'I presented my research at a NASA mission conference'

By: Cece Thieberger, 
Mon, 05/10/2021

Cece Thieberger

Astronomy
Lewisboro, N.Y.

What is your main extracurricular activity and why is it important to you?

My main extracurricular activity is being President of the Cornell Nature Society. I joined the club during my first semester at Cornell to learn more about the environment, climate change, and what I can do to improve our planet. Through service projects in the Ithaca community, conversations with club members, and guest lectures from experts in the field, Nature Society has proven to be one of the most meaningful experiences of my undergraduate years. I have been able to participate in constructing aviaries for the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, cat socialization with the Schuyler County SPCA, and so many more service opportunities that taught me about the environment and how even a single club can make a difference.

girl in front of Smithsonian

What have you accomplished as a Cornell student that you are most proud of, either inside the classroom or otherwise?

My proudest accomplishment as a Cornell student was presenting my research at a NASA mission conference. I conduct research with Dr. Alex Hayes in the Astronomy Department and when I first joined his group, my project was working on trajectory analysis for the Europa Clipper mission. I analyzed the coverage potential of the Europa Imaging System (EIS) instrument for different sets of trajectories to help inform the mission decisions on which tour would result in the best scientific observations. While I was working on the mission, Cornell hosted the Europa Clipper Project Science Group meeting where mission scientists flew into Ithaca to meet and discuss the status of the mission. I presented my analysis to the Geology Working Group in which I directly compared coverage of Europa’s geologic features for each trajectory. Using my analysis, the Geology Working Group was able to reach a clear consensus on which tour to select for the next phase of the Europa Clipper mission.

How have your beliefs or perspectives changed since you first arrived at Cornell? What have you discovered about yourself?

My perspectives have definitely changed since I first arrived at Cornell. I came from a predominantly white high school and hometown, so I was rarely able to connect with people with a similar background to myself. I’m half Iranian and half Latina, and coming to Cornell gave me the opportunity to really connect with those pieces of my heritage. I grew up learning Spanish in school and speaking it with my dad, but I never really got to use my Spanish before coming to Cornell. I refined my grammar skills through Spanish classes, engaged in conversation with other students over dinner at the dining halls, and I even joined the Spanish debate team to practice my public speaking. As for connecting with my Iranian heritage, I celebrated Norooz (the Persian New Year) with some of my close Persian friends, met other students of Iranian descent through the Persian Students Organization, and took Farsi classes to surprise my mom by learning her native language. Cornell has been an amazing place to engage in meaningful conversations with diverse groups of students and being here has helped me think more critically about my heritage and my place in this world. 

If you were to offer advice to an incoming first year student, what would you say?

Explore! Sign up for any and every club that catches your eye. Register for classes that interest you, regardless of your major -- one of those classes you take “just for fun” may help you discover a new subject that you love and want to pursue. Grab some friends and take the TCAT all over Ithaca and inevitably get lost together. Walk around and explore campus on a nice day. Try to do something new everyday before you get too busy to change up your routine. And remember, your high school identity should in no way act as a limit to what you can do here. If anything, it should inspire you to try new things, no matter how daunting they may seem.

girl on trail overlooking city

What are your plans for next year?

I will be at Northern Arizona University (NAU) to pursue my Ph.D. in planetary science and astrobiology! My research will utilize laboratory experiments and computational modeling to study trace chemical species of Titan’s lakes and seas. Titan is a moon of Saturn that is not only the Solar System’s largest moon, but also the only moon with a thick atmosphere. Titan has a similar hydrological cycle to Earth’s with rain, rivers, lakes, and seas, except that on Titan, the liquid constituent is liquid methane. My work at NAU will improve our understanding of how methane, ethane, and propane ice could form on Titan by replicating a variety of surface conditions in the lab. I hope to use this work to provide context for future spacecraft observations of Titan’s lakes and seas.

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Every year, our faculty nominate graduating Arts & Sciences students to be featured as part of our Extraordinary Journeys series. Read more about the Class of 2021.


  Cece Thieberger