Profile: Pursuing a path sparked by a children’s book—Q&A with student Ellen Torres Thompson

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Ellen doing public outreach in an Astrophysics Fridays video. “I’m definitely planning on continuing to do science outreach throughout my career because I think it’s really important for people to get interested in science, and I love that astronomy is a gateway science.”

Ellen Torres Thompson is a senior at UC Berkeley in Astrophysics, and an SSL researcher with John Tomsick’s group.

Karin Hauck is Communications Manager for the Multiverse education and outreach group at the Space Sciences Lab.

Karin: Hi Ellen, where did you grow up?
Ellen: I was born in Colorado. I lived there until I was about ten, then my parents moved to California, which is where I like to say that I grew up. I went to high school in San Diego.

Karin: Are your parents scientists?
Ellen: No. My mother went to community college and got an associate’s degree in business administration but she never did any work in it, she was a homemaker. My father did a couple of community college courses but never got a degree, and worked as a machinist for Coors Tech.

Karin: What kind of things was he machining?
Ellen: It’s interesting, actually, the Coors family—people know the brewery, but they actually also own a bunch of ceramics manufacturing, so it’s ceramic pieces that go in cars and medical equipment, that kind of stuff.

Karin: Did you like science and/or nature as a child?
Ellen: I really did, yeah. I first got into astronomy from the Magic Treehouse books. I think I have them somewhere on my bookshelf.

Karin: I’m not familiar with those. I’m a big reader, but they were probably after my time.
Ellen: It’s a Mary Pope Osborne series for early elementary readers. There’s one where the main characters, these kids Jack and Annie, go to the moon. It’s called Midnight on the Moon, and that got me really into astronomy. My mom had bought me those books, and then I really liked space, and so she gave me space picture books and stuff.

Karin: Was the book fairly realistic— did they have a space capsule, did they have the gear? or was it more fanciful?
Ellen: It was more fantasy, like they get there in the magic tree house, but they do have spacesuits. Then there are these companion books that Mary Pope Osborne wrote for some of the stories that were these science research journals, so I have the one that’s about space, it’s your standard space facts for six year olds. I got really into it.

Karin: Were there other things that you noticed in the world around you that seemed like science, that intrigued you? Did you ever go and look at the night sky as a child or were you able to see it in San Diego?
Ellen: Yeah, in Colorado we lived in the suburbs, in Arvada. I would look at the stars. Then my family home in San Diego is also sort of in the suburbs so I can see some constellations. So I always really liked looking up at the stars and I was into a lot of other fields of science, too. Like for a little while I wanted to be a paleontologist. I was out there with my little shovel looking for bones.

Ellen as Mortima in The Golden’s production of “Arsenic and New Lace,” a parody of the 1940s film “Arsenic and Old Lace.”

Karin: I did that, too! I had this hole in the backyard when I was six and I dug in it every day and I was so convinced I was gonna find a dinosaur bone and it just got deeper and deeper and I was very disappointed in the outcome, or lack thereof. So, paleontology… did you think about being an astronomer, or was that not till later on?
Ellen: (laughs) I mostly was saying I wanted to be an astronomer. I think there’s a first grade biography of me where I say I want to be an astronomer.

Karin: So that’s when you got interested in space science, via astronomy and thinking about going to the moon or space travel, and looking at the stars? What about like later on, like junior high or high school?
Ellen: I didn’t really have a lot—or any—opportunities in junior high, or in high school, to do really in-depth science education, or anything specialized. I went to a low-income high school, so I was really just trying to figure out how to get into college at all, so that I could start to really pursue that interest in college.

Karin: Did you know then that once you got to college that you would pursue astronomy?
Ellen: Yeah, I was certain that I wanted to major in astrophysics or astronomy— it’s different for different schools—when I was applying, but I was really in the dark. Now, looking back, I realize how many amazing opportunities there are for high schoolers, even middle school students, to get especially interested in niche fields of science, and I just didn’t know about that stuff.

Karin: I think that’s like so common to not know that someone else has to connect you to the opportunities and say, “Are you aware that this opportunity exists?” but even sometimes if people mentioned something like that to me, I didn’t necessarily fully grasp what that meant. I don’t know, maybe I just didn’t sound enthusiastic so they didn’t keep explaining: “Are you aware that there’s…whatever, space camp,” or something like that.
Ellen: Maybe I just didn’t sound interested enough for them to want to tell me more about it, yeah. There were a few things that I heard about, like space camp, where I was thinking “Oh I want to do that,” but money was always the issue. I was always like, “There’s no way my family can afford to do this.” And now, looking back, I know that there are scholarships, there is funding out there for low-income students to get involved in things that traditionally are expensive. But I didn’t know as a kid.

