Forging ahead with astronomy, baby and all
Earning a bachelor's degree in physics and a PhD in astronomy is even more challenging when you've been raising a daughter since your sophomore year.
December 21, 2011Published: December 21, 2011
By Toni Feder
Juggling studies and family life has made Randi Ludwig efficient and self-sufficient.
Randi Ludwig had a baby at age 20, when she was a sophomore physics major at the University of Oklahoma (OU). Because she took time off to care for her daughter, she graduated a year later than expected, at age 23. Now 28, she is at the University of Texas at Austin, where she is on target to the finish her PhD in astronomy next summer. "I feel like I have a very different perspective on life than my peers because of this experience under my belt," says Ludwig.
"A lot of people may not be ready to start families in college, but it is a flexible time if you are following an academic career path," Ludwig says. "The only other time that might rival it is graduate school." In hindsight, she realizes that both of her alma maters have been "incredibly supportive. [My daughter] was completely embraced."
As an undergraduate at OU, Ludwig was president of the Society of Physics Students. She was also involved in outreach activities for local schools. That interest intensified during her graduate studies, and she ended up splitting her research between active galactic nuclei and astronomy education.
Because she and her ex-husband share custody of her 8-year-old daughter, Alena, Ludwig is looking to stay in Austin after she finishes her degree.
Physics Today's Toni Feder met Ludwig this fall to hear about the challenges and advantages of starting a family early in one's physics career.
PT: Your daughter was born when you were an undergraduate. How did your professors and classmates react when they saw you come to class pregnant?
LUDWIG: I dropped out of classes before anybody knew what was going on. When I came back I had a kid. I was in the Air Force ROTC [Reserve Officers' Training Corps], and if I took money for the fall of sophomore year, I would have to continue being enrolled in the spring, which is when she was going to be born. I was not sure whether having a family would affect my wanting to be in ROTC. It turned out it did. I was in ROTC because I wanted to be a pilot on the way to becoming an astronaut, but got into studying space instead through astronomy and physics.
PT: How did you juggle going to school and caring for your baby? Were your professors supportive?
LUDWIG: I went back to classes when Alena was six months old. Her dad and I traded off. We tried to organize our schedules so that whenever one of us was in class, the other was not. She was a remarkably awesome baby.
I actually found that it made me focus. I was much more efficient at managing my time. Alena was with me very often, at home and on campus, so I was mommy and student literally at the same time. I didn't feel like I was shifting gears between those different mindsets because to me they blended together. I think this, compounded with being at university campuses all of her life, has led to the fact that Alena loves learning and is a very intelligent, independent kid.
As far as interacting with people in the academic environment but having this unusual situation, it was completely painless to me as an undergrad. Departmentally, I know I was lucky, because my husband at the time—he was in aerospace engineering—was discouraged from bringing her along to his department. They were openly hostile. They told him he was not permitted to bring her to class.
I did bring her to my classes. I always felt that she was much less a distraction to anyone else than me. I think once a class got under way, she went largely unnoticed.
PT: Why did you choose physics as your major?
LUDWIG: I always wanted to go into astronomy, but I wanted to do the more rigorous course work for a physics degree. Basically while I was doing the necessary physics for astronomy, I fell in love with physics.
PT: What was it like socially being an undergraduate mom?
LUDWIG: A lot of my friends in college were physics people. I still saw them regularly and interacted with them. I guess I didn't go out a lot, but we had movie nights and different social get-togethers. I never felt restricted in terms of not having access to people. I was the only undergrad who had a child, but there were some graduate students and professors who had kids of similar ages. They had their kids around too, so it was a family-friendly environment.
When I graduated, she'd been part of the department for almost as long as I had. They awarded her a "certification of meritorious matriculation" and gave her a little beanie hat with a graduation tassel on it.
PT: How did you get into physics outreach?
LUDWIG: I got into it because I was interested in education. I enjoy reaching out and explaining things. I have always been teachery that way—tutoring people, helping friends with homework. But I really started getting into outreach after my daughter was born. I felt a compelling interest in the public school system.
A group of about five of us would have an auditorium full of kids for an afterschool program. At one such event, we made liquid nitrogen ice cream to talk about states of matter. Other sessions were on sound and magnetism. One of the schools asked us to help develop supplementary curriculum.
