d circled was space flight dynamics. I realized that my selection of classes, based purely on intellectual curiosity, was leading me down a different path from the one I’d started.

In the spring of my freshman year, I took the introductory astrophysics class. I loved every minute of it. The professor, Jill Knapp, explained complicated concepts in astrophysics as if she were telling stories. She even made dust sound fascinating. By the end of the semester, I was hooked. The astro department had only a few undergraduate majors each year, but more than a dozen faculty members who were among the best in the world. Undergraduates had access to amazing research opportunities. The department also offered some flexibility for students who were interested in pursuing careers in teaching, science policy, or other fields. The undergraduate representative, Neta Bahcall, looked out for the undergrads, helping with course selection, research projects, summer opportunities, and more. It sounds like a cliché to say the department was small and close-knit, but that’s how it was. There was a department tea (with cookies!) every afternoon where the professors, postdocs, grad students, and undergrads would gather to talk about recent discoveries, research topics, or whatever else. I learned a surprising amount of astrophysics at the afternoon tea.

Far-reaching goals

Because the astro department is small and specialized, more than half the courses required for majors are in other departments, mainly physics and math. Some of the physics classes are hard; I barely made it through a couple of them, and certainly wouldn’t have without the support of my friends. Juggling classes and research was overwhelming at times. I don’t want to gloss over that fact. Still, I wouldn’t have wanted to just cruise by doing something easy if it wasn’t what I loved. No one chooses to come to Princeton because they think it will be easy. A degree in astrophysics shows that you’ve learned how to understand and solve complicated problems, which is a valuable skill anywhere you choose to apply it. My classmates in the astro department have gone on to careers as astrophysicists, lawyers, NASA policymakers, museum education coordinators, and a variety of other pursuits.

After graduating from Princeton, I went on to a Ph.D. program in astronomy at Harvard, having taken a year out to work in the Space Control Systems group at M.I.T. Lincoln Laboratory. I’m a fifth-year grad student as of this writing, and I plan to finish in another year. The main focus of my Ph.D. work is the design and implementation of astronomical instrumentation, in addition to research on gravitationally interacting galaxies. I like the combination of astronomical research with optical and mechanical design, which is what I originally came to Princeton wanting to do. I’d like to work on a technology called adaptive optics, which is used to improve image quality by correcting for the blurring caused by turbulence in the earth’s atmosphere. I’m fortunate to have the opportunity to work on what fascinates me most, and I think that’s a good way to choose a major and a career.