Karin: Did you have any mentors or teachers along the way especially before you got to college?
Ellen: I had a few high school teachers that I felt were mentors to me in many different fields. I did a whole bunch of stuff—I was that kid who did like every extracurricular because I thought ”This is how to get into college, I have to be in 40 clubs,” —which is not actually true—but, yeah, I did theater in high school and I think one of my biggest influences was my theater teacher who was also my speech coach — I did competitive speech. He was a mentor for me in life lessons, “how to be a good person” sort of mentoring. I also had a biology teacher who taught a biochem course, but we didn’t really do a lot of biochem, the course was actually for people who wanted to compete in the San Diego Science Fair, and the most accessible project I could really think about and get my hands on that related to astronomy was astrophotography. For a lot of astronomy work you need coding, and I didn’t have access to learning how to code. I didn’t really know what computer science was in high school, but I did know a little bit about photography. So I was like “All right, I’ll go study light pollution in different areas,” and that biology teacher was really helpful in mentoring me through that project.

Karin: Ah, cool, so did you actually go out in the middle of the night and take photos?
Ellen: Yeah! I did photoshoots in the middle of a [semi-urban] parking lot and then my grandparents’ suburban backyard. I also have some family that live in a rural area so I went out to the middle of nowhere and the results were as expected—the further away you get from city lights, the better [the view of the stars] is. I had some pretty simple, really just GUI, photo editing that allowed me to see that a lot of the light pollution is in the red [channel]. It was pretty basic, but it was a lot of fun.

Karin: Interesting, I’ve been able to go to some places that are really dark, like Chaco Canyon in New Mexico where the nearest city is 50 miles away, just a little glow on the horizon, and the sky is so dark! I’ve also seen incredible skies where I grew up in New England, even in rural parts of Connecticut or in New Hampshire. When I was a kid I was at camp after seventh grade— and this was in western Massachusetts in the mountains—they woke us up to see the northern lights, and I had no idea what they were, but I’ve come to see that that was actually a really remarkable experience. All the green was really visible and the effect was of curtains blowing in the wind. When I came to the lab, I assumed that everybody had seen them to that extant and then it turned out that a lot of people hadn’t seen that. So I was like wow, I’m so glad that they that it came as far south as Massachusetts, and also that at camp they woke us up. It was really stunning. I also saw the northern lights a couple more times in New Hampshire but it was just like white pulses in the sky, so faint that I thought I was imagining it, but that first time was just really so incredible.
Ellen: Oh cool! I still I haven’t seen them yet, I will someday.

Karin: The other thing that I finally got to see was a total solar eclipse, the one in 2017. My husband and I went to Jackson, Wyoming, because that was along the path of totality. One of the aspects that was amazing to me was that that, even though there are so many special effects now, this natural thing can still take your breath away. It’s still so stunning
Ellen: Aw, I was in I was in Berkeley for that, which was in the partial totality path. It was cloudy that day so I didn’t really see anything.

Karin: So what was your path to SSL – how did you end up coming here?
Ellen: So I got into Berkeley — I made it to college — and I didn’t really know, coming into college, how big a part of a STEM education that getting research is, if you want to go into that career. It wasn’t until I was here and people were saying, “You have to get research now; getting good grades isn’t good enough, you need research, it’s the number one thing.” I also knew that I needed to actually learn how to code, and all of Astro research is coding at the undergrad level. So I had a bit of a slow path, trying to catch up with my more academically-privileged peers. I was really focused on just meeting the bare minimum prerequisite courses to even declare the major for my first couple years here. But then when I was about to be able to declare my major at the end of my sophomore year, I also took the Python Decal, which is a student-taught course for the Python programming language. That was my first exposure ever to programming and it’s a good course, like the students who run it put a lot of effort into it, but unfortunately, the year that I took it at least, there was not a great teacher-to-student ratio. As someone who was really feeling the learning curve and needed more help than was available to me, I didn’t feel that I learned all that much that semester. I also took an Intro to Research Skills online course taught by Dr. Howard Isaacson at Cal and I was a bit better, I got more coding experience in. Going into my junior year, I didn’t really feel like I knew enough to jump into research, but I’d been told “You’ve declared your major now, now you have to go get research,” and so I just started applying to URAP, the Undergrad Research Apprentice Program, and one of the projects I applied to was Dr. John Tomsick’s accreting compact objects project through SSL. There was another project I applied to that I interviewed for with a professor at Cal, but the spot got filled by someone else, and so by the time I had my interview with John, that was kind of my last hope for getting research that semester, and he said I was in by the end of the interview. There was no “I’ll let you know in a week.”

