Meet astronomy and astrophysics student, Mandy Chen

January 5, 2023

Mandy Chen was born and raised in Guizhou Province, Southwest China. Before coming to the University of Chicago she was studying at the University of Hong Kong, where she got bachelor’s and master’s degrees in physics and astronomy. This is her fifth year as a PhD student in astronomy and astrophysics. Her research focuses on observations of the diffuse circumgalactic medium—the outermost envelopes of galaxies. She says she “seeks to better understand the dynamical state of this diffuse gas, and its connection to the star-formation/supermassive blackhole activities of galaxies and the cosmic baryon cycle in general.” We spoke to her about her experiences below.

Mandy Chen
Mandy Chen

Why did you choose the University of Chicago?

I chose the University of Chicago for the exciting research happening in the astronomy and astrophysics department. As an observational astronomer, the department’s guaranteed access to the 6.5-meter Magellan telescopes made UChicago one of my top choices when choosing grad school. In addition, I really connected with the graduate students in my department when I visited as a prospective student. All these factors combined convinced me to come to UChicago.

What is something you are proud of accomplishing at UChicago?

I am proud of every project I have done with my advisor where we pushed the frontier of the current understanding of how gas particles move around galaxies. In particular, a paper I completed this past summer reports exciting evidence for well-established turbulence inside gaseous halos surrounding galaxies. This finding has profound implications for the thermal and dynamic properties of the diffuse circumgalactic medium. It can help guide future observational and theoretical efforts in further revealing the intricate interactions between gas and galaxies.

What’s something you love to do outside of the classroom and lab?

Outside of my research life, I enjoy traveling, hiking, meeting new people, discovering new food and drinks, and just being around friends in general. I’m also the lead organizer of the Broader Horizons seminar series in the A&A department and KICP, where we invite astrophysics/physics alumni to give talks about their experiences of working outside of academia. The goal here is to help junior scientists make more well-informed decisions when choosing to transition out of a traditional academic career path.

What are your plans post-UChicago?

I plan to pivot into a career in data science and use my quantitative skills to help make evidence-based decisions in other industries.

What support have you received at UChicago that was particularly valuable to you?

My department has always ensured that I will receive funding through either an R.A. or T.A. stipend, which has been really helpful. I also appreciate having administrative staff in our department that care for the graduate students and advocate for our needs. In addition, my department (and PSD in general) host plenty of social events/receptions, which has helped me to develop a sense of community here and gain a group of close friends.

If you were speaking to someone who wants to learn about UChicago, what would you tell them?

UChicago can provide great opportunities for both research and personal growth, and these great opportunities can sometimes be accompanied by challenges. But if you are proactive in reaching out for help and make efforts to build a support network around you, being a researcher at UChicago can be an extremely rewarding experience.

How has your background or experience prepared you to contribute to an environment where diversity and inclusion are valued?

My experiences of living in mainland China, Hong Kong, and the U.S. made me appreciate the value of diversity and inclusion, and at the same time, made me realize the associated challenges of building a truly equitable community. I have personally lived through many life events where I experienced racism, classism, and gender discrimination first-hand. I have also occasionally found myself perpetuating some of these issues without realizing the implications of my behaviors at the time. Working through these challenges for years made me realize that while conflicts and mistakes are mostly inevitable, the only way forward towards a truly equitable community is with empathy, respect, and an open mind. Here at UChicago, I interact with and contribute to my community with this same openness and mental flexibility.

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