By Dr. Bjorn Mercer  |  04/07/2022

rewarding career pathNow is an exciting time to study space, thanks to the development of powerful instruments and technologies. In this episode, Dr. Bjorn Mercer talks to Space Studies professor Dr. Kristen Miller about the skills needed in the space field including mathematics, physics and team-based research experience. Learn about the university’s powerful 24-inch, high-caliber telescope that provides students with the experience of using real-time telescope data in their research. Also learn about the university’s many communities aimed at helping students connect with each other and other professionals in the space field.


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Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Hello, my name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer, and today we’re talking to Dr. Kristen Miller, full-time faculty in the  School of STEM. And today we’re talking about studying space. Welcome, Kristen.

Dr. Kristen Miller: Hi there, and thanks for having me.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: No, this is great. I love studying space. It sounds funny saying that. One of my sons really loves studying space and solar systems, and planets, and exoplanets and everything. And so, the first question is, why do we study space?

Dr. Kristen Miller: Well, that’s a good question. So, this is a really exciting time for space. I think my main answer is that we study space because it’s exciting, right? And this is a really exciting time to be in the space field. There are so many opportunities that are opening up. Our technology and our understanding of space and space exploration have progressed to the point that we are able to expand outward, and just do so many things that people have dreamed about doing for centuries and never had the ability to do, and we’re at the time where it’s all possible.

And that’s true in every field of space. Everything from policy where new legislation is needed to catch up with our space-exploration goals, with potential utilization of resources, as well as the international nature of exploration. All the way to the aerospace field where new technologies are being developed at a really rapid pace that relate to everything from propulsion to shielding materials, to structures, mobility in astronomy.

We have so many exciting new telescopes that are coming online and that are going to be able to give us the ability to see farther and deeper than we’ve ever seen before. To be able to find the answers to some of these basic questions about the nature of our universe, and our solar system, and our planet and life in the universe that we’ve wondered ever since the people looked at the stars, we’ve wondered these things. And we’re finally in the place where we’re going to be able to make some real significant headway and find some real answers.

Commercial companies are getting into the space field. As space becomes commercialized, that opens up opportunities for things like travel, space tourism is going to be a thing. Manufacturing in space, opens up a huge range of opportunities for people. And as a wider range of people get to experience space travel, and as our crews live and work in space for longer and longer periods of time, then there’s a lot of research and development needed in terms of human factors. How do we keep people safe in space? How do we keep them healthy in space? How do we keep them comfortable in space?

So, there’s just such a broad field, and there’s so many different things that you can do in space. I always like to say that “there is space for everyone here,” because no matter what your interests are, and no matter what your background is, there is a niche for you in the space field, and a place where you can make a significant contribution that will impact the space field in the future.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Very well said. And it is exciting to think how much has changed, even over the last few decades when it comes to studying space. And it’s gone so far in a short 400 years since Galileo, he was looking up at the stars with, uh, times 20 magnification telescope to what we have now and the James Webb that just went up, and just the possibilities of just observing and seeing everything out there, and like you said, learning.

And one of the big questions I always have is like, when we go to space, how are humans going to be safe from all the radiation and then zero gravity, and all these different things? There’s so many amazing questions and problems to be solved, that it’s almost endless, which is very exciting. And so, what does it mean to study space here at APU?

Dr. Kristen Miller: So, at APU, we have both a  space studies undergraduate and a  master’s program. And one of the things that’s exciting about our program is that it is online. So that makes it accessible to a wider range of students. You can work on your degree while fulfilling military obligations, while working your current position, your career.

And it’s also really exciting because we have some concentrations that are very cutting edge, things like  space entrepreneurship, which you won’t find at very many other schools. One thing that really sets our department apart and our educational experience for our students apart is that we own and operate a 24-inch PlaneWave optical telescope. And that’s an amazing resource for the program and for our students. There are very few brick-and-mortar schools that have unlimited access to a telescope of this caliber. And I don’t know of any other online schools that do.

So, the reason it’s so important is that it means that we can incorporate real telescope data into our classrooms, and our students can use it for research, for thesis projects or just for research experiences. It’s really exciting and really beneficial.

And the things that really make a huge difference we’re finding, is actual research experience and the ability to say, “Hey, I’ve actually worked with telescope data. I know what that means, and I know how to do it and I have experience with it.” So, it’s a fantastic resource and opportunity for our students.

