Published: Oct. 25, 2023

CU Boulder PhD student Mikayla Huffman joins ‘The Ampersand’ podcast for a discussion about identity and discovery

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When she’s not mapping tertiary craters on the moon, Mikayla Huffman might be found on the battlefield, clad in armor and swinging a sword as tall as she is.

Her foes? A horde of pink brains skittering on taloned legs through acrid vapors around pools of lava. An ominous tendril emerges from the nearest brain, and Mikayla yells, “Get out of here, I got this!”

But in a flash of light, the battlefield disappears, and now Mikayla is at the end of a hallway of doors, each one labeled with what’s behind it. She stops in front of a particular door labeled simply “The Universe.”

"This is the most important one," she says. "It's where all of our journeys begin and end. It's what holds us together."

Mikayla Huffman

Mikayla Huffman is a PhD student in astrophysical and planetary sciences at CU Boulder.

She cracks it open and steps inside.

Mikayla Huffman is a leader and a question-asker. This particular alchemy has led her into fantastical realms as a Dungeons and Dragons dungeon master and into the galaxy as a University of Colorado Boulder PhD student in astrophysical and planetary sciences.

She recently joined host Erika Randall, associate dean for student success in the College of Arts and Sciences, on "The Ampersand,” the college podcast. Randall—who also is a dancer, professor, mother, filmmaker and writer—joins guests in exploring stories about “ANDing” as a “full sensory verb” that describes experience and possibility.

In a free-wheeling discussion, excerpted below, Huffman and Randall talked about overcoming science gatekeeping, making lunar discoveries and finding identity in realms where dragons fly. Click the link above to hear the entire conversation.

Huffman: I had a pretty rough experience the summer after my freshman year of undergrad, where I applied for a physics internship. I had good grades, so I got a phone interview with an unnamed chief engineer at large corporation.

He got on the phone and was asking me all these questions about physics history. And I hadn't taken a physics history class yet. And his tone changed immediately when I said I went to a liberal arts college. He was like, "Have you taken multi-variable calculus yet? Have you taken quantum mechanics?"

Randall: Checklist came out.

Huffman: Yeah, and I'm like, I'm a freshman. And then he started saying, "Are you sure you even wanna be a scientist? Like, do you know that atoms are made of protons and neutrons? Do you know what an electric field is?" Like, totally dismissive. And for a really long time, I was like, oh my God, I'm not good enough to be a scientist, 'cause this guy…

Erika Randall and Mikayla Huffman

Host Erika Randall (left) and Mikayla Huffman discuss everything from gatekeeping in science to world-building in fantasy.

Randall: You took it as a critique of you?

Huffman: Yeah, yeah. Because I didn't know that that was complete nonsense that he was saying. Oh, and then he was like, "I'm not gonna give you the job, but you can come and meet the person I do give it to.” So, I came and met the guy, and it was a 14-year-old boy.

Randall: Hold the phone.

Huffman: I know.

Randall: I'm not gonna give you the job, but…

Huffman: Yep. I know, I know. Totally nuts. But because I was, you know, a young, impressionable undergrad, I was like, oh man, I am not cut out for this. And it was only when I talked to female mentors in the field—I had a great pre-major advisor, Patricia Valley, and she was like, "Why would he say that to you?" And I was like, "Yeah, why would he say that to me?" That's nonsense.

And that's when I started staying in the community. But I did pivot from pure physics to planetary science, which does have more women in it because of that.

Randall: So now that is a spark lit in you. That is a charge. And I felt even just looking at your materials, the way that you take out a lot of jargon so that folks can be present with the work. It's how I learned about tertiary craters.

Huffman: Yeah.

Randall: And I just, that was such a point of access. And so, for you, was this a turning point in your career, where you said, "Oh, I've gotta do things differently," or had you been working towards that already?

Huffman: Absolutely. So, part of it was, you know, that really sparked in me, I don't want this to happen to other early career women. Because if you lose gender minorities, racial minorities, out of science, you also lose the discoveries they would have made, you know what I mean? I think a big part of science is pulling others up into the field. And to do that, I need to excel. So, I made sure that I was in a place to excel so that I can mentor other gender minorities into the field.

Randall: So now here you are, you're in this field, and you honestly, I really did get lost in your research. What you have accomplished, that you got, well, they're not officially named, but I wanna talk about Wallace and Gromit.

Huffman: Yeah, absolutely.

Randall: Okay, so not just because they're great "Ampersand" characters, and I love them and have seen all of the things, but do you, you were the first. This is a new discovery that you have made, as you were transitioning into coming into your PhD, about a tertiary crater on the moon, that because of the way you math, the way you think and the patience you have, and then, are you gonna get to name it?

Huffman: Yeah, so let's talk about that. First of all, let's define what tertiary craters are.