PT: What's the focus of your PhD research?
LUDWIG: I study the emission properties from the gas and dust that swirls around active galactic nuclei. I look particularly at AGN with black holes of no more than a million times the mass of the Sun. I investigate the metallicity, kinematics, and ionization of the gas at various radii from the black hole to see how they compare to the properties of more massive AGN. I have also done a statistical study of emission lines of 20 000 more massive AGN from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey.
After I started my research, I decided to focus on education, so I had to get approval to combine my PhD. It's a nontraditional PhD path.
PT: Was it straightforward to get approval?
LUDWIG: The department was largely supportive, but there have been a few who have said, "I am not sure this is science. We don't want her to get off easy." I had a committee meeting recently, and one of the faculty members said, "You know, this is a robust scientific PhD. Let's graduate her in May."
PT: What is the focus of your education research?
LUDWIG: Astronomy education. The university's Center for Inquiry in Mathematics and Sciences has an inquiry-based program, Hands-on-Science, for students who plan to be teachers. We assess [the students'] misconceptions and compare their success with different teaching styles. We also do attitudinal surveys: What is science? Is it creative? We want to see if students' attitudes change as a result of our program.
We are not responsible for methodology—that is the college of education's job. But we focus a lot on critical thinking and evidence-based reasoning. I end up being a moderator. I am not an lecturer at all.
Right now I teach college students who want to be elementary school teachers. And I have a daughter who is in elementary school. So when my students say "Oh, but we don't need to do this; this is not something you would do . . ." I am like, actually, my third grader just spent last week doing . . . whatever it was.
An example would be reading data and interpreting it, things like that. It's not as fun as hands-on activities. The thing is, most of [my students] are not inspired to teach because they are inspired by elementary-school content. They are inspired to teach because they want to interact with kids. So, being able to point to specific ways that this education is not just another class but is actually valuable job training is a really useful thing.
PT: What have been the greatest challenges being both a student and a mom?
LUDWIG: After we moved to Austin, it became very difficult for [my then husband] to find a job. The first year we were here, I was supporting three people on a graduate student stipend. Even as an undergraduate, we lived responsibly: We did all our own cooking, and while Alena was young, we were on WIC [the federal women, infants, and children grant program] to get supplemental cheese and milk, peanut butter, stuff like that. One of the skills I pride myself on now is that I can look at any set of ingredients and make something out of it. And it usually tastes pretty darn good. I developed a lot of self-sufficiency.
I have always felt that Alena is an integrated part of what I do and who I am. I try to schedule teaching so she is not in class with me. The hardest thing I have found is that since she started school I have to get up at 7 am every day, which is not what I would otherwise do as a graduate student. I am an astronomer for a reason: I am a night owl.
Another big adjustment—and something that nobody else that I am in graduate school with has to worry about—is that my calendar on weekends is almost completely determined by her social calendar: play dates and birthday parties. My time with Alena is limited, by school and by being divorced. This is certainly a struggle that I have faced in grad school, that people don't account for the fact that once I leave campus, my time isn't focused on my studies and work anymore, it's focused on her. It's been a constant, classic struggle to try to find that work–life balance.
PT: Is juggling the care of your daughter and your studies harder now that you are divorced?
LUDWIG: I never would have expected it, but having every other weekend off is great. It makes a huge difference, even in terms of my work schedule. I spend virtually every weekend she is with her dad holed up in a coffee shop getting eight or nine hours of work done. That's something I couldn't do if she was around.
PT: What are your plans for after you graduate?
LUDWIG: I love science, and I am glad people get all mired in the nitty-gritty of how things work. But I am not planning to follow up on the AGN part of my research. I want to feel that what I am doing is helping people, and I didn't feel that knowing what was going on in the center of distant galaxies was directly impacting people's lives. And, if you had told me that astronomy was a desk job, I would not have believed you—and I may not have picked it.
Long-term job security and health care are important to me because I have other people to worry about. But I don't feel concerned about finding something. My plan right now is to continue teaching and being part of the [astronomy education] group at UT. It's a very exciting program to be a part of—I have been involved since the beginning. And it's expanding.