And one other thing that we’re really excited about here at APU is that in 2021, we were ranked fourth in the online school reports list of the top 10 online space studies master’s programs. And that was really exciting. It was an honor to be ranked on their list, and to rank so highly.

They look at both the quality of the courses offered, the rigor and research experiences and also, the finances, they look at where do you get the most bang for your bucket, essentially. So, it was really exciting to be included with that. So, we feel like it’s a great program and a solid foundation for anyone who wants to enter the space field.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that is absolutely excellent. And congratulations, of course, on being a top-ranked graduate program. And that is absolutely wonderful. And having that telescope in Charles Town, West Virginia is such a wonderful option and it really shows the investment that the university has decided to make into the program. Besides the fact that having that telescope is a differentiator and it’s exciting, for me, we take our 4.5-inch telescope in our backyard, and it’s fun to look and we see as much as we can.

And then even locally, I live in the Phoenix area, there’s a telescope at one of the local parks, and it’s probably like a 12-inch telescope, which is a very good little telescope. But when you go there, you can only be in there for like three minutes at a time. And also just trying to have access to different telescopes living in Arizona, we’ve got a variety of different telescopes just around Arizona, but because of COVID, we haven’t been able to go to any of them because they’ve been closed to the public. And having that telescope as part of APU is really wonderful. And so, my next question is, when you study space studies, are there certain areas that you have to be, say more proficient at, say math, physics, et cetera.

Dr. Kristen Miller: So, yes and no. It depends very much on which part of the space field and what you want to go into. So if you want to go into space policy or the legal aspects of space, for example, then you would want some very specialized training in those areas. That would be very different from someone going into aerospace research or entrepreneurship, but there are some basics that give you a good foundation. And I always say that you should start with physics. Astronomy is a branch of physics. Physics is the underlying core foundation of everything that we do in astronomy.

And, of course, astronomy classes, any field of space that you go in, it’s important to have a basic understanding of astronomical concepts like the solar system and the universe, and what makes up space. That’s always important.

Math is a big one. People in general don’t want to hear that, but it’s true. Math is really important for understanding astronomy, and I think that’s true in any field of astronomy. It gives you a good basis. Algebra is good, but calculus is better.

Today, when you want to study space, having knowledge of a programming language is really beneficial. Any programming experience is good, but Python and MatLab are industry standards in a lot of different fields of space. And statistics. Statistics is the one field that touches every part of space, no matter what you’re in. Any kind of research that you’re doing involves statistics, policy uses statistics, business is going to use statistics. So, having a foundation of at least basic statistics will be really helpful.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Whenever people look at different fields to go into, if they’re on the fence and they already maybe don’t know, kind of knowing what skills to go into helps. When it comes to math, I always compare math to music. A lot of people are really hesitant to go to learn a guitar or to learn anything or learn theory. And all it takes is practice, slow practice over time. And if you learn math the same way, you slowly learn it over time, and don’t expect you as an adult to be like, “Oh, I’m going to get this right away.” It doesn’t work that way. It’s just really, really slow. And so, if you are interested in going into something like space studies and math is, and like you said, calculus and statistics, you just have to dedicate yourself to it. And then you will be a success.

Dr. Kristen Miller: That’s really true and everyone can learn statistics and math. It’s not magic and it’s not impossible. You just have to kind of focus, and there are some fields in space that use less of the math aspects. So if you really hesitate to dive deep into math, then those might be a better fit for you. There’s some areas that rely on it more heavily. So, there’s some leeway there.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: For sure. And even learning statistics is good in general. Honestly, when you watch a lot of news and stuff like that, they throw out a bunch of statistics in a weird side conversation way. People can misuse statistics really easily. And so when you know, statistics, you become a healthy skeptic when people try to use data. And when you learn it in a foundational way and really know how to really use statistics, it really helps you with your overall life knowledge.

Dr. Kristen Miller: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. We are flooded with so much information today, and having a good knowledge of statistics helps you to differentiate between good and bad reports, I think, and good and bad data.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Exactly. And this leads me to the next question, is why is it important to gain hands-on, team-based research experience as a student?

Dr. Kristen Miller: Well, I think that research experience of any kind is vital in student education and I think that’s true for both undergraduates and for graduates. There are so many benefits that come from getting real research experience while you’re still in school.

One of those is that it helps you to know if you are really in the right field. If you go into a research experience and you absolutely do not enjoy it, then you know that you need to look elsewhere and you need to find something different.

