Kissing A Lot of Frogs To Eventually Find My Prince: Academic Research Edition

Mahmuda Afrin Badhan

A collage of me singing at a conference, a picture of me and my team taken a few weeks ago in front of the JWST telescope at work, a picture of me giving a talk at NASA HQ last year, and meeting an astronaut at Goddard.

Mahmuda Afrin Badhan ‘11

Major: Astronomy and Physics

Internship: LIGO Hanford Observatory, Caltech LIGO Surf Program

Summer Research Program: Space Telescope Science Institute

Advanced Degrees: MS.c., University of Maryland; Ph.D., in progress

During my time at MHC, I was exposed to a range of research topics through my summer internships. For example, I spent my second summer in college doing research at the LIGO Hanford Observatory, studying the behavior of the interferometer’s end test masses (cylindrical mirrors) under the influence of sinusoidally varying forces. I discovered that at a specific constant radial distance from the mirror’s axis, the deformations were minimized due to the presence of a node. This carried the potential to improve the design of the future LIGO test masses. 

I spent the summer before my senior year at the Space Telescope Science Institute, where I studied the rest-frame UV spectra of a sample of local starburst and star-forming galaxies, with the goal of determining their stellar initial mass function (IMF). This program taught me independence, as my advisor was my sole supervisor and not always available — one of the several ways in which this experience differed widely from my last summer at LIGO.

Through both my summer internships, I was able to increase my self-discipline and improve my ability to communicate, collaborate, and scrutinize what was presented to me in daily discussions and science meetings. I was successful as a researcher in a highly male-dominated research environment, where I was the only female student that particular year. One of my three mentors at LIGO, Dr. Savage, writes to me from time to time, always starting his email by referring to me as “the discoverer of Mahmuda’s radius”. Pretty adorable, right?

This helped me realize and appreciate the dynamics of working in different research environments. I learned much of the science through reading my adviser’s publications, proposals and biweekly discussions with him. I was able to learn quite a bit about spectral properties as our meetings predominately focused on the science; I learned to be self-reliant on the technical implementation. I also acquired some field-specific knowledge through speaking with the scientists and colloquia speakers.

I began my graduate career research in an area in astronomy that was unfamiliar to me, high energy astrophysics instrumentation. Thankfully, after obtaining my MSc in this area, I had decided to switch gears over to a completely different topic of research, once again a field I had no prior research experience in. (And I say “thankfully” as the mission I worked on during my masters launched successfully last year, but disintegrated in orbit a month later in March 2016.) I am now doing my Ph.D. work in planetary astronomy. I work on exoplanet spectroscopic characterization, so I have joined the quest for finding life in other planets, through atmospheric modeling of the diverse range of planets out there in other solar systems.

I often reflect on my experiences while coaching the various young women I encounter in my academic environment. I believe my experience is highly atypical of an MHC graduate — most of the students I overlapped with in my time at MHC graduated knowing what research they wanted to pursue, stuck with it, and flourished in their scientific pursuits. I am so proud to see how well they're all doing and honored to be friends with them.

For me personally, however, MHC education taught me to value my well-being and satisfaction over perceived expectations, to appreciate my individuality as a woman in science and never sell myself short as I persevere. I also learned to have an open-minded attitude towards career opportunities, and, most importantly, to “never fear change”. So while I certainly took a long-winding path to end up here, I can rest assured knowing that this is really what I am passionate about, and not merely my comfort zone.