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Astrophysical Sciences

Alison L. Coil ’97

Assistant Professor of Astrophysics, University of California–San Diego

At Princeton I chose to major in astrophysical sciences. I chose this field because, starting in high school, I was very interested to learn what was known about the universe. I heard a public lecture about the expansion of space, the Big Bang, and the ultimate fate of the universe. The scope and vastness of space hooked my attention; it was quite simply the coolest thing I had ever heard about. I had done well enough in math and science in high school to have confidence that if I wanted to learn this subject, I could. It was not easy—some of my math and physics classes at Princeton were quite challenging, and I didn’t always feel as though I knew what was going on. Being one of the few women in my physics classes was also daunting, especially when the guys projected so much confidence. But I very much enjoyed my astrophysics courses, and I did well in them. In my junior year I began to do research projects, which I really liked. Playing with real data, figuring out things that weren't known before, was much more interesting to me than coursework.

Along the way I also studied photography, architecture, and philosophy with a passion. By my senior year I wasn’t sure if I wanted to pursue astrophysics or philosophy after I graduated, so I took enough coursework in both (and did independent research in both) so that I could apply to graduate school in both philosophy and astrophysics.

It was only after I visited graduate programs in both fields that it was clear what path I wanted to take. I enrolled in graduate school in astrophysics at the University of California–Berkeley, got my Ph.D. six years later, and went on to do postdoctoral research at the University of Arizona with an independent fellowship. After that I was offered a junior faculty position at the University of California–San Diego, where I am now. This is my third year as a faculty member, and I’m thrilled both with my job and with getting to live in such a lovely area!

Making the choice that’s more fun

My days are now spent teaching, advising students, taking data from telescopes, analyzing the data to extract whatever it is that I'm interested in learning about, and writing papers and proposals and giving talks about my work. My field of research is studying distant galaxies, which lie billions of light years away from Earth. By looking back in time and seeing what the universe used to be like and comparing that to how it is today, we can construct theories of how galaxies form and change with time to ultimately understand how the universe came to be what it is today.

I had been interested in the academic career path even before college, and I’ve stuck with that. Choosing which field to study, however, was a major question for me and a cause of great angst. In the end I chose astrophysics in part because it was more social and just as creative as other non-scientific fields I studied. It seemed more fun. My undergraduate education was clearly crucial for laying the foundation of my background in astrophysics, and in particular it was the access to undertaking original research projects early on that made me the most excited about working in the field.

I should say that none of the possible career paths I was interested in are known for their plethora of potential jobs or financial rewards. The academic career path is not the easiest in some respects. But I’ve managed to do quite well, in part because once I knew what I wanted to do, I focused on it and kept moving forward.

Self-doubt can be a major obstacle, as can listening to people who place seeds of doubt in your mind. In the end I wound up doing exactly what it was that I wanted to do—I learned to listen to myself, and I think that’s helped me in my career as well as my life.