My name is Stephanie Hamilton, and I am a planetary scientist and science communicator.
I graduated with my PhD in Physics from the University of Michigan in 2019. During graduate school, I used a large astronomical survey called the Dark Energy Survey to study…well…not dark energy. Instead, I spent 5 years repurposing this 6-year survey’s impressive dataset to discover and study new objects in our Solar System beyond Neptune! I mostly focused on the small members of our Solar System that orbit farther out than Neptune. This region of the Solar System is called the “Kuiper Belt.” There’s a lot of interest in studying this region because it has remained largely untouched since the Solar System reached essentially its present state. This means we can study these objects, what they’re made of, and how they orbit the Sun to figure out what the very early Solar System looked like (I’m talking even the pre-Earth Solar System) and how it has evolved over the past 4.5 billion years.
Mining a new dataset is bound to yield some exciting discoveries, and sure enough, we found some cool things! The discovery near and dear to me was of a new distant dwarf planet candidate that I nicknamed DeeDee (for “distant dwarf”). How distant? 92 astronomical units (Earth-Sun distances) from the Sun, or 2.5x farther than Pluto! At the time, it was the second-most distant Solar System object ever discovered. And when we discovered it, we didn’t know how big it was. All we saw was a point of light in the images, but we didn’t know whether that point of light was small and shiny or large and dark. I led a telescope proposal to get immediate extra data (which was accepted!) and then led the analysis to calculate DeeDee’s size using the extra data. DeeDee is about 640km in diameter, or about the size of Oregon!
DeeDee (and the subsequent media attention) led to some public speaking opportunities, which introduced me to the world of science communication. And I was hooked. Since then, I’ve given several public talks about astronomy, written dozens of articles about new astronomy results for Astrobites, participated in and led science communication training workshops through the RELATE organization at UMich, and organized science communication conferences like ComSciCon and Science Talk 2020. In Summer 2019, I worked as a science reporter for the Indianapolis Star through an AAAS Mass Media Fellowship. Now, I’m a Technical Commmunications Associate for the School of Engineering at MIT, providing presentation coaching for researchers and writing news articles about new engineering research.
While my current job doesn’t focus on astronomy, I still talk about astronomy over on Twitter (@SpaceSciSteph), so feel free to follow me there!