In small Colorado town, an academic star is born
And she reaches out to younger students who might be intimidated by higher education
By Clint Talbott
Katie Grasha attended high school in Montrose, a Colorado community nestled in the pastoral Uncompahgre Valley, a place still so rural that its night sky twinkles with stars.
Grasha, who recently graduated from the University of Colorado with a degree in astrophysical and planetary sciences, became a hometown ambassador for astronomy. That was not her plan.
But when Grasha was home during a semester break in 2008, she heard about a family that was leaving town because their daughter needed intensive chemotherapy. Grasha wanted to do something. She organized a stargazing event.
It was a good time to see the Pleiades star cluster. Grasha invited the girl, her family and her church. The event was not a stunning success.
“It rained the whole night,” Grasha recalls. “We didn’t get to see anything.”
Nonetheless, her peers remained interested. “Every time I came home, they’d say, ‘Let’s do it again.’” So she did.
“It wasn’t amazing or anything,” Grasha contends. She’d just gather some friends and highlight celestial points of interest.
When they’d ask for another stargazing session, they’d say, “Will you do this for us? You’re smart.”
She insisted she was not smart, that this was not rocket science. She demystified the stars because, “I want everyone to know how to do this.”
When she went to CU, Grasha was something of a curiosity in her community. “They’re all, like, ‘That’s so cool, someone’s going off to college.’”
As she notes, some families put down roots in rural communities and stay for generations. “There’s nothing wrong with that,” she adds.
But for those youngsters who might want a higher education, Grasha strove to show them it was within reach.
“I’ve always liked math,” Grasha notes. In high school, “I absolutely fell in love with my algebra teacher and then my chemistry teacher … This stuff was so awesome.”
Her interest in stars bloomed when she attended an astronomy event in nearby Delta High School. “I only went because I could skip classes and because a cute boy asked me to go with him.”
Although she took trigonometry and pre-calculus in high school, “I never took calculus, and I felt really dumb. I thought this is why country girls don’t go to college; they’re dumb.”
On the other hand, her high-school teachers cheered her on. “I really felt like I could succeed in college, because my teachers let me believe I could succeed.”
She did have doubts when she first came to CU. “I thought, ‘Whoa. Maybe I can’t do this because I wasn’t brought up in prep schools.’”
Before long, however, she realized that the issue was confidence, not aptitude.
That’s one reason she enjoyed doing “public outreach” to younger students. “I’m only a few years away from them.”
Grasha has a sister in high school, and she and others “worry they’re not smart enough to go to a big university.” She wants to encourage them.
Grasha knows that some pigeon-holes are hard to escape. Her family moved to Colorado when she was 8, and all of her siblings are artists, not scientists.
When hometown folks learned she was still studying astronomy, “People would be shocked that I was still doing it. … The implicit assumption was that I couldn’t do it.”
But she could, did and will.
After graduating from CU, she left for graduate school at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. She wants to become a professor.
She specializes in radio astronomy. “I love what it tells us. I love being the first person experiencing something new.”
Radio astronomy, as opposed to visible-light astronomy, studies the properties of galaxies. By analyzing galactic spectra, scientists learn, for instance, how hot or old a gas cloud is.
“I find that to be more fascinating than saying, ‘Oh, look this is so pretty.’”
Erica Ellingson, associate professor of astrophysical and planetary sciences, has encouraged her department to consider new ways of encouraging rural students to study the sciences at CU.
The department has just started a program to recruit students from these and other diverse backgrounds. It is called CU-STARS—which stands for Science, Technology and Astronomy Recruits.
“We’re very small in our first year, but our first group of recruits is top-notch. I’ve recently received a grant from CU Outreach for an end-of-year program to have our CU-STARS students return to their Colorado high school and present an astronomy outreach event, like Katie’s,” Ellingson says.
“The hope is that by seeing the familiar faces of their former classmates, and being amazed at what they can do, more students will be encouraged to follow. Rural high schools have the added feature of being under darker skies than we have here in Boulder.”
Ellingson adds, “I’m very eager to keep up efforts to recruit from these other communities.”
Though Grasha is now graduated, Ellingson recalled her former student fondly during the recent controversy over the pink “Allergic to Algebra” T-shirt briefly sold by Forever 21.
“I thought about Katie and her unabashed pinkness and thought, ‘Addicted to Astrophysics.’”