Miranda Barnett

Looking at the evolution of galaxies

When she was a very little girl, Miranda Barnett liked to pick out constellations in the night sky.

It was a favorite way to pass time with her dad, who taught her how to identify them. “The first job I ever remember wanting to have was discovering more constellations,” Miranda says. By the age of 10, she had a telescope, several astronomy books, and solid devotion to the study of the celestial world.

As an undergraduate who majored in physics and astronomy at Indiana University Bloomington, Miranda found herself looking at stars in a much larger context: 48 neighboring galaxies, to be specific. With her faculty research mentor Professor Liese van Zee, Miranda studied star populations that help explain how and why galaxies evolve.

Miranda Barnett
Miranda draws equations on the board

Extragalactic explorer: Miranda and a small research team in Professor van Zee’s lab studied stars in the Milky Way’s neighboring galaxies.

No obstacle too astronomical

Getting here wasn’t easy. An Indianapolis native, Miranda always envisioned coming to IU. But a high school experience made her question whether she should pursue astronomy. On her robotics team, she was “surrounded by guys who were going to be engineers”—and they noticed Miranda’s challenges with math. “They suggested I might not be cut out for a science career,” she says.

Taking that advice to heart, Miranda hadn’t decided on a major in her freshman year, which she spent at IUPUI. When she took a course in the planets—a subject she knew very well from her years of self-study—her dream was revived, and she was determined to overcome the math obstacle. “I’ve had to come at the problems from a different angle. It just takes some perseverance.” Before her sophomore year, she transferred to the Department of Astronomy at IU Bloomington.

According to best estimates, there are at least 100 billion galaxies in the observable universe. It’s an enormous field—literally—and there is so much to understand, Miranda says. “You are so tiny and you don’t even know it. I have an existential crisis daily,” she jokes.

Finding a mentor and more than a few stars

Within her first month on campus, Miranda was invited to apply for a CEWIT (Center of Excellence for Women in Technology) program at IU that pairs female professors with female freshmen and sophomores in mentor-mentee research relationships. She feels like she drew the long straw with Professor van Zee, who taught her everything, she says. “She is an incredibly smart woman who is looking at the question of how galaxies form and evolve. I have asked endless questions and she has answered all of them,” Miranda says.

Miranda “visualized” the galaxies data for the research lab by doing “weird computer magic” to produce images that allowed her team to better see heat, gasses, and whether stars are younger (blue in color) or older (red in color). “We can see a relative galaxy age from there,” she says. The research team analyzed patterns and trends, and identified whether a galaxy is growing new stars, dying out, or if it has collided with another galaxy in a gravitational mishap.

As a person who was once terrified of coming to college, I want to tell other students that the professors at IU really care about students.

The reflection of Miranda in the corner of a galaxy poster on the wall
an equation and a piece of chalk
Professor van Zee draws equations for Miranda

Astronomer for life

Professor van Zee and Miranda had a regular meeting where they didn’t talk at all about the lab, but instead discussed Miranda’s future opportunities for research and internships. “I’ve learned a lot about the astronomical community and what I might want to be doing,” Miranda says. She’s currently curious about the instrumentation side of astronomy—engineering the tools that allow researchers to better see the outer stretches of the universe. Wherever she lands, she knows it’s astronomy for life, and she’s excited about exploring the options.

Miranda spent her spare time at IU Bloomington exploring campus clubs and enjoying the many entertaining attractions in Bloomington, like the local Bleeding Heartland Roller Derby, where she learned to skate. “They are ruthless. Ruthless,” she says. Her bucket list included helping out at the local children’s science museum, WonderLab. “Watching kids fall in love with science may be the coolest thing in the world.”

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