Even from an early age, Tabby Boyajian stood out. For one, she had a miniature horse. Even kids with horses don’t have miniature ones. Of course, most kids don’t grow up in a houseful of margays, ocelots, caracals, servals, lynxes and bobcats, either.
“Wait, what?” Laura Penny was sure she’d misheard the student standing in the doorway of her office in the Rita Liddy Hollings Science Center.
“I’ve got to go home and take care of the baby lynx,” Boyajian repeated, pulling her waist-length dreadlocks up into a gigantic pile on the top of her head and – Penny noted – somehow making it look adorable.
“It took me a minute, but then I was like, Of course she has a baby lynx at her house. Why wouldn’t she?” reflects the physics professor with a laugh. “This is Tabby we’re talking about. She’s always been her own person. She’s very much an individual. From the very beginning, she just stood out. Nothing should have surprised me.”
Actually, it kind of made sense that she was the daughter of exotic cat breeders whose Buckhead, Ga., home was filled with dozens of wild cats.
“It says a lot about her: It shows her parents didn’t pressure her to fit in,” says Penny. “Her parents raised her to be very independent, not to go with the flow, to question things. And that kind of mind does very, very well in physics and astronomy: inquisitive and detail-oriented, but still open-minded and free thinking. The sky was never the limit for Tabby. Anything is possible. To Tabby, it’s like there is no such thing as status quo.”
That’s why there was never any question in her mind she’d not only go to college, but she’d be the first in her family to graduate from college, too, making quite an impression during the process.
“She had this confidence – this maturity – about her. Even when she first came to the College, she had this old soul,” says Penny. “She was kind of out there, in an oddly grounded sense.”
Jim Neff recognized potential in Boyajian very soon into her first semester, when she took his Intro to Astronomy class.
“Tabby was one of those students who just stood out. She just sat quietly in the front row – very unassuming. She wasn’t looking to be singled out or anything. She wasn’t trying to be a star in the class,” says Neff, who taught in the College’s Department of Physics and Astronomy for 16 years and is now the director of the Astronomy and Astrophysics Research Grants program in the National Science Foundation’s Division of Astronomical Sciences. “She had the highest test scores I’d ever seen in the class. And she was loving the material.”
When Neff pulled her aside and urged her to take another physics class and to consider it as a major, Boyajian took him up.
“I didn’t have a lot of focus at that time, so this gave me some direction,” says Boyajian, who quickly became involved in various research opportunities in the department, working in labs as a research fellow and as a teacher’s assistant – all in addition to her full-time job delivering pizzas for Papa John’s.
“I always say, if astronomy doesn’t work out, I’ll go back to delivering pizza.”
Astronomy has been working out so far, though.
“Nothing along the way said, ‘Ah, this isn’t really for you,’ so I just kept going with it,” she says, noting that if there were obstacles, she didn’t see them that way. Things like paying for her own education, pressure from her family or the demands of motherhood were mere inconveniences, really.
In college, she scraped by with the money she made at work and the money she saved by investing in a triplex on Chapel Street and renting out two of the units to cover the mortgage. After college, she kept on going: “My family didn’t really understand the whole concept of going to graduate school, and they didn’t really like the idea of me going through so much. But I knew what I wanted to do – I wanted to do astronomy.”
And so that’s what she did. And she didn’t stop: not after graduate school, when it meant towing her two young children along on her research excursions, and not after her postdoctorate work, when it meant speaking in front of a room full of her colleagues – all of them male.
Nothing could stop her, because – let’s face it – when it comes to science, this star’s light can’t be dimmed.
It takes a lot of character to be a star. Tabby Boyajian knows this – in fact, it’s kind of her specialty.
Boyajian began her work characterizing exoplanets and their host stars as part of her Ph.D. thesis at Georgia State, where she continued the work for three additional years as a Hubble Fellow. (Note: It’s highly unusual for recipients of this competitive fellowship to stay at their home institutions. But, as we know, Boyajian does what she wants.)
Now considered the leading expert in using a special instrument called an interferometer to gather high-precision data about the fundamental properties of stars, Boyajian didn’t waste any time becoming a star in the scientific community.
“The interferometry work is kind of like the bread and butter of my research,” says Boyajian, explaining that, when she first started working with the interferometer, it was newly commissioned – and therefore really exciting. “It allowed me to do some really cool and exciting physics. And that really appealed to me. That’s what drives me to be a scientist – to be able to say something new for the first time. So it’s been really exciting to introduce that to a community of people who are very excited about it, too.”
“That’s what she’s known for – and she’s in high demand in this community,” adds Neff. “That’s the really big thing she’s done as a scientist.”
And that’s what landed her a postdoc position in the Department of Astronomy at Yale, where she was introduced to Planet Hunters, a project that enlists the public’s help sifting through the extensive data collected by NASA’s Kepler space telescope to find periodic dimming in starlight due to a planet moving in front of a star – what astronomers call a transit.
Think of it as crowdsourcing for scientific data.
