Winning Essay by Starzia Gray, Pittsburg State University
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Once upon a time a little girl was born and given a most unusual name: Starzia (Star-Zee-uh). Early in life, she despised this name because most people thought she loved stars and would become an astronaut, or some other space personnel. So, when asked what she wanted to be, she would insist upon becoming a veterinarian or geologist, anything but a space person. To which they would strongly imply she was mistaken. This drove Starzia insane. She hated conforming to expectations, but she did love space. The moon, stars, and spaghettification by black hole always fascinated her. She just didn’t want to conform. Now our other character: Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist, author, and science communicator. An inspiring African-American scientist seeking to educate anyone willing to listen. He made science entertaining and engaging. Starzia discovered his work early on. She had seen the programs on television: "Nova ScienceNow," "The Universe," "Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey." He was fascinating and exceptionally articulate. Still, she didn’t want a career in any space field.

When she reached middle school, she was as defiant as ever. She started seeing the injustices in the world, the beating down of minorities and women. While not an extremist, she did feel everyone should have a fair shot regardless of genetics. At this point, she decided to be an engineer for three reasons: women are not common in engineering, it’s not strictly space-related, and the pay is great. Unfortunately, her older sister quickly beat her to it. Starzia realized, “If I go into engineering everyone is going to say ‘Aww, look at her, wanting to be like her older sister, how cute!’ I’m not about to put up with that!” She panicked. The only other strong interest she had was space.

She turned to her parents for guidance. They showed her a clip from the Center for Inquiry conference in 2015 titled “Secular Society and its Enemies” which had previously slipped under her radar. Neil deGrasse Tyson and a panel were asked: “What’s up with chicks in science?” Dr. Tyson immediately took the question, “I have never been female, but I have been black my whole life, and, so, let me perhaps offer some insight from that perspective.” Starzia’s attention was captured. She hadn’t encountered his views on this argument.

“Any time I expressed this interest [in Astrophysics], teachers would say, ‘Don’t you want to be an athlete?’” Dr. Tyson said through the screen.

“Oh my gosh! That’s just like me!” Starzia thought. “I wanted to become something that was outside of the paradigms of expectation of the people in power”

“Yes! Yes, exactly how I feel! I want to do something that the authority thinks I can’t!”

She was sold; surprisingly easily. It turns out all that was needed was a little push to convince that young girl to accept her name and follow her passion: to be an astrophysicist. As Dr. Tyson would probably say, it was the “fuel stop” to get me going.

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