Randall: Okay, I'm gonna let you do that.

craters on moon

CU Boulder PhD student Mikayla Huffman has mapped more than 6,000 seconary craters on the moon's surface.

Huffman: Oh yeah, for sure. When a big rock comes down from space, or a big chunk of ice, and hits the ground, it makes a hole. That's called a primary crater. That's the thing that you probably think about.

But when that happens, you throw out a lot of ejecta, a lot of ejected material, which can re-impact the surface, creating secondary craters.

Randall: And it gets us confused about time.

Huffman: Yes, so this is useful, but also not useful. It's not useful because the number of primary craters is pretty much constant throughout time. So if you go to a planetary surface and you count the number of primary craters on it, you can figure out how old that surface is without even going to it, which is super nice, 'cause it costs a lot of money to send people to planets.

Randall: Yes.

Huffman: But it's also a problem because if people can't distinguish between secondary craters and primary craters, which can be similar sized, if you have a large primary, you have large secondaries, which can be as large as small primaries, then you can severely overestimate the age of that surface.

But secondary craters are really useful, because they tell us some information about what happened during that cratering impact. So, tertiary creators are secondaries of secondaries. So, you have the primary, throw stuff out, make secondaries, which throw stuff out and create tertiaries.

It's really difficult to distinguish between a tertiary and a secondary crater, so that was a lot of my undergraduate thesis, was figuring out how can we make sure, follow these clues that these aren't just very small secondaries.

Randall: And did this come to you because you were a moon gazer? Because you love story? Because you saw that this was a gap in research? What were, how'd you get there?

Huffman: Yeah, so part of it was because of my amazing mentor at the Southwest Research Institute, Kelsi Singer, who I've been working with since, I think, the summer after my sophomore year of undergrad. And she's now a co-advisor on my PhD.

She had this idea that tertiaries might be a thing, and she said, "Hello, undergrad, who I'm paying. You get to sit down and map all of these craters, looking for tertiaries.

Randall: What a gift. What, I mean, that's a huge gift.

Huffman: Yeah, it was great.

Randall: That she had an idea and she said, "I'm gonna trust you to figure this out." And so then…

Huffman: And so, then I mapped, I think, about 6,000 secondary craters.

Randall: How long did this take?

Huffman: Oh, a while.

Randall: Like, until your senior year?

Huffman: Yeah. But I did do it while I was playing D&D, 'cause it's a pretty mindless thing, once you've got it down. So, I was DMing on one screen and mapping craters on the other one.

Randall: You were not.

Huffman: I was, yeah. And none of my players noticed. So that's good.

Randall: And the moon didn't know.

Huffman: No, no, of course not. But yeah, so I found these tertiaries.

Randall: Was this all online? This was COVID?

Huffman: Yes, this was during COVID. The campaign that I DM has been all online.

Randall: Oh, really?

Huffman: Yeah. There's this unnamed primary, which we call Wallace. We're actually working on naming it after Alan Hart, who's a trans man and pioneer who used X-ray screenings in tuberculosis detection.

Randall: Even cooler.

Huffman: Yeah, super awesome. And then the secondary crater, which we call Gromit—originally I was calling them 1P8, 'cause it was 1.8 kilometers in diameter. And then the secondary, I was calling 1P8A. But, you know…

Randall: Very Star Wars-y, but not as colorful as this world.

Huffman: And so, I found these tertiaries, and we think they're tertiaries, not small secondaries, for a couple of reasons. One, the size is right. The largest secondaries tend to be about 5% the size of their primary. And these are about the right size.

Randall: They're about 1.8.

Huffman: Well, 1.8 kilometers in diameter is the size of the primary. The tertiary craters are pretty small. We're talking, like, the size of a Volkswagen Beetle.

Randall: Wow.

Huffman: Yeah.

Randall: Wow, and you found that on the moon.

Huffman: Yeah.

Randall: Also, you just were such a good teacher. I don't feel like I am dissuaded from studying craters even though I got the answer wrong. It's so great. Okay, I'm so happy that you gave me the Volkswagen Beetle. That is an image.

Huffman: Yeah, for sure.

Randall: And you could be doing that while being a dungeon master.

Huffman: Yeah, absolutely.

Randall: Okay, you're a dungeon master.

Huffman: Yes.

Randall: And you are also an extrovert.

Huffman: Yes.

Randall: And this extreme geological and planetary astrophysicist. You are already used to doing the interdisciplinary thing, so you thought, why not just throw my campaign in here?

Huffman: Absolutely.

Randall: And create an entire new world while looking at a rock out from our world. How'd that go for you?

Huffman: Well, one thing that was really useful is I took a few remote-sensing classes in undergrad. And that was really neat, because it taught me how to use a software called RGIS. Super useful. You can use it to map craters.

But also, you can put your world maps for your homebrew D&D campaign in it. And this has been great for me because I have a little sub-routine that I run that tells me if they're trying to go from this town to this town along the roads, how many days it will take at various travel paces.