So research, it shows you what professionals in the field, what scientists in the field are actually doing. And that can be very different from what you’re studying in a classroom. And having that experience can really help you to narrow down and focus your studies on which part of the field will be a good fit and an enjoyable fit for you, personally.

Another benefit of having a research experience during your college experience is that it helps you to develop skills that aren’t developed within the classrooms. Classrooms tend to have more of a theoretical approach. We teach the concepts, we teach the underlying principles, but when you do actual research, then you see the practical side and the application side.

And, finally, I think it develops one-on-one connections when you’re in research experiences and especially if you’re in a team-based research experience. Research in space is done in teams. It’s almost never done with just an individual scientist anymore. We almost always work in a team, in a group, and being able to have experience in how you navigate that team structure, and how you make a solid contribution to the research while allowing, your colleagues in that group to make a contribution as well.

That balance of teamwork and that interaction of being able to work together with someone and produce a valuable end product, be able to meet a goal and come up with a usable product at the end, as part of a team is something that you learn by doing. You can read about it all you want, but you really learn that by doing.

It also allows you to develop one-on-one connections with one of the faculty here, because you’re usually working in a group that’s faculty-led. And so, that is a great opportunity for mentoring, which can make a huge difference in terms of your educational path and it can also form connections that last after you’ve left the university. So it’s a great networking opportunity as well.

There’s just no negative doing a group research project, there’s only benefits. And, and there’s just so many benefits. I think it also gives you something to say, if you apply for a job and you have your credentials in what you’ve studied, but when they ask you why you’re a good fit, this gives you something solid to talk about, that you’ve actually worked as part of a team, and you came up with a great result, and you were able to be successful. And how did you do that. So, I think it distinguishes you.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that’s absolutely perfect. And it makes me think education, in general, is very solitary where you’re learning material, but the vast majority of jobs in life are not solitary. We’re working with people, we’re working on a product that will have an end result in which many people have touched. And so, just like you said, when you go into a research project as a team, you learn so much more yourself when you’re open to working with other people. And that’s one of the great skills, I think we learn in life, in school and then when you have a job, is just that we can’t do it ourselves, if that makes sense. We have to rely on each other to be successful.

Now there are, of course, a few fields where you do, do it yourself, you have to throw out that caveat. But those are rare. And even something like the new SpaceX rocket, how many hundreds and hundreds of people went into creating that. I mean, something like that is such a collaborative experience because each person has their little specialty that helps make the end product successful. And so really gaining those solid, solid teamwork skills and just being open to sharing and helping is like one of the best things you can do.

Dr. Kristen Miller: I think it allows you to create things that you wouldn’t be able to do on your own and SpaceX, the rocket, is a great example of that. One person or even just two people working on it would never be able to reach the scope of that program. It takes hundreds of people working together to be able to make a huge project like that come to fruition successfully. And it’s the same one at every level. As a student, you can take classes, you can work on your own research project for your own thesis project or class project or whatever. And that’s great.

There’s a limited amount that you can do, and the amount of time that you have as a student. But when you work as a group, then you can contribute to the whole and the whole is just amazing. It’s so much more than you’d be able to do on your own.

And I absolutely agree that this is the way that the world works today. This is the way that businesses work. This is the way that NASA works. And this is the way that internationally, science is done. It’s important to be part of a community.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Exactly. And I’m glad you said that because so much of space, studying space, space exploration is a collaboration amongst the countries. If countries have their differences, even though I’ll say a general statement, it’s more peaceful today than it ever has been in the history of humankind, which is pretty great, still wars, et cetera. But just the fact that the U.S. and France, and Japan can all collaborate in different ways when we’re trying to learn more about space, study space, is a wonderful thing.

Dr. Kristen Miller: Yeah, it definitely is. And it goes back to your statement that space and having that view from space, and seeing our little planet out here in the middle of this vast universe and what a small little part we are, it can build unity for the planet. And I hope that’s what we’re seeing in the scientific community today, too, that we’re recognizing that we are all Planet Earth, and we are all humanity. And as we work together, we are better than the sum of our parts.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Exactly. And this leads me to the last question, is as a fully online university, it can be difficult to have a meaningful hands-on experience. So how have you overcome the challenges of the virtual environment?

