MaggieBeth Turcotte Seavey: Research that’s out of this world
MaggieBeth Turcotte Seavey always had dreams that went beyond this planetary sphere — and the University of Maine has been helping her achieve them. This summer, she will complete her fifth internship at NASA, where she will continue an impressive body of work that includes exoplanets research, instrumentation analysis and advocating for diverse voices in science.
As a child, Turcotte Seavey says she was endlessly curious, if a bit escapist. She went through phases of obsessions, from Parisian life to ancient Egyptology. Astronomy was the one that stuck.
“With our great night skies up here, my eyes just gravitated up,” Turcotte Seavey says. “I loved looking at the stars and the constellations. Children are the best scientists with their curiosity.”
Turcotte Seavey grew up in Bangor, so UMaine has “always been familiar” to her. She has gone to UMaine hockey games “ever since [she] was born” and attended Maine Summer Youth Music Camp. She even conducted astronomy research on campus in the physics department during high school, where she mistakenly thought she had discovered an exoplanet, only to discover through summer research at Harvard University that it was a false positive — one that, nevertheless, fanned the flames of her passion for astronomy.
After receiving a scholarship to the University of Maine through the Maine State Science Fair in 2018, she says UMaine was “a natural decision.”
After her freshman year, Turcotte Seavey received a prestigious summer internship at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center outside of Washington, D.C., where she worked on troubleshooting data collection from spectrometer instruments. She had a magical summer, attending the 50th anniversary celebration of the Apollo 11 moon landing at the Kennedy Center — featuring the National Symphony Pops, astronaut Michael Collins and performer Pharell Williams — and living outside of Maine for the first time in her life.
But back in Orono, Turcotte Seavey had some things to figure out. She had been studying physics, which she thought at the time would be the closest thing to astronomy, but had a nagging feeling it wasn’t right for her goal of researching exoplanets, planetary bodies orbiting stars outside of our solar system. On top of that, she failed Calculus II (which at the time was devastating, though she now knows that “math isn’t everything” when it comes to doing good science).
The anxiety surrounding COVID derailed her, too. Turcotte Seavey took a semester’s leave of absence in 2021 in order to get back on track.
After having time to reflect and recharge, Turcotte Seavey realized that UMaine’s programs at the School of Earth and Climate Sciences would be a better fit for her interest in exoplanets. She said that her academic advisers Alice Doughty and Katharine Allen have been especially helpful in navigating the academic switch.
“They have been such incredible supporters of me with my journey through the sciences and the support has been immense; it means a lot,” Turcotte Seavey says. “It’s also really awesome to have women mentors, especially in the physical sciences. There are very few women in the field, so to be able to get advice from them is completely invaluable.”
Turcotte Seavey admits that it’s been hard to watch friends and her younger sister graduate before her, but she has had many experiences that she wouldn’t have otherwise.
“It’s all part of the learning process,” Turcotte Seavey says. “Everyone’s journey is unique. Mine took a little longer. It’ll get me truly I think to a better outcome at the end by doing it at my pace.”
Even though she was happy where she ended up, Turcotte Seavey wasn’t sure she’d ever get back to NASA after her rough patch academically. This past summer, though, she saw an internship posting for a position working on the New Great Observatories, which will develop the next generation of space telescopes to gather data and images from space. Turcotte Seavey had attended a talk about the project on campus in 2019 that had captivated her. Despite her doubts, she couldn’t help but apply.
Her enthusiasm for the project was contagious; NASA offered her the position.
Turcotte Seavey spent the summer researching how to mitigate the impact of solar flares on data collection from astronomical space observatories at NASA Headquarters. She loved the research, of course, but she said the real highlight of her summer was going to a release event for the first images from the James Webb Space Telescope.
“I cried,” Turcoutte Seavey laughs. “Whenever each image came up on the screen, it was dead silence in a room of a couple 100 science nerds and industry professionals, and then you would hear ‘wows’ and gasps of breaths. This telescope that I’m working on will come online at the end of the lifespan of the Webb telescope. My mentor has been working on the telescope since the 90s. To know it takes thousands of people decades to make it happen makes the great stuff that we get from it even more meaningful, especially for me.”
When the summer ended, Turcotte Seavey asked if she could continue working remotely throughout the fall 2022 semester. Then, in the spring, she transitioned to working on a project focusing on diversity, equity and inclusion in review panels of research proposals, which she has seen the importance of as a woman in science.
This January, Turcotte Seavey also presented her summer research about stellar variability at the American Astronomical Society winter meeting in Seattle.
“I’m literally living the dream, and I’m not even out of college yet,” she says.
Despite her out-of-this-world internship experiences, Turcotte Seavey is equally excited about some of the Earthly experiences as she goes into her final year at UMaine. She has loved her geology courses so far — How to Build a Habitable Planet was especially up her alley — but is most excited about her capstone course ERS410: Sea-to-Sky Experience, where she will travel to Alaska and the Yukon this May to assist with ice core research.
“What makes her special is her obvious enthusiasm for science — all kinds of science, everything from astronomy to glaciology to biology and everything in between,” says Karl Kreutz, professor and director of the School of Earth and Climate Sciences who leads the capstone project. “That is always a sure sign of a great researcher: someone who sees things from a systems perspective and is looking for connections and relationships that bind our world together.”
Of course, Turcotte Seavey sees the connection between her terrestrial research and her future career studying space.
“There’s ice everywhere,” Turcotte Seavey says. “We’ve even found water on exoplanets. Getting experience analyzing snow and ice will be useful when we are able to more directly observe those processes through the Habitable Worlds Observatory we’re developing at NASA.”
She is also excited for the personal development that her last year at UMaine has to offer.
“If you asked me a year ago what I would do in the upcoming year, my answer would have been very different from what actually happened,” Turcotte Seavey says. “What I’m most excited about next year is the stuff I don’t know about yet. I’m excited to see the outcome of the work I’m doing.”
Turcotte Seavey will graduate in May 2024 with a degree in earth science. She plans to pursue a Ph.D. in astrophysics or planetary sciences.
Contact: Sam Schipani, firstname.lastname@example.org