Spinning Out Sci-Fi While Studying the Stars

August 19, 2022

By Bonnie Eissner

Incoming Astrophysics master’s student Vanessa Brown mixes science and fiction.

Vanessa Brown Incoming Astrophysics Student 2022
Vanessa Brown, a Columbia graduate and science-fiction writer who previously taught at LaGuardia Community College, joins the Graduate Center’s new Astrophysics master’s program. (Photo credit: Alex Irklievski)

Vanessa Brown’s once disparate passions for writing and the stars are on a collision course. This month, Brown begins the new Astrophysics master’s program at the Graduate Center, and they are on the verge of publishing their first book. 

“Hopefully, it’s very scary and interesting,” Brown says of the book, a novella, The Scourge Between Stars, due out in April 2023. 

With the book, Brown, who is nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns, blends their twin interests in science and science fiction.  

Learn More About the M.S. Program in Astrophysics

For six years, after graduating from Columbia University with a degree in astronomy, Brown taught astronomy and astrobiology at LaGuardia Community College. “That was the best experience ever,” Brown says. 

Brown related to the students, most of whom, Brown says, didn’t intend to do anything with astronomy. Brown relished giving their students the same aha moment that they had experienced as an undergraduate. 

Brown entered Columbia unsure of their major. They thought writing might be right but hated their first writing course. “I knew I could not do that for four years,” Brown says. 

Brown remembered being awestruck during a conservation trip in Costa Rica when, for the first time, they glimpsed the night sky unobstructed by light pollution. “You could see just every star in existence, the whole Milky Way,” they recall. 

They decided to sample an astronomy class, and the awe returned. “I so clearly remember just the feeling of getting really hooked by astronomy,” Brown says, “and that moment where it’s like, ‘Oh my gosh,’ and you get that spark.” 

Writing took a back seat to astronomy until 2020 when Brown learned that the science fiction publisher Tor Books had started an imprint for science fiction horror and, in response to the Black Lives Matter movement, was holding an open submission for writers from minority and underrepresented backgrounds who didn’t have agents. Brown dashed out a manuscript in a whirlwind three weeks and submitted it just before the deadline. They received an offer in December. 

Brown describes the book’s plot as “very much inspired by the time I spent teaching astrobiology, which is the search for life in the universe.” In it, a female starship captain returning to Earth encounters a mysterious threat that is picking off her crew members, the last remaining humans.  

Brown now has an agent and has written a second manuscript, just in time to delve into the Astrophysics master’s program. “The fact that I get to be a part of this inaugural cohort is a dream come true,” Brown says. 

As an undergraduate who jumped into astronomy relatively late, Brown missed out on some research opportunities. They can now make up for that and prepare for their next goal: a Ph.D.

“I'm really excited to be doing research again and be involved in some really, really cool and really innovative work,” says Brown, explaining they are especially interested in Population III stars, which they describe as “the first generation of stars to be born ever at the beginning of the universe.”

With a master’s degree and someday a doctorate, Brown sees a chance to be a role model. 

“I’m a Black astronomer. I’m a nonbinary astronomer,” Brown says. “You can have your gender bias against you, your race bias against you, and you can not come from a certain background. You could have all the cards stacked the other way, and you can still succeed. You can still be a part of this community and be welcomed in this community. I think that, more than anything, is what I'd like to show students.”

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