Topics: Astrobiology, LGBTQ+ Experiences as an Undergraduate in STEM
We spoke to our very own Justin Wang (he/him): an oSTEM @ CU member and a double major in Astrophysics and Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology (MCDB) with a minor in Biochemistry. He is interested in the intersection between space and biology and how it affects the possible human exploration of Mars. He has worked on research during his time at CU that explores this intersection. He plans on staying at CU for a master's in aerospace engineering and onto medical school to pursue a career as a flight surgeon. Ultimately, he hopes to be an astronaut. Listen to the full interview here:
Note: Content has been lightly edited for clarity.
ARPI: Hi, I’m Arpi.
JUSTIN: Hi, I’m Justin.
ARPI: I am sitting down now and talking about [Justin’s] research interests and advice he has for LGBTQ high school students in STEM.
ARPI: What are your academic interests?
JUSTIN: So, I’m really interested in space and biology. I am very passionate about the human exploration of Mars, the moon, and beyond. That has led me to two fields: one is bio-astronautics, which is the study of supporting human life in space through engineering work and medicine, and astrobiology, which is the study of life outside Earth.
ARPI: So tell us a little bit about your research in the past.
JUSTIN: So, yeah. My freshman year I started working at a company called BioServe Space Technologies; this [company] is actually associated with CU Boulder. What we did there is send biology experiments to the International Space Station to look at how biological processes work differently in space. After that, I started working with comparative astrobiology research with Mars at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP).
ARPI: And how did you get involved in all this research?
JUSTIN: So, for BioServe Space Technologies, which was the first one, I was a freshman, and they sent out an ad looking for sophomores and juniors to be an undergraduate research assistant with them and I applied to the job as a freshman. Fortunately, I got the job! And for LASP, I just emailed ten different professors that do astrobiology research and one of them reached back out to me. I’ve been working with him ever since.
ARPI: So tell us a bit about the research you are currently doing.
JUSTIN: The research I am currently doing is in LASP and it is with a professor whose name is Dr. Brian Hynek. He is in Geology. Basically, what we are interested in is how life on Mars may have existed in the past. So we know now that Mars has a really thin atmosphere, really hard for life to exist here if it does exist. But, in the past, we have a lot of evidence that [Mars] was volcanically active for very long periods of time and might have had an atmosphere.
On Earth, it is hypothesized that life may have originated in hydrothermal vents. We know that life exists in these vents, like in Yosemite. So we believe that life on Mars might have been the most abundant in these hot springs and hydrothermal vents type environments.
So we go to places on Earth that mimic those environments to hypothesize and interpolate how life may have looked like and existed on Mars. This has in involved going to places like Iceland, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica.
I was lucky enough myself to go to Costa Rica last November. In Costa Rica, we went to multiple volcanoes and hot spring environments to take samples and look at how life may have existed on Mars. This involved going inside an active volcano and that had a crater lake with a pH of 0.14 and a temperature, at that moment, of 55 °C . But boiling water was visibly seen from that place. And this volcano erupts, like all the time, it erupted a month before we got there, so pretty intense environments.
ARPI: Yeah, that’s pretty cool.
ARPI: So we wanted to now talk about your LGBTQ+ experience, and you know, if you want just share some experiences that you’ve had in college.
JUSTIN: Sure, so I’ve been really fortunate to have a great experience as a student who is LGBTQ. I identify as a gay man. I’ve been out to my peers and I have had very good experiences with that. I am very lucky. All around, Boulder is a very safe environment, and a lot of students have had really good experiences here.
I am an astrophysics major and it is funny because I started in the major not knowing many people. And, in small majors like that, you sit next to the same students in your astronomy and physics courses and you get to know each other. Basically, what ended up happening is that a group of twenty of us grew really close together. We hung out together, did our homework together and it turned out that about half us were queer. And when getting to know all the other astrophysics majors, this might be a generalization, but we were like “Wow, half our major is queer!” It is very nice to be in the kind of environment where people are very supportive, professors are really supportive, and there are more people like me around so I have really enjoyed that experience.
ARPI: And what kind of advice would you give to high school LGBTQ students interested in STEM?
JUSTIN: The advice I would give, this isn’t just for LGBT students, or even STEM students [specifically], but high school students in general. It is really pertinent to me that I’m not afraid to reach out, to ask for help, to ask for advice. There are people that are experts in their fields, there are students that might be understanding a topic better than you. Don’t be afraid to ask around. For me, I am very interested in a niche field, astrobiology and bio-astronautics, and not many people do that, but I am very fortunate that, at Boulder, there are people who do that. So I’ve reached out to quite a few professors. Some professors I just emailed, and that has given me a better idea of what I want to do and what I am interested in. It really helped me in school too, with classes and exams.
ARPI: Cool. Well, thanks for talking with us.
JUSTIN: Thank You.