“I didn’t know about citizen scientists until I got to Yale and started working with it, but it was absolutely amazing to see how it works,” says Boyajian, who served on the Yale Exoplanet Group’s Planet Hunters science team for three years and continues to work with the project. “We’re getting real, solid science out of it – they’ve discovered dozens of planets. It’s pretty brilliant.”
“I think it’s the perfect approach for astronomy especially, because astronomy is the kind of science that we all can get excited about,” says Penny. “It allows a lot more people to be involved in science – and in discovery. And without them, who knows when we would have come across Tabby’s Star.”
After all, no one was looking for this.
“It’s one of those things that doesn’t happen if you’re looking for a needle in a haystack,” says Neff. “You’ve got to look for whatever is in a haystack, and the needle pops out.”
What popped out to the citizen scientists was that the transit for this star lasted almost a week (most transits last a few hours). Later, they noticed the star’s light drop by 15 percent (the biggest planet only makes a 1 percent drop). Then, in 2013, they saw a series of dips with different shapes, depths and durations – an event that lasted for a hundred days. The deepest drop in brightness this time was over 20 percent – indicating that whatever was blocking the light had an area of over 1,000 times the area of Earth.
It was huge, whatever it was. It meant something new was at play. Something was going on out there that no one understood. It was a mystery. And, it was fascinating.
“There’s always that burden of knowledge, right? The more you know, the more you want to know,” says Boyajian.
“When you find a project like this,” says Penny, “it’s like a book you can’t even begin to put down.”
And Boyajian had the starring role.
“Especially when it was first leaked out, Tabby was the big name in the news every night,” says her husband, Alex Mazingue ’01, who met Boyajian when he was double majoring in physics and mathematics at the College. “It’s been a whirlwind. As I tell people, ‘My wife? She’s kind of a big deal.’”
He isn’t wrong. Boyajian is a superstar. Yet she has never let the bright lights of stardom blind her to what matters. She remains humble, grounded, determined not to let the spotlight wander.
“Whenever aliens come up in interviews, Tabby is really good about turning the conversation around and saying, ‘Yeah, it can be fun! Let’s engage people, but then let’s walk it back to the real science,’” says Mazingue, now the president of Atlanta-based Premier Metal and Glass, which he cofounded with fellow physics major Greg Cottone ’02. “There’s a delicate balance between the media and academics, and Tabby has done an incredible job navigating that.”
“Tabby has always been good at setting boundaries for herself and her research – she doesn’t get caught up in projects that aren’t going to serve the true goals,” says Penny. “She has managed to stay in control and use the publicity to fund and inform science. That’s no small task.”
It takes a lot of confidence, a lot of purpose, deliberation and foresight. It takes a sense of command. And, for Boyajian, it takes science. Because, ultimately, science is power: She’s just there to make it shine.
Stars give us all something to look up to – whether it’s for answers, for guidance, for hope, for strength. The brightest stars give us light that we didn’t know we were lacking – they show us something we hadn’t even been looking for. They lead us to something new – something bigger, better. Something that ignites our own inner light.
Tabby Boyajian has used her starlight to do just that – to fuel the enthusiasm for scientific research among people around the world and get them invested in the science around them.
“For the general public, it’s hard to get behind some lofty discovery made by some scientist. But if they can take ownership of it, it means so much more,” says Boyajian, who harnessed the citizen scientists’ enthusiasm from the very beginning by including them as contributors to the findings. “This is something that everyone can contribute to, really.”
“That’s the part that’s been really transformational: this global community surge in interest in science. And the crowdfunding approach just made it even bigger,” says Mazingue, noting that, after Boyajian’s Kickstarter campaign, he spent entire days at a time packaging up and sending the WTF T-shirts and mugs they’d made as thank-you gifts. “People were excited! This is something people really wanted to get behind.”
The energy behind crowdfunding scientific research is no small thing. As grant support from the National Science Foundation continues to plummet every year, public support for scientific research is increasingly important.
“This really could be a transformative time for scientific funding – and this project was the perfect prototype for it because it started with the public – it was crowdsourced from the very beginning,” Boyajian says. “So, that it continues to be supported by the people is especially cool. I really believe in this kind of scientific outreach.”
She also believes in the kind of outreach that starts early – bringing science to schoolchildren and getting them excited about it, invested in it. Especially for young girls.
“From my own experiences as a parent, seeing how kids’ ideas develop and how they perceive the world around them, I know those ideas of gender roles start early,” says Boyajian, who often visits local schools to help ignite children’s interest in the sciences – and to showcase herself as a woman scientist. “They just need that little bit of extra exposure to women in STEM careers. That’s something we can address right now.”
That’s the kind of difference you can make when you’re a star: People look up to you. You help them see themselves in a different kind of light. You show them their own possibilities – that anything is possible.
“If I have the power to help encourage women in STEM, that’s my responsibility to the future of science,” says Boyajian.
It is, says Neff, perhaps the most critical role of a scientist: “Ultimately, it all comes down to setting the stage for the next generation of scientists – giving them a new starting off point so that they can take what you’ve done and run with it,” he says. “This unique thing Tabby has got going can go on to get kids excited and inspired. Her work makes a great promise to the future of science – that is certain.”