• Dr A Bashir

31 The Milky Way

Season IV is finally upon us! We are kicking things off with astrophysicist and folklorist Dr Moiya McTier, the author of The Milky Way: An Autobiography of Our Galaxy (available Aug 16 on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Indiebound, Target, and Walmart). In her book, the story of our galaxy is told from the unique perspective of the Milky Way, which Dr Moiya imagines 'to be this very sassy, irreverent personality with a big ol' chip on its shoulder, upset that humans have stopped telling its story for the last 300 years.' You'll learn more about her book in this episode, but first, we dive into stories from her childhood in rural Pennsylvania, where she first fell in love with reading and writing. We then discuss her burgeoning career in science communication, and the valuable life lessons she has learned along the way. Dr Moiya and I hope you enjoy our warm conversation, aptly titled The Milky Way, in homage to her book and to our galaxy.


You'll find the audio version of this episode on our website, Apple Podcasts, Soundcloud, Spotify, Google Podcasts, and more.


The transcript of our conversation has been prepared for accessibility purposes, with minor edits for clarity and brevity.


Dr Moiya McTier: As I was writing this book from the perspective of the Milky Way, really trying to embody a galaxy's mindset, I realized that things are changing and evolving all the time. Things grow, things learn, and I am a thing! <Laugh> I am also learning and growing and evolving, and that's awesome.


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Dr Asma Bashir: Hello world, and welcome to Her Royal Science. Thank you so much for joining us for our Season IV premiere–woo! Today, we'll be chatting with Dr Moiya McTier, a full-time science communicator and the author of The Milky Way, out today! She previously completed her Bachelor's at Harvard University, double-majoring in astrophysics and folklore/mythology, and her PhD in Astronomy at Columbia University. Dr Moiya is the host of the Exolore podcast, where she teaches listeners how to build fictional worlds interwoven with science. She also co-hosts Fate and Fabled, a YouTube show produced by PBS Digital Studios, where she and Emily Zarka dive into tales of mythology from around the world. I am ecstatic to kick off our fourth season with a spectacular conversation with Dr Moiya, touching upon her book and her shows, but let's start from the very beginning–Dr Moiya, what's your story?


MM: Ooh, thank you so much for that kind introduction! So, the story starts in rural Pennsylvania. I grew up in a log cabin in the middle of the woods. I didn't have running water or TV, but both of my parents were professors at the local college, so we did have wifi! That's a <chuckle> a common mistake that people make when they talk about my childhood. They're like, 'She didn't have electricity or wifi!' And I'm like, 'No, no, no! I wasn't that much off the grid!' <Laugh> But I was living there alone, so I spent a lot of my time reading. I developed a love of books and writing and reading early on, and I spent a lot of time out in the woods playing make-believe, so I really got to develop my imagination from a young age.


Flash forward to when it was time to go to college, I wasn't sure what I wanted to study. I thought maybe physics, maybe anthropology, but I... <Laugh> This is kind of embarrassing... I physically could not find the anthropology building, so I didn't take any classes there, but through a kind of circuitous, random route, I found my way to astronomy and folklore and mythology and managed to convince the heads of both departments to let me study both fields, even though this particular double major was not on the list of pre-approved double majors that you could do at Harvard. Through studying both of these fields, astronomy and folklore, I found my way to what I think now is one of my greatest loves: fictional world-building with a basis in facts and science. After college, I went to grad school, where I got my PhD in Astronomy, studying the motion of stars around the Milky Way galaxy and how that would affect the habitability of planets that you might find in different parts of the Milky Way.


At the end of my PhD program, I was approached by a literary agent who asked if I had ever considered writing a book, and I was like, 'Absolutely!’ <Laugh> We started working on a proposal. Because I was doing my dissertation on the Milky Way, the stars, and planets within it, it made strategic sense to me to write a book about the Milky Way, so that I wouldn't have to write about drastically different things, but I could write about the Milky Way in very different styles on these different projects.


AB: Let's talk about your childhood in rural Pennsylvania! First of all, how did your family end up there?


MM: I lived there with my mom and stepdad, who were both white. My birth parents... My mom is white and my birth dad is Black, but they got divorced when I was really young. After that, my mom fell in love with this long-haired hippie from California who had purchased a log cabin in the middle of the woods in Pennsylvania because [humorous] he doesn't really like people, [normal] and she fell in love and moved us in. And I'm really grateful for that experience... for the most part. It was not a place in the country where there was anyone else who looked like me around. I think by the time I graduated high school, there was maybe one other Black person who had come into the school, but for most of my time there–I'm a light-skinned Black person–I was the darkest person that any of them had ever seen in person.


