by Pilar Vergeli
Amber Young is a graduate student at Northern Arizona University.
As a rising 3rd year graduate student at Northern Arizona University, Amber Young combines her love of astronomy, computationally based modeling, and geoscience to study biosignatures in exoplanetary atmospheres. From a young age, Amber knew that she wanted to pursue astronomy from introductory lessons in 6th grade into high school. Amber received her first formal training in astronomy as part of the Planetary Science and Astronomy program at Pennsylvania State University on the University Park Main Campus. “It was a new program, which was great because it allowed me to develop my own coursework. [The program] was very individualized based on what I wanted to study. I thought that was really cool and unique, as opposed to a traditional physics-based astronomy track. I decided to do general astronomy courses with a lot of geoscience as supplements to that, and it turned out to be a really great decision because that is how I am culminating things together with my current research project.”
After receiving her bachelor’s degree, Amber felt unsure if graduate school was the right choice for her. “I was kind of burnt out from classes. I wanted to find a job and apply my skills for a career, and thankfully, I got extended an opportunity to do a year-long post-baccalaureate internship at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.” During her internship, Amber worked with Dr. Shawn Domagal-Goldman to develop a template that would model the Martian atmosphere studying how methane is produced and destroyed, as well as the astrobiological implications for its presence. “That project introduced me to the realm of astrobiology by taking computational atmospheres and merging them with astrobiology to pursue different planets and studying different places.” The internship was a “dream come true” and paved the way for what she wanted to do in the future. “I knew I wanted to go to graduate school to pursue my master’s and doctoral degrees to become a civil servant for NASA. This internship really pushed me to where I want to go.”
Amber completed her master’s degree in physics at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee as part of the Fisk-Vanderbilt Bridge Program and then applied and was accepted to work with exoplanet expert Dr. Tyler Robinson at NAU for her doctoral research. At NAU, Amber is developing a computational model that is focused on thermodynamics by calculating chemical disequilibrium in different atmospheric scenarios. “[My research] is really important because chemical disequilibrium has been proposed as a potential biosignature to go after for future space missions, but not a lot of work has been done to evaluate how we would be able to quantify chemical disequilibrium biosignatures.” Pre/post pandemic workdays are not very dissimilar because Amber is able to run her thermodynamics simulations remotely. “I model what we might see with an observation of an Earth-like exoplanet and translating the spectra that we get into the inputs needed for our thermodynamics models to calculate what the Gibbs free energy would be and quantify the extent of chemical disequilibrium in that atmosphere.”
“[My research] is really important because chemical disequilibrium has been proposed as a potential biosignature to go after for future space missions, but not a lot of work has been done to evaluate how we would be able to quantify chemical disequilibrium biosignatures.”
Amber has been part of the NExSS community for the past couple years now, and although she hasn’t been collaborating much face-to-face, she has taken full advantage of the Slack channel. “[The NExSS slack channel] has been super helpful to me because not only is there such a wide array of exoplanet science being done, but the key channels have been instrumental in helping me keep up with the latest and greatest articles and opportunities that are relevant to us as exoplanet scientists.” As Amber looks to the future, she is diligently working on improving her code development and management skills. “Documentation is really important to me because this is going to be my contribution to science and hopefully help others be productive.” As Amber’s research and code management skills progress, she looks forward to collaborating with more NExSS researchers and graduate students. “So far, it’s been really great to interact with folks and graduate students through the NExSS slack because we’ve definitely got a really tight, close-knit cohort, and it’s been really great to meet students and make these connections now so that down the road it’s seamless.”
In her spare time, Amber enjoys many activities and maintains skills in other creative fields, such as music. Amber has played the clarinet since her junior year of high school and participated in a recreational concert band at Penn State. “I love [playing the clarinet] so much because it inherits a totally different skill set and allows me to enjoy music and art rather than the everyday traditional logic and critical thinking and get immersed in the music.” Along with music, Amber relaxes by taking advantage of the natural beauty of the mountains in and around Flagstaff, Arizona by going on hikes or long walks with fellow graduate students. When the weather doesn’t permit mountain hiking, Amber enjoys videogaming, specifically console gaming. Most recently, her Nintendo Switch and Pokémon have been taking up a substantial amount of her free time.
Perhaps one of the most important extracurricular activities that Amber is actively engaged in is her volunteer work as a graduate student mentor for the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation Program. This program focuses on training under-represented and minority undergraduates who are interested in astronomy and astrobiology research to improve under-representation in science. “Being a woman of color myself and not really knowing anyone in a higher position who was a woman or person of color and not having teachers who are people of color, it was really hard for me to see myself occupying this space. I definitely had a lot of great mentors tell me they believed in me and kept pushing and encouraging me to keep going.” Amber is dedicated to training up and coming students eager to get involved in research. “I don’t think I would be here without my mentorship, so I am trying to give back in that way to some undergraduate students here at NAU.”
“Being a woman of color myself and not really knowing anyone in a higher position who was a woman or person of color and not having teachers who are people of color, it was really hard for me to see myself occupying this space. I definitely had a lot of great mentors tell me they believed in me and kept pushing and encouraging me to keep going.”