Connecticut College Magazine · Winter 2011

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The Aspiring Astrophysicist: Christina Balkaran '12

The Aspiring Astrophysicist: Christina Balkaran '12
Christina Balkaran '12. Photo by Brandon W. Mosley

Astronomy is one of the world's oldest sciences. There's evidence of it in the Egyptian pyramids and Stonehenge. A fascination with the stars and planets influenced some of the most advanced early civilizations — Mayan, Greek and Chinese, for example.

Yet there's so much we still don't understand — so many questions waiting for an answer. I want to help find answers. I'm fascinated by the power of the universe and the pull of the unknown.

This dream began when I was 5, when I would stare up at the sky and try to make sense of the constellations. They seemed so far away for a little girl who had never traveled much beyond the city limits of her hometown in New Haven.

Growing up, I sometimes wondered if I'd get there. Lost in the shuffle of a big public high school, the constellations, the galaxies, the planets somehow seemed farther away than they had when I was 5.

The universe, evidence suggests, began with a big bang. But it started small. As a senior in high school, I realized I should start small too. I wanted to study science, at a place that would pay attention to my needs, where I'd have the freedom to explore my love of science and not be limited. Connecticut College was the only campus I visited. Deep down I knew — in this great big world — I'd found my perfect place.

I knew that for sure after my first semester. In Professor Michael Weinstein's intro to physics class — physics is a critical element of astronomy — I struggled on my first exam. I was ready to give up, but Professor Weinstein wouldn't give up on me. With his help, encouragement and dedication, I not only passed intro to physics, I began to love it.

In science, the biggest discoveries can be the ones we aren't looking for. Research takes work, patience and, sometimes, a bit of luck. Last year, while I was researching potential internship opportunities, I was invited to a dinner with trustees, where I met Maria Pellegrini '69, who works for the Keck Foundation. She asked about my interests, and I was quick to profess my love of astronomy. She mentioned she had connections at the Keck Observatories in Hawaii.

Keck is a world-class observatory. The most prominent astronomers use data from Keck, and even some of them never get to see it in person. With the encouragement of my professors — and my parents — I boarded a plane to Hawaii.

And just like that, the little girl who loved to stare at the stars was researching the Andromeda galaxy alongside famous astronomers at the foot of the mountain that boasts the world's largest telescope.

One of my favorite astronomical mysteries is “dark matter.” There is more mass in space than we can see — an invisible, unexplained mass. We know it's there, we just can't quite explain it. The same is true of Connecticut College. What makes this place so special isn't necessarily the obvious. It's not just the small classes, but the way the professors truly care about you. It's not just the funded internship, but the people who help you get there. It's not just the degree, it's the confidence and experience you gain along the way.

I've learned so much here, about science and physics and astronomy — but also about myself. I learned to have confidence in my abilities. I've learned I can actually do this.

Now, as a senior, my dreams are within reach.



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