An Aussie kid that ended up at NASA

Jessie Christiansen (BSc(Hons) '03)
29 Nov 2022

The people that you meet at ANU, are people you will share a connection with for the rest of your life. That's been true for me, both professionally and personally. I'm sure it's been true for 1,000s of other students as well.

I grew up in a very small Australian country town of about 350 people. To go from that, to studying an undergraduate degree of Maths and Physics in Queensland, to ANU for my Master in Astronomy, was amazing.
For me, ANU was the foundation for so many deep and long-lasting connections. I met one of my best friends of 20-years while studying there, and it is where I met my mentors, Professor Brian Schmidt (who is now the ANU Vice-Chancellor) and Professor Bruce Peterson.
Both Brian and Bruce were mentors for my summer research project between my Honours year in Astronomy and my PhD. We were building an all-sky camera for the 50-inch telescope at the University's Mount Stromlo observatory. The idea was to try and automate the camera, so that it just would take pictures of the sky all the time and make decisions about whether it was too cloudy for the telescope to work or not. It was a great project to work on. I built the camera with Bruce, and I wrote the software with Brian.
Just when we were starting to get it working, the 2003 Canberra bush fires happened and among the catastrophic destruction of the fires, the 50-inch telescope went up in flames - so too did my project.
When that happened, I was very conflicted about what to do. Brian, who kept mentoring me despite my project being in ruins, and I had a conversation that has always stuck with me because it was one of the first times in my life that someone really treated me like an adult with my own wants, opinions and outcomes that I was hoping for. He really listened and tried to help me work out what was best for me, and his message was one that I try to imprint on my own students now - to do what makes you happy, not what the whole world thinks you should do or what looks the most prestigious. Just do what makes you happy.
Since then, Brian and I have stayed connected personally and professionally. When my husband (who is also an astronomer) and I were looking for jobs, I put it out on social media and Brian reached out with an opportunity at ANU. While I ended up taking another role, to have Brian reach out a decade after I had studied at ANU, confirmed to me how supportive my fellow astronomers and mentors from ANU could be.
It's one of the great things about the University - almost everywhere I go, I can find someone who I already know from being a student in Australia. Which, as an astronomer, is so important. Astronomy is this interesting discipline where people work together across the globe, and everybody has to keep moving because there's so few jobs and they're so spread out over the whole world. ANU was such a fantastic opportunity to meet and develop a network of astronomers and expats.
For instance, I moved to America to work as a lead scientist on a NASA project. I'm so happy I get to work at NASA - it's a dream for many astronomers - but I really miss Australia. Having these ongoing professional and personal connections makes me feel like I haven't lost everything by moving away. I know I have Australian connections in the US who I can reach out to and that I have good friends back in Australia who know me and love me for who I am, just an Aussie kid that ended up at NASA.
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