Anna Schonwald ’16 attributes at least a part of her success at landing a prestigious internship at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to the confidence of knowing what she wanted.
“There are so few people my age who know what they want to do and are as passionate about it,” says Schonwald, who has a double major in Physics and Geology and intends to be a planetary geologist.
“Deciding what I wanted to do involved a lot of trial and error,” says Schonwald, who, after a gap year in Uganda, came to Earlham thinking about majoring in international studies.
“I thought this was a way I could help people,” she says. “There’s so much strife on Earth. But with the technology we develop in space studies and the discoveries we make, we bring people together in a way that others can’t. We bring people together as a human race instead of bringing people together in political parties or other smaller groups. When I look up at the sky, I feel like I am part of something bigger.”
As a Quaker Fellow, a scholarship program focusing on community, spirituality and leadership, Schonwald was encouraged to think about what she really liked and what she did in her free time.
“I felt like I had to figure out what I wanted to do with my life,” she says. “I spent hours each week reading scientific articles that did not have anything to do with my coursework. I read scientific journals about planets in my free time because that’s what I enjoyed. I took an astronomy class my first spring semester, and since then it kept coming back to planetary science. I may have discovered it freshman year, but looking back it made a lot of sense.”
Schonwald says that while growing up she learned a lot about science from her father, a physicist who worked on a NASA project with the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory.
“Space has always been a part of life,” she says. “My dad would take my sister and I out and we would talk about constellations and point out planets. We had a lot of discussion about the universe when I was a kid.”
Last summer, Schonwald completed a National Science Foundation internship at the National Radio Observatory in Socorro, New Mexico, and worked with radio astronomer Bryan Butler researching and modeling the chemical compounds of the atmosphere of Uranus. Schonwald’s interests better coincide with Butler’s colleague at JPL, Mark Hofstadter, who was also working on the Uranus project.
“I was presenting at a conference, and (Hofstadter) came around to talk to me,” Schonwald says. “I pitched that I would love to work with him, and it grew from there.”
Schonwald’s geology training will help her to use observational data to model possible core compositions of the Rosetta Comet 67P / Churyumov-Gerasimenko.
“At JPL I will have one project, and I will have to problem solve all the issues that come up with that one project,” she says.
Early on in her academic life, perhaps as early as the junior high years, Schonwald says she learned the importance of personal motivation.
“I learned that being a passive student never works for me,” she says. “I’m much more confident in my ability to work, but not necessarily school work. So personal projects have always been important for me. Here you can create your own version of a project.”
During her first year at Earlham, Schonwald noticed that Earlham’s observatory was largely unused and initiated an Observatory Group to establish programming.
Her aim was to get people Richmond and the Earlham community out one night per month for a public observation.
In addition, Schonwald is co-convener of the Geology Club and is a member of the Hardware Interface Project applied group in Computer Science and is working on a pH sensor interface to an Arduino board for remote data collection for Earlham’s field science project in Iceland.
“A few of the people who are doing what I want to do also do instrumentation,” she says. “I became involved in HIP to help me understand if I am interested in instrumentation.
“I’m taking the programs Earlham has and working them to my advantage toward a career in planetary science.”
She says she chose Earlham because of its Quaker influences and because of its academic rigor.
“I chose physics and geology to build the skills I need for my future career in planetary science. And, deep down in my heart of hearts, I want to be a space explorer. I have asthma and bad eyesight, which in the past ruled out exploring space as an astronaut. In my heart I knew I couldn’t do that, but if there’s ever a call for a planetary geologist for space travel, I will sign up. Studying planets is a way for me to explore space without ever getting there; however, the requirements have changed and therefore I would be able to, maybe, in the future once I actually have a Ph.D.”