AB: How does that impact how you see yourself today, identity-wise and culturally?


MM: Girl, identity is so complicated! <Laugh> I've been... I've been really trying to work on that. I grew up feeling like I had to represent all Black people because I was the only Black person that people in my school knew. I remember I did marching band growing up, and there was this one school district that we would play against in football that was a majority Black school district. Whenever we would face them, whenever we went to their stadium–this is so messed up–I remember when I was in sixth grade, after the halftime show, the marching band would get released and we could go to the concession stand. When we would visit that school district, all of the older students in the marching band would make me lead them around. They would put me in front, almost as if I was like their shield against the other Black people, like they were afraid when we went there. So, I felt like I had to represent all Black people for them. And then when I left my hometown to go to college in Cambridge, it felt like a magical place where all of a sudden there were other Black people, there were other people of color, and I was like, 'Ooh, I might get to find them, get to really reach that part of my identity.' And it was kind of another rude awakening because I realized that even outside of very rural, very conservative places, there is still racism; it's just a different type of racism. Yeah, identity is complicated! I'm still working it out. I'm a Black woman, that's how I identify, but I have met several people who question that identity, who will look at me and say, 'You're not Black.'


AB: How does that make you feel? Sorry, this is turning into a therapy session; that was not my intention at all! <Laugh>


MM: <Laugh> That's OK! I remember this one time I was tutoring a second grader in math and she told me, 'You're white!' And I left that tutoring session and just cried in the stairwell. I try not to let it get to me. Also, she was a second grader, like, I'm not holding that against her! <Laugh> She was a literal child, so it's okay! But when adults say this, I remind myself that what they're saying is more of a reflection of who they are, what they think, and what their experiences are. It does not say anything about who I am as a person. And it does not negate my lived experience.


AB: Mm-Hmm <affirmative>.


MM: But yeah, it still stings a little bit when people try to deny what I feel I am inside.


AB: Mm-Hmm <affirmative> and it doesn't negate how little girls will feel looking up to you and seeing a face that looks like theirs when you are doing all of these amazing things, when you do have your shows and you have your book, and you're doing all this amazing SciComm work; that also does not get negated. I hope that you remind yourself of that as well.


MM: Thank you! Yeah, and that means the world. A few years ago, I was in South Africa giving a lot of talks about science and my journey into it, and this [girl]–she must have been in seventh grade or something–at the end of my talk, she raised her hand and asked if women could be astronauts. Oh, my heart broke! And then, I got to say, 'Yes, of course!' I gave a list of the women who were up on the International Space Station at that very moment. Afterwards, so many people came up to me and were like, 'I have never seen anyone who looks like me doing science or doing what you do.' Yeah, it is a really powerful experience, and I'm grateful for that.


AB: Yeah. I love that you've been able to stay within the worlds of astronomy and folklore/mythology in your storytelling, and it does seem like storytelling is a recurring theme in your life. When did you first fall in love with storytelling?


MM: Like I said, I was a little lonesome nerd in the woods, so it was early on! I recently saw a picture from when I was a toddler. My mom was getting her PhD in English when she had me. She finished her program when I was 14, so some of my earliest memories are her reading me Shakespeare and Milton and Dickinson and just falling in love with storytelling that way. I cannot remember a period in my life when I didn't think in terms of stories, actually.


AB: And how does the world of folklore come into your everyday life, because it was such a big part of your degree as an undergrad, but what do you do with that now?


MM: Now, I work on Fate and Fabled! That's probably the most direct way that I use mythology in my work. Fate and Fabled talks about myths from around the world, but we're really trying to make a connection between these ancient stories that different cultures told and the way that we live our lives today. I'm actually going to be working on a script, hopefully later today, about Gaia, the ancient Greek Mother Earth goddess. I am really excited to talk about the ways that Gaia has wormed her way into modern-day culture, like the Gaia hypothesis from the 1970s that talked about how nature is this kind of self-sustaining system, but also this is a connection to astronomy that I feel very personally, because one of the projects that I worked on in grad school used data from the Gaia telescope, which has given us the most accurate and beautiful map of stars in the Milky Way galaxy that we have ever seen.


