Cosmic dream becomes reality

Undergraduate astronomer Krista Smith takes in the cosmos at  the McDonald Observatory.
Undergraduate astronomer Krista Smith takes in the cosmos at the McDonald Observatory. Photos courtesy of Krista Smith

The earliest documentary evidence of Krista Smith's love affair with the cosmos is a crayon drawing from third grade. Smith and her classmates were given a blank piece of paper and told by their teacher to draw themselves as they imagined they would be in 30 years. She drew a stick figure girl standing at a giant telescope under a field of green and red stars.

"I've known my whole life I wanted to do astronomy," said Smith, who will graduate in December with a degree in astronomy. "I remember when we would go to the public library when I was young. My sisters would all be in the children's section. I would head upstairs and to the left to the astronomy aisle. I couldn't read most of the books all that well, but I would look at the pictures. I never stopped."

Growing up in McKinney, Texas, Smith supplemented her library visits with whatever else she could find on the subject. She commandeered the family television on Tuesday nights, which was astronomy night on the Science Channel, so she could watch the three one-hour documentaries.

Krista Smith sits in the control room at the McDonald Observatory
Krista Smith sits in the control room at the McDonald Observatory. 

Through her school's gifted and talented program, she was put in touch with a woman who used to work for NASA, who gave her the specific URLs of various astronomy-related Web sites (a valuable commodity in the pre-Google era). In high school, she joined the Academic Decathlon team only after she learned the year's theme would be astronomy. She ended up conducting a year-long seminar on the subject for her fellow decathletes.

By the time she arrived as a transfer student at The University of Texas at Austin, Smith was so eager to immerse herself in the subject that she enrolled directly in upper-level galactic physics, skipping the introductory astronomy lecture. She also managed to secure a place in the lab of astronomy Professor Greg Shields.

"I'm not a shy person, and if there's a way to cut out the bureaucracy I usually take it," she said. "I got on the Internet and e-mailed six professors, and said, 'All right, I'm an undergrad, and I have no lab skills, but I'm interested.' I sent it out and waited. A day later Dr. Shields wrote back, and said, 'Yeah, come by the office, and we'll discuss it.' So I came by the day after I moved in, and two days later I was working."

Smith's research in Shields' lab, where she's been for the past two years, has become the center of her academic experience. She's a named author on two papers that were published in The Astrophysical Journal, the premier astronomical research journal, and in April was the first author on another paper in the journal.

Continue reading more about Smith's work in Shields' lab on the Texas Science Web site.