Karin: Oh that’s so awesome. One can get so discouraged by things like that, an opportunity or job hunting, it’s nice for someone to let you know by the end of the interview, because there’s usually so much waiting. So did you start right away or when? How did that go?
Ellen: I started the week after the interview, just because of the way that my school schedule was, and as is typical with URAP projects, my first week or so was a lot of playing around. I wasn’t really making any progress on the assignment that I had, I was just getting familiar with some of the applications I needed to know how to use SAO DS9 astronomy imaging and learning how to download data from NuSTAR and just kind of playing around for a little bit. And then after a couple week,s I started making an attempt on this Python program that I had to write.

Karin: What was your goal, what were you trying to do? What was your project?
Ellen: So the focus of this project is stray light which is this observational artifact you get with the NuSTAR telescope. It’s really interesting, and having some background in photography I know how annoying blemishes can be in photography. You know when you get a little glare in an image and it’s like “How do I get rid of it?” Stray light is kind of like that, because it’s the effect of these photons that enter the optics without actually going through the apertures and being properly filtered. So you get a blemish in your image and the idea of this project of the stray light team is, “Well, this is kind of discardable data historically, but maybe we can do some useful science with it.” We can get some unique ideas about X-ray binaries from these observations and [one of the first steps] to studying these observations is to actually parameterize where [the stray light] is in the data. And so my assignment was to create region files from the event files of these observations. I started really thinking about my project in kind of a silly way because I had been intimidated for so long about computer programming like “Oh, it’s this big complicated thing, computers are so smart and complex,” but I realized that computers are dumb! Basically what the stray light observations [tend to] look like is, a quarter circle in the corner of an image. It’s just like, a big white blob and what I want to do is make a region file that draws a perimeter around this quarter circle and say “This is where the stray light is, now we can do something with it because we know where it is.” And I feel like I could hand pictures of this data to toddlers and ask them to highlight the pretty circle and a two-year-old could do it, but it’s taking me months to teach a computer how to do it properly. So it was a fun realization that I’m smarter than the computer.

Karin: So while you’re doing this, are you still in undergrad?
Ellen: Yes.

Karin: What year are you in?
Ellen: I’m a senior. I just finished applying to grad school so I’m waiting on decisions right now and that’s a fun process that I didn’t know anything about before diving into it. It was fun, just now, telling you about my childhood inspiration for astronomy, because in grad apps, that’s a big no-no. Nobody wants to hear about how you liked space when you were little because everyone who’s applying to get a PhD in astronomy gazed up at the stars in wonder when they were six—that’s not going to help you get in.

Karin: (laughs) Right. So where are you, where have you applied to?
Ellen: I’m kind of crazy, most people apply to like eight or nine schools, I applied to a dozen. Most of them are California, and then I also applied to schools in Arizona, New Mexico and then University of Hawaii for funsies because it’s Hawaii. My dream is Santa Cruz because I’ve gotten really into the subfield of astronomy that my research is in. I actually didn’t really know anything about high-energy astrophysics before getting into a project on high-energy astrophysics, I started just sort of looking more stuff up on my own and realized, oh this is really what I want to do. I want to work with systems of of X-ray binaries, with things like compact objects. I’m really interested in neutron stars and black holes and transient events like supernovae, and there’s a really amazing transients team at Santa Cruz so I’m really hoping to get in.

Karin: When will you hear, in March?
Ellen: Some people say that you might get decisions as early as February but I think like mid-march is more realistic

Karin: Must be hard to wait! What do you think is the most interesting or unanswered question in your field or what’s the most intriguing mystery?
Ellen: Oh that’s a really good question. Oh man there’s so many amazing questions in astronomy.

Karin: What’s the first one that comes to you?
Ellen: Well, okay, so I’m thinking about high-energy astrophysics and something really interesting that I did my final project for my stellar physics course last semester is the stellar remnant determination of high-mass stars. So greater than eight solar masses initial mass stars are going to turn into neutron stars, or if they’re like greater than 25-ish solar masses, they’ll turn into black holes, but that boundary between, “is it gonna be a neutron star or a black hole?” is somewhat of a mystery right now. There’s a gap in observations between the heaviest neutron stars we see and the lightest black holes we see. We should see heavier neutron stars and lighter black holes, so why is that gap there? And also there are so many determining factors in how a star turns into one or the other, there could be binary interactions where a star that, if it were alone exactly as it is, would turn into a different object than it now does because it has a binary component. There are observations of black holes that could actually be either the remnant of a very massive star that went to a black hole, or actually maybe two less massive stars that both turned into neutron stars but then merged and now there’s a black hole left over. And so trying to get the history out of these compact observations is a mystery that I’m very interested in.

