ADI Spotlight: Erin Flowers

Feb. 13, 2023
Erin Flowers reclining with her BADI "Pinnacle" Award in front of the BADI logo stage backdrop.

Erin Flowers (She/Her/Hers)            

Department: Astrophysical Sciences

Program Year: G6

Undergraduate/Other Institutions:

Columbia University (B.A. in Astrophysics)

Princeton University (M.A. in Astrophysics)

Hometowns: Loxahatchee, FL; Rochester Hills, MI; New York, NY

ADI Affiliations:

Tell us about your background.

I'm a kid from the Florida swamps that never got tired of looking up. I spent the first 10 years of my life living in an unincorporated area of swampland that fascinated me in the day- and nighttime. After moving out of the swamp to the Michigan suburbs, I never lost that fascination.

I was always good at math and science, and when I learned I could do that professionally, I decided I wanted to be an astrophysicist at like, 12. Specifically, I wanted to go to Columbia University for undergrad (where my inspiration at the time, Neil deGrasse Tyson went) and Princeton for grad school (When I was maybe a sophomore in high school, we visited Princeton. I spoke with Neta Bahcall, the director of undergrad studies in the Astrophysics Department, and she told me to consider them for grad school, and I did, lol.)  Lo and behold, I got my degree from Columbia in Astrophysics in 2017, and here I am at Princeton! I've always had a supportive community of family members, friends, and teachers, but I never had anyone who looked like me in my classes or as my teachers. So, throughout my undergrad and grad career, I've done my best to uplift other people of color, and specifically Black women, to pursue astronomy, astrophysics, and STEM in general. Being able to do the research I love while also working to improve diversity in STEM has been immensely rewarding, but also a lot of fun.

What are your research interests?  What excites you about it?

The big, overarching theme of my research, both in undergrad and now at Princeton, has been habitable worlds - looking inside and outside the solar system for places life could exist. I primarily do this using complex 3D models of planetary atmospheres. I find this exciting because it's gotta be one of the most interdisciplinary fields out there - I have to use all of my physics knowledge, along with knowledge of chemistry and biology. The big question my subfield is trying to answer is 'Are we alone in the universe?' and I don't think there's a cooler scientific inquiry than that! Although the work I do doesn't directly look for life, the modeling work I've done provides the groundwork for looking for signs of life and habitability. For my thesis, I'm studying the atmosphere of Titan, a moon of Saturn that is incredibly similar to the Earth. As part of this work, I'm on a NASA mission team that will be sending a drone to Titan called 'Dragonfly.' It is so exciting to be able to work with complex models, trying to answer one of the Big Questions, and knowing that that work will go on to impact a mission to an outer world.

What does your family think you do in grad school?

Travel to cool places for conferences, eat free food, and generally just enjoy the 'charmed' parts of the academic experience.

How has ADI programming impacted you? 

ADI programming has kept me sane in grad school. I've met so many friends through ADI events, and the events themselves have provided me with the tools to survive grad school, as well as fun outlets when the work gets rough. My experience at Princeton would've been wildly different if it weren't for ADI!

What's been most helpful to you in acclimating to Princeton?

Definitely other students - the more senior students gave me all kinds of advice and tips, and the students in my cohort year were great to hang out and commiserate with.

What advice would you give prospective, incoming, and/or first year underrepresented Princeton graduate students?

If you're a prospective student, definitely try to participate in a preview program like P3, speak to ADI reps at a conference, or reach out to students you might know or have a connection to. We'll always tell it to you straight to help you make the best decision about where to go for graduate school. If you're an incoming/first year student from an underrepresented background, sign up for all of the email lists - or at least the ADI one! It's the best way to find your people on campus and to socialize in ways that are comfortable and accessible.

What should the ADI community know about you?

Now that I'm in my last year, I've had so many experiences that I can look back on and that I've learned from. I'm always happy to be that more senior ear to students who have come after me. I've participated in many ADI events, Affinity Groups, and other campus organizations; I've lived on and off campus; I have pets and tips and tricks for balancing the other responsibilities and relationships outside of campus - seriously, ask me anything! I'm also totally happy to just nerd out about sci-fi and fantasy things (which, Black Geeks, we need a club or something, because it can be rough out there to find each other), so feel free to HMU about whatever you like :)

What activities do you engage in beyond research?

OH BOY let's see - I live in NYC so I do a lot of NYC things like try out restaurants and bars, go to museums and plays, etc., but I also like camping, hiking, and kayaking every once in a while. I also love playing table top role-playing games (like Dungeons and Dragons) and video games, and reading lots of sci-fi and fantasy. At Princeton specifically, I'm a Diversity Fellow (so I help organize a lot of events with ADI) and I'm also a Math & Physics Fellow with the Prison Teaching Initiative (where I organize math and physics volunteers, create course content, etc.).  At PTI we teach college-level courses in New Jersey prisons. Students can receive Associates degrees (from our community college partners) in a variety of subjects. I coordinate all of the volunteers and course content for our math, physics, and astronomy courses along with Goni Halevi (who is another grad student in the Astro program with me and a dear friend!). Without us, those courses would be incredibly difficult to run since there’s a lot of work necessary to teach inside a prison. There are tons of studies that show that college prison programs though are immensely beneficial to students post-incarceration, and I’m really proud to help people have another chance at living a good life out of prison.

What is, or would be, your superpower?

If I could time travel or somehow be in multiple places at once, that would be grand.

What would you be doing if you weren’t in grad school?

Hmm, probably working for a tech company like my friends who also got astrophysics degrees in undergrad but didn't go to grad school.

What’s your side hustle?

Tutoring kids in math and science.  I tutor privately - mostly virtually now since the pandemic, but in the past in-person; I volunteer with local mentorship programs where I live in New York (mainly through the Harlem Gallery of Science x National Society of Black Physicists program); and I sporadically volunteer to talk to kids and/or community members about astronomy.  I couldn't get up in front of a classroom of like, first graders, but they're fun to work with one-on-one!

What’s your perfect day?

Any day in October after the leaves have changed, it's sunny and crisp out, I get to do some fall activity like apple-picking or pumpkin carving, and then I go home to watch classic Halloween movies or read a book with hot cider (I love Fall, can it be Fall yet?).

What book, show, podcast, game, song, play, or movie best reflects your grad school experience?

Oooh good question... I would say The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers. Aside from being one of my all-time favorite books, I think it's an apt reflection of the grad school experience. The book is about a diverse crew of people who have to do this incredibly difficult and important thing. At the end of the day, it was the relationships between those people - how they relate to each other professionally but also personally - that got them through doing that difficult thing.

How would your friends describe you?

An easy-going ride-or-die, lol. I'm that cool mom friend who will give you a homemade meal and cocktails or wine when you come over to talk about your problems but also will be down to just try whatever new or wacky thing (within reason).

What’s the most interesting thing about you?

My friends are absolutely astounded that I can be 'cool and fashionable' and be an astrophysicist while also being deeply nerdy and enjoying things like Dungeons and Dragons - idk if that's the most interesting thing but I do find it the most amusing that I have all of these 'contradictory' facets that confuse folks.

What’s on your mind?

I would really like some sushi right now.