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photo of emma bakes I was born in 1968 in a small coal mining town on the coast of North East England. I attended a set of state-funded schools and was privileged to be taught by some excellent teachers who were inspiring and had real vision. This changed in the last two years of high school when a lot of them had to leave due to low pay and poor facilities, but I managed to get to Newcastle University on a government-funded grant to study for a theoretical physics degree and go on to London University to do a Ph.D. in astrophysics. I was again tremendously lucky to benefit from supervision from an advisor situated in NASA Ames, California. I went on to work in the USA as a postdoctoral research assistant at Princeton University and became an assistant professor in 1995 at Vassar College, the place where America's first female astronomer, Maria Mitchell, comes from. This was a temporary, exhausting, but extremely fulfilling position, and I went on to work as an Astrophysicist at NASA Ames, studying the chemistry and thermodynamics of star-forming regions. I finished my first book on astrochemistry which was published in 1997. I now have my own grants via open competition from NASA's Astrophysics Theory and Exobiology programs and work for NASA via the SETI Institute. I have chaired an exciting mission concept in collaboration with JPL to send a space mission to look for organic molecules in the outer Solar System. I am also a team member of the first planned mission devised by humanity to traverse interstellar distances. I hope to eventually become a professor of astrophysics permanently and to research and teach on an equal basis.

I had very conventional expectations of what I would do as an adult until I was around 12 years old and I got a really good female science teacher who made school interesting. I decided science was really the subject for me. I was bullied a lot by the boys at school for this and generally ostracized by the girls. I figured it didn't matter because it was better to be yourself and fulfill your destiny than do what other people thought was best for you. I was going to be a doctor of medicine until I saw Carl Sagan's TV series, "Cosmos," when I was 14. I read the book that went with the series and as I finished the final paragraph of the book, I got a strange and definite feeling that astronomy was the subject for me and that this was my destiny. I began to really care about my schoolwork and grades at this point. It has been a long, hard pathway, full of obstacles and trials. Most of these have been caused by sexism, coupled with a fear many people have of anybody who appears to change the status quo. I have surmounted these problems and met the challenges and opposition I faced successfully to emerge into a life beyond my wildest hopes and dreams.

This is, in part, due to the other pivotal experience in my life, taking up kung fu as a teenager. It sounds like a cliche, but I was a typical spotty, geeky weakling, and my kung fu class soon made me into a spotty, geeky martial artist of some proficiency. The style of kung fu was Lau Gar, and since then I have studied Tae Kwon Do, Shaolin kung fu and my last and favorite martial art created by Bruce Lee, called Jeet Kune Do. These days, I don't have much free time, and the time I have is devoted to this martial art, running and weightlifting. I also draw inspiration from indefatigable heroes ranging from Leonardo da Vinci to WWF's The Rock.

I principally believe that everyone should strive to the best of their abilities to adopt a Renaissance approach to life if they can. It is the worst pathway a person can take to narrow down their life for the sake of conforming to some ridiculous stereotype of what is feminine or intellectually or socially acceptable. Having a life where you are a combined artist, an athlete and a scientist is essential for reaching your full potential as a human being. You should bear in mind that those closest to you, like your parents, boyfriend, schoolfriends or people like your boss may not fully understand this initially. At the end of the day, they will respect you and finally see what you did was right for you. If someone ever tells you that you have no ability or that you don't merit a future in your chosen career, remember it is their problem, not yours. In addition, success is not straightforward and you may have many apparent failures before you find your niche. Life is meaningless unless you spend it doing something you are passionate about. And life is too short and there is far too little of it for you to waste doing anything else.

A Day In the Life of Emma Bakes

Archived chat with Emma


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