While I was in high school in New York City, I had a naive view of science. I thought of it as a collection of facts that only existed in textbooks. Still, after physics class piqued my interest, I explored my attraction to science by interning at the American Museum of Natural History. At AMNH, I engaged visitors by performing hands-on experiments in the museum’s halls—building tinfoil penny boats to teach about buoyancy and bending light through prisms to demonstrate how telescope lenses work. I was swept away by the spark of excitement I saw in the visitors’ faces, so I decided to follow my teachers’ examples and set my sights on becoming a physics educator.

In fall 2014 I entered Hunter College, part of the City University of New York (CUNY), as a physics major. That same year I set a foot on the path to research and became a fellow in the astronomy program AstroCom NYC. My continuing internship experiences developed my understanding of the physics community and my place in it and helped me figure out what I wanted to do post-undergrad.

As part of my AstroCom NYC fellowship, the summer after my freshman year I returned to the AMNH to be a part of Brown Dwarfs in New York City (BDNYC), a collaboration between the museum, Hunter College, and CUNY College of Staten Island. I discovered that I enjoy the day-to-day tasks of research. I savored the relief of finally getting my code to run after hours of fighting bugs, the rush of giving a scientific talk, and the stop-and-go pace of remote observations, my first being on NASA’s Infrared Telescope Facility. I started to see science as a living body of knowledge and as a field populated by curious individuals.

Although I felt welcomed by the BDNYC researchers, with whom I still collaborate today, I found them somewhat intimidating. They were overwhelmingly brilliant, incredibly independent, and focused on their investigations in a way I felt I was not. I had expected that first summer to transform me into a research scientist, but I had some way to go before I could see myself as a valuable member of the group.

Victoria DiTomasso, author of this commentary, took an atypical route to her current position at the Leibniz Institute for Astrophysics Potsdam in Germany, where she studies stars under a Fulbright grant. She stands here in front of the Reichstag building, home of the German parliament.

Victoria DiTomasso, author of this commentary, took an atypical route to her current position at the Leibniz Institute for Astrophysics Potsdam in Germany, where she studies stars under a Fulbright grant. She stands here in front of the Reichstag building, home of the German parliament.

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During sophomore year, I continued my research with BDNYC but also became involved with BridgeUp: STEM, a program for high school girls interested in learning coding for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. My role was to mentor two students in their programming-based projects related to the work being done by BDNYC. My mentees used Python and SQL to analyze brown dwarf data and produce visualizations; at the end of the year, they presented a scientific poster. Guiding the students helped change my thinking that I was less than a scientist. In their eyes, I was the expert, a view that certainly built my confidence. As the liaison between the students and my own mentor from BDNYC, I got an inside look at what goes into designing a student’s project. As I learned more about brown dwarfs, built coding techniques, went on more observing runs, and gave more presentations, I shared my journey with the students so we could grow together.

Although working with the students helped me feel like a scientist, it ultimately made me reconsider going into education. The summer after my sophomore year I pursued an internship of a different type: I became a Society of Physics Students (SPS) history intern at the American Institute of Physics (which publishes Physics Today). I wrote teaching guides about the history of women and minorities in the physical sciences. For what seemed like the first time, I read about physicists other than Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein. I found plenty of evidence that collaboration among scientists with diverse backgrounds and identities, as opposed to the singular genius of a few male luminaries, has pushed the field forward throughout history. I became emboldened to believe that I could be in those history books someday.

During my SPS internship I also learned about science careers beyond research and academia, particularly in science policy. I and the other interns attended a briefing by NASA and the Planetary Society on Capitol Hill, participated in a STEM fair put on by Women’s Policy Inc (now the Women’s Congressional Policy Institute), and spoke with the Democratic chief of staff for the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. Meeting scientists in a government setting opened my eyes to how a STEM education and career could enable me to have influence beyond my field.

Next, as a representative of the American Astronomical Society, I participated in a STEM Congressional Visits Day. I received further training from the society on how the government functions and how I, a scientist and citizen, can affect it. My experiences that summer made me realize that continuing in research beyond my college years could open doors to other careers, including in education and science policy.

Over the following two years I continued to do research at the AMNH and the University of Michigan, through their Summer Research Opportunities Program. I purposefully balanced my efforts in fundamental research and nonresearch activities. I wrote articles for national physics undergraduate publications; helped revive Hunter College’s physics and astronomy club and served as its vice president; served on AMNH’s Youth and Alumni Committee, where I helped run student events and promoted education programs; and organized a coding “hack day” for CUNY women in STEM. The “soft” skills that I developed in those nonresearch pursuits served me well in giving presentations, participating in discipline-specific workshops, and collaborating with scientists.

During my last year as an undergraduate, I applied to PhD programs in astronomy and astrophysics and for post-baccalaureate positions. In my application, I highlighted the multiple ways in which I had participated in science throughout my college years. I came to appreciate the early and long-standing investment that my mentors at BDNYC, AstroCom NYC, and the University of Michigan had made in me as they supported my research and allowed me time and freedom to identify and follow my own path. Because of those experiences I can envision making a contribution to the field, and I see it arising from my passion for education, communication, and collaboration and from my varied experience. I consider myself fortunate that admissions committees seem to have seen value in the skills I gained outside the lab.

The days of scientists all having the same personal and professional background are slowly coming to an end. My story here may be a bit uncommon, but I don’t think it should be. Varied internship experiences have shaped my idea of physics as a field into that of one I can see myself working in long term. They have also helped me gain skills that will ultimately form my contributions to the field, and those skills are not mathematical genius or the ability to answer a hundred physics questions in three hours. I have gone from planning to be a high school physics teacher to receiving a Fulbright grant for 2018–19 to study the lowest mass stars at the Leibniz Institute for Astrophysics Potsdam in Germany. And now I have plans to enroll this fall in Harvard University’s astronomy department to pursue a PhD.

Especially for students who do not fit the scientist stereotype, having the opportunities and time to explore a field and find their place in it is essential. The scientific community would do well to make various opportunities accessible to students with different socioeconomic, racial, and educational backgrounds; gender identities; sexual orientations; and physical abilities. Science directly benefits from a diverse set of thinkers with diverse skills.