Dr. Kristen Miller: It is a big challenge for online learning. Students feel more isolated as online learners than in any other type of learning environment. And that’s just due to the nature of online learning. You are kind of on your own for a lot of it.

And one of the things that we’ve tried to do at APU is to create some communities that students can be a part of. So we have several different research groups in the Space Studies department. And when you join one of those research groups, then you’re automatically connected with a group of students who share your similar interests, and who share your commitment to the program and your commitment to the educational value of research.

And one of the things that we do with our research groups, each of them has its own Slack channel, and there are many—I’m not promoting Slack, there are many different tools you can use for this—we happen to choose Slack, but Slack is nice in that it allows for some conversations to go on. So we have channels where there are research conversations going on, and then we have channels where there is informal mentoring going on as students ask each other about classes and advice on different aspects.

And we also have just some general channels where they are just talking about, “Hey, I saw this really cool article about this new discovery. What do you guys think about it?” Or, “Wow, there’s this conference coming up? Wouldn’t that be amazing?” And even just, “This is going on in my life, let me share this with you.”

And so, it’s a chance to make some one-on-one connections and to feel like you’re not on your own in the online learning community. I’ve had a lot of students tell me what a difference these little online discussion venues have provided for them, in terms of helping them to feel connected and helping them to feel that they’re not just doing a correspondence course. That they’re really part of the university, and part of a program, and part of a group. So that’s one thing that has really helped.

Another thing that has really helped at the university is that we have a lot of different student organizations that you can be part of, and for space studies, there are four different organizations that you can join depending on your interest, depending on your concentration, to some extent, leads you in more into one, than through the other.

But these organizations, they meet regularly over Zoom. They have activities that they do together. Again, it’s a community-building opportunity. It’s a networking opportunity. These students tend to stay active with the organizations, even after graduation. All of them have parent organizations at the national level that you can join as a professional that mirror your experience from when you were a student. So there’s a continuity there if you move into your professional field. And there’s a way to connect with the astronomy community as a whole, at a professional level and make some really great networking opportunities and research opportunities.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: No, and that’s excellent, and when you’re in a community like that, it makes me think of like, even just talking to people about articles, like somebody will say, “Hey, did you read this article?” And you’re like, “No, I didn’t.” And it’s a really great way to just expand your knowledge-base and to know what else is out there. And just to be introduced to things that, that you just don’t know about. And there’s so much to know about. That’s such a silly statement, but even in space studies, I mean, there’s so much to learn that no one person can be an expert in everything. Just talking to people just exposes you to more and more information, which just helps you become more well-rounded and a better critical thinker.

Dr. Kristen Miller: Absolutely. And in astronomy and space studies, in general, those conversations so frequently at the professional level lead to research projects and research ideas and collaborations. One of the reasons that we love to go to our conferences is that you make those connections. You’re talking with someone about a talk you heard, and you say, “Hey, you know, wouldn’t be interesting if we tried this.” And someone else says, “That’s a great idea. Let’s do it.” And a research experience is created through that.

And I think it’s important for students to experience that, to learn how to have a scientific conversation, to learn how to make scientific connections, to learn how to take the material that they’re learning, the concepts, that they’re learning in class and the things they read about and translate those into a research question or a research project, or something that they can work on and they can expand on.

That inquisitiveness is at the heart of science and it is a learned skill. It’s not necessarily something that you just know as you enter the field. And I think that these communities give them the chance to practice that kind of scientific conversation.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Very well said. And so absolutely wonderful conversation today, Kristen. Any final words?

Dr. Kristen Miller: I guess my final words would just be that space is a really exciting field and this is a really exciting time for space. So I would encourage anyone who is interested to look at it and to see how you can be part of the community. If you have any interest in it, there is a way for everyone with every strength and every knowledge base, and every experience base to take that and use it to make a unique contribution in the field. And those contributions are so important. Science is multidisciplinary, space is multidisciplinary, and all different kinds of people are needed to build it into an amazing future.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Very well said. Hopefully all of our space studies will, of course, create a better future for all of us. And so today we’re speaking with Dr. Kristen Miller about studying space. My name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer, and thank you for listening.

About the Author
Dr. Bjorn Mercer

Dr. Bjorn Mercer is a Program Director at American Public University. He holds a bachelor’s degree in music from Missouri State University, a master’s and doctorate in music from the University of Arizona, and an M.B.A. from the University of Phoenix. Dr. Mercer also writes children’s music in his spare time.

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