Karin: Can you describe some high points and low points of working on your current project?
Ellen: Well, the first memorable high point I can think of is in one of my first attempts at making the region files program, I had my images of the data and I came up with this way of binning the data, like creating boxes [and seeing] however many photons there are [in a bin] and I set a threshold of “okay if there’s this many photons then this bin, this little box is considered to be in the stray light region.” And in my visualization, to indicate that a bin met the threshold or above, I highlighted it yellow, and so a high point for me was when I finally got that that highlighting visualization to start doing that correctly. And I remember thinking that it looked like an omelet over rice, because I had like my yellow colored boxes on top of like this white heap, and I guess I was hungry because I thought “oh it looks like eggs on rice.” I’m glad that was actually working but later that whole threshold and binning process ended up getting discarded because the project lead at Caltech suggested that I try implementing image processing with a Canny edge detector. That’s a type of image processing filter, and so I learned how to work with image processing in Python and that took a while to figure out, how to make work, but I did get it to work and so that was a high when I got that.

Karin: And what about a low point?
Ellen: Stabs at making the program were full of lows. I’d have this idea of how to make it work, and it just kept not working for a long time and that’s just…that’s just a low that keeps getting lower. That seems to go hand in hand with coding. I can’t think of a specific moment, this sounds dark, but it’s like there are so many lows that I can’t think of a specific really bad one, just a lot of moments where I’m like “I don’t know what I’m doing.”

Karin: Well, you are definitely not alone in experiencing that. So do you have any hobbies or interests, especially anything that might surprise people that you like to do?
Ellen: I’m really interested in science outreach! I think I’ve mentioned to you I work at the Lawrence Hall of Science, so before the pandemic I was working in the planetarium presenting interactive shows to all ages and that’s really really fun, little kids come in and I’m always so inspired by kids because they ask really good questions and they don’t get put down so much by being wrong. I’ll ask “Which stars do you think are hotter, the red ones or the blue ones?” and they’ll say red, because the way that we’re kind of taught is that red is hot and blue is cold. Surprise! It’s the blue ones! They’re just like “What?!” and then they’re excited to learn more. That encouraged me when I first started working there my sophomore year. And that was when I was struggling in these lower division physics courses in order to declare the astrophysics major and I would think to myself “Okay, I gotta have the confidence of those five-year-olds!” But adults have really great questions too!

Karin: (laughs)
Ellen: Since the shutdown we obviously aren’t doing planetarium shows anymore, but I’ve been spearheading an online content series called Astrophysics Fridays and that’s been really fun. At first I did script writing, I filmed myself for a couple of the videos, and I did some of the video editing, but now I’ve mostly just been doing script writing, which is really fun and great. I’m definitely planning on continuing to do science outreach throughout my career because I think it’s really important for people to get interested in science, and I love that astronomy is a gateway science. Like sometimes people get interested in the stars but then they get interested in something else in science. I especially want to focus on making science education accessible to historically underrepresented minorities in higher education.

Karin: Do you have any hobbies that are non-science related, sports or art or—well, you mentioned theater, right?
Ellen: I’m still really interested in it. I haven’t done any big theater stuff in a little while because I transitioned into focusing more on school and academics after declaring the major, but I was in a couple plays my first couple years of college. In my sophomore year I starred in a parody of the 1940s film “Arsenic and Old Lace.”

Karin: Oh that’s a great movie, I saw when I was a kid with my grandma!
Ellen: Yeah, with Carey Grant! It was put on by The Golden, which is this feminist student-run theater club. My friends had written a script [based on] the movie that really focused on themes of feminism and queerness.

Karin: So you were the Carey grant character?
Ellen: Yeah, so I think in the original film, he’s Mortimer, but I was Mortima.

Karin: That’s awesome!
Ellen: It was really fun, and I’d like to get back into doing theater stuff. I’ve done a couple little showcase performances here and there since, but I’d like to really get back into that hobby at some point.

Karin: That’s very cool. I can see how theater experience would really help with public outreach, to be able to feel comfortable in front of an audience and roll with the punches of the unexpected things that might happen, it’s like doing improv…
Ellen: Yeah it’s totally improv!

Karin: I really appreciate your talking to me!
Ellen: Thank you so much for having me!

Karin: Good luck with everything, I have my fingers crossed for your graduate school responses!