Randall: You are taking this next level.

Huffman: Yeah, well that's the point as a DM.

Dungeons and Dragons dice

One of the appeals of Dungeons and Dragons for Mikayla Huffman is the game's inclusivity.

Randall: That's the point. Okay, how did you become a DM, and talk about women in STEM, women as dungeon masters, a thing, not a thing?

Huffman: Yeah, definitely a thing. There's a lot of great female DMs. And part of that is because D&D is such an inclusive sort of hobby, like, there's a lot of queer people, there's a lot of gender people in D&D, because it's such a great exploratory space.

Randall: I see this with my kid in the skins, and he's always playing in femme skins.

Huffman: Yeah.

Randall: And D&D kind of started this, right? Because you get to change, your body is a, it's more of a projection of your internal self than the body we might actually wear in the world.

Huffman: Yeah, so I'm gender fluid, so sometimes I feel like a boy. And so, I kind of explored that through D&D. I've only ever played male D&D characters.

Randall: Did you think of yourself as gender fluid when you started exploring through D&D? What kind of came first? Or did they just guide one another?

Huffman: Yeah, so, you know, I've always had inklings that I might be gender fluid, but really being able to explore using he/him pronouns in a safe space with my friends, super useful.

Randall: Has there been work done on this about D&D? And I know that cosplay, there's worlds where we've talked about this in queer studies, but I haven't heard about this in D&D as a path towards remaking identity and rehearsing and playing-

Huffman: Oh yeah, absolutely. I'm not sure if there have been any scientific studies. I was reading an article about how D&D can actually be used to help with social anxiety and depression, which, you know, that, it makes total sense to me, but I'm not sure if there have been any sociological studies about gender identity or sexual identity through D&D.

Randall: Well, I think that's just, it's, what a gift of this form. I remember, it was generally folks who identified as males playing when I was six, and all the others were like, on the side kind of being like, "What are those magical dice? I wanna play with it." But didn't feel like we had the authority to step in.

Huffman: Yeah, so you guys can't see, but I actually have two of my Dungeons and Dragons miniatures here with me that I 3D printed.

Mikayla Huffman in recording studio

Mikayla Huffman holds figures of two of her Dungeons and Dragons characters that she 3D printed.

Randall: This you tiny-3D printed?

Huffman: Yeah, these are two of my characters.

Randall: Okay, this is amazing.

Huffman: So, the one in your left hand is Milky Way. I know, kind of on the nose. His real name's Delmir of Arakel. And this is the guy that I played for my boyfriend's campaign, which we just finished after 1,557 days of real time. I know, it's crazy. I'm still feeling weird about it. We just ended it last week.

Randall: Oh, do you get lonely for those and for the characters?

Huffman: Yeah, but you can always do one-shots, which are self-contained stories with those characters, so we get to revisit them. But Milky is a dragonborn, not like Skyrim. He's like a humanoid dragon character.

The other guy is Max, which is actually my masculine name… And Max is a tiefling, which is like, sort of a devil person conquest paladin. And tiefling are really interesting in D&D, because they've kind of been discriminated against in the canon.

And so, gender minorities, racial minorities, sexuality minorities, they can all kind of project that sort of conflict onto tieflings in the game.

Randall: So, a tiefling is kind of like a representative body. A representative outcast.

Huffman: Yeah, every queer person that I know loves playing tieflings.

Randall: Okay, when we think about how we move forward, it's all chance in these (Dungeons and Dragons) worlds, but in your world, in science, it's nothing is left to chance.

Huffman: Well, you'd be surprised. Statistics are a huge part of my research. So in D&D, you basically roll the dice, and then you add some modifiers, depending on your character. And then the DM sets what's called a DC. And if you're above that DC then you succeed. If you're below that DC then you fail at what you're trying to do.

In science, failure is a huge part of it. In science, your first hypothesis is never, ever, ever going to be right. And I talk about this a lot with undergrads. Because we're not taught that, you know? We're taught that you need to succeed on the first try, which is impossible.

Randall: Yeah. So, failure is a goal, 'cause it teaches you something.

Huffman: Exactly, and so, you know, when I give this talk to undergrads, I say, "Here's my resume, very impressive," and then they're like, "Oh my God, she's so impressive." And then later on, I put up my resume, and then in the next column, my failure resume. So, I say, yes, I got this, but I had to apply to 30 internships and get ghosted from 29 of them.

Randall: Oh, I love this.

Huffman: You know what I mean?

Randall: Yeah. And do you weave it with D&D when you're talking to folks? Is this something that's been ANDed for you for a while?

Huffman: Yeah, so I do talk about D&D a lot with respect to science as well, 'cause, you know, I oftentimes, for my world maps, will just steal the maps of other planets and then add some water to them. And I'm like yeah, this is my homebrew world. It's definitely not Mars, but you've gotta just add water.

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