Staff Spotlight: Erin Hicks
Assistant Professor of Astronomy and Physics, Director of the UAA Planetarium and Visualization Theater
Hometown: Kirkland, Washington
Fun Fact: Conducted research while weightless in NASA’s “Vomit Comet”
Not many can say they discovered their life passion as a child; Erin Hicks is an exception. With her eye glued to the eyepiece of a telescope gazing at the night sky during her childhood in Kirkland, Wash., Erin’s obsession with space and the mystery beyond Earth launched in her early childhood and never faded.
How it all began
Erin spent many nights out with her father, telescope aimed at the night sky, witnessing some of the universe’s best shows trying to understand a place beyond Earth and what literally makes the world go ‘round.
“My dad would take me to classes at community colleges and we would go to events where larger telescopes were available to view the night sky. I can remember one night hopping into the car to go and find the best place to see a comet,” Erin says.
“I was fascinated with the unknown and trying to place ourselves in this vast universe. I wanted to understand how it all works and how we’re able to live in this beautiful universe.”
She’s been searching for answers ever since.
The phenomena of space
“There are so many unanswered questions in astronomy,” Erin says. “It’s constant; the moment we figure out the answer to one question, we realize we now have many more questions that need answers in order for us to really understand the universe.”
Her need to find answers to some of life’s most intriguing science questions led her to Washington State University (WSU), where she worked with astronomers as an undergrad contributing to several research projects, earning a bachelor’s degree in physics with minors in astronomy and math. In a mini-preview of her current position, she also worked at the university’s planetarium and observatory.
During her undergraduate studies, Erin met her future husband, Nate, also a WSU physics major. They worked together on a project in which they flew on NASA’s reduced gravity aircraft—nicknamed the “Vomit Comet.” Performing their experiments while floating in approximately zero gravity conditions, you could say the two literally fell head over heels for each other.
Following a research path
After finishing at WSU, Erin and Nate decided to go to UCLA to work toward their Ph.D.s; Erin focusing on astronomy, arrived in California ready to jump right into conducting research. Her thesis: supermassive black holes and the role they play in galaxy formation and evolution.
In 2006, Erin and Nate added “Ph.D.” to their names and were ready to move to the next stage of their careers, recognizing the challenge of finding two jobs in similar fields in close proximity.
Germany was the first to answer the challenge. Both Erin and Nate were hired as post-doctoral researchers by the Max Planck Society in neighboring institutes near Munich.
Erin joined a team of researchers who were studying supermassive black holes.
According to Erin, theories of galaxy formation and evolution have undergone a dramatic transformation in recent years due to the discovery that all galaxies harbor a supermassive black hole at their centers.
“We know the mass of the supermassive black hole is somehow tied with other properties of the galaxy, but we don’t know if the black hole forms first and then dictates the properties of the galaxy or if it is the galaxy that forms first and then dictates the black hole’s mass. It’s essentially a chicken and egg situation,” she says, “we can’t easily tell which came first.”
After their three-year stint in Germany, the duo headed back to their homeland each with a three-year research fellowship at the University of Washington.
The stars point to UAA
The couple came to a crossroads following their fellowships in Washington. The two were a team in more ways than just a husband-and-wife duo. They’d researched in similar fields for years, had practically the same credentials and both were now each other’s competition to land their dream jobs—being university professors.
“We knew we had to find a department that had two positions available. It was going to be tough, but we had worked hard and hoped that the right opportunity would present itself,” Erin says.
Things were a bit different when deciding their next move this time around. Erin and Nate had two sons while in Seattle, Brannon, 3, and Connor, 1, and they wanted their next move to be a permanent one.
“We wanted to live in the northwest and we really wanted a smaller town setting. We love the outdoors, so we wanted to live some place close to nature,” Erin says. “It seemed like our wish list might never mesh with the real job market, and we worried we would either have to make some serious compromises in our goals or wait forever for that perfect opportunity.”
Luckily, the stars aligned in more ways than one and forever came a bit earlier than expected.
After seeing ads for two assistant professor positions and a need for a director of UAA’s planetarium, the Hicks family was hopeful. “It just seemed like a great fit for us. Life in Alaska and at UAA was the perfect balance of our professional goals and what we wanted for our family.”
The pair moved up to Alaska this fall and are now UAA Department of Astronomy and Physics assistant professors, engulfed in their first semester at UAA, teaching and adapting to life in Alaska.
“The experience I had at Washington State helped me gain an edge in my graduate research at UCLA. I had been involved in research projects throughout my years there, and I feel that gave me a real sense of what direction I wanted to go with my career as well as the skills needed to immediately start research when I arrived at UCLA. I want to provide those opportunities and sense of involvement for students here at UAA.”
Erin is ecstatic to be in a university environment and inspiring students in research is just one of her goals at UAA; the other is to excite people about the same phenomena of astronomy she’s been fascinated with for most of her life.
“Astronomy tends to be a topic that easily captures people’s interest. Whether it’s in class or during my shows in the planetarium, I love giving people that same enthusiasm I have for science.”
Life in Alaska
Science is a frequent topic of discussion in the Hicks’s household. But when she’s not analyzing research or talking science with her husband on the drive to work, Erin says she’s focused on being mom and on family life.
“Our boys may be young, but they are extremely active,” she laughs. “They definitely keep us busy and on our toes.”
A lover of the outdoors, she admits she’s bummed to have missed one of Alaska’s most-talked about summers. “I heard it was the best in years,” she says, “but it’s beautiful up here regardless and I love to be outside, so I’ll be out enjoying Alaska whatever the weather.”