Mythology finds its way into the stories we tell today; we still name constellations and planets and moons after figures from mythology, and I am not a Jungian psychoanalyst, but it is real that these stories that have been passed down through generations of humanity work themselves into our brain. We tend to think about reality in terms of story structure, like the hero's journey, or we tend to make analogies and comparisons between big figures today and mythical figures, you know? We might compare Arnold Schwarzenegger to Hercules, for example, because these are part of our cultural common language and lexicon.


AB: Mm! In addition to your expertise in this particular field, in folklore and mythology, you're also an apt science communicator. Can we talk about that, your journey and your foray into SciComm?


MM: I would love to! I feel like I found science communication at the same time that I found astronomy. In 2014, I did my first research internship at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Charlottesville, Virginia–shout out to the NAC program, the National Astronomy Consortium–and it was what was described as a research program plus, because we also got a lot of professional development and it was specifically for people of color to help them feel more comfortable and thrive in this community, in the astronomy community. In that same building that I was doing my research, the NRAO, the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, had a group of science communicators and education officers, and I just found myself wandering down that hallway one day and I met this amazing woman. Her name was... Is! She's still around <chuckle> is Tania Burchell, and she introduced me to science communication, so my love of astronomy and my love of explaining it kind of formed at the same time, and since then, I've just been getting more and more intentional about my science communication work. I applied to grad school knowing that I wanted to do science communication after I graduated with my PhD, and in the second or third year of my program, I decided that I wanted to do SciComm full-time after I graduated, so I really started building up my skills and seeking out more opportunities. I did what I called a 'Year of Yes'. It was a full year where I said yes to every single professional opportunity that came my way. It really helped me so much with my imposter thoughts because, before that year, if I got an invitation, I would worry, 'Am I the right person for this? Am I actually qualified to speak about this?' But during my 'Year of Yes', it didn't matter if I thought I wasn't qualified. I had to say 'yes' no matter what. I ended up doing things that I would never have thought to do. I did my first stand-up comedy routine. I flew to South Africa for three weeks with just a couple weeks' notice and gave talks around the country. I actually started working on this book proposal as a consequence of my 'Year of Yes.' That helped so much! It gave me the confidence that I needed to be a science communicator, and it gave me so many opportunities to practice my craft and to find my voice. So, if there's anyone out there who's thinking of getting into SciComm, I highly recommend doing a 'Year of Yes' to figure out who [you are] as a science communicator. What do you bring to the table? Because everyone brings something unique.


AB: Absolutely! This is such a well-timed message given that I just came back from ComSciCon.


MM: <Gasp> Yes!


AB: I was one of their panelists and expert reviewers, and so many of the students that were there mentioned their feelings of imposter syndrome of, 'Can I do this? Should I do this? I'm feeling pulled towards the academic direction, however, I really have a growing love and passion for SciComm. What should I do?' So, this message is so well-timed; listen to Dr Moiya! <Laugh> But let's now talk about your book, The Milky Way. I am so ecstatic for you. I'm excited to get my hands on a copy. How did the story come about post that initial conversation? Then what did you do? Where do you go from there? Do you start writing? What do you do?


MM: Yeah, the way that the publishing industry for non-fiction books works broadly is that you write a book proposal and send that into editors. Once you get a deal, you start writing the book. In fiction, it's usually flipped, so you send in a first manuscript or a first draft of the book, and then you get a deal and start editing it. That literary agent who reached out to me helped me put together a book proposal. The different elements of the proposal were biographical information about me: who am I, and why am I the right person to write this book at this moment? It had an outline of the book with different chapters, each with a summary. It had a sample chapter so that they could get a sense for the style and the tone of the writing, and it had this section comparing it to other books. The way that that was explained to me was, 'Imagine your book is in a bookstore; what is next to it on the bookshelf?' so that the editors could get a sense for where your book sits in the context of this literary niche. So, we worked on that proposal, sent it in, had a really fun series of meetings with different editors, and then we got the deal. And then, that was where the writing process started. There was a bunch before you even start writing the book.


AB: You talked about imposter syndrome really, really briefly during your time as a graduate trainee. Did you feel any imposter syndrome while you were writing this book?


MM: Oh, 100%! Unfortunately, the 'Year of Yes' did not make the imposter thoughts go away. They just helped me practice managing them. One thing that I really struggled with when I was writing this book was just feeling like I had enough words in me, and even when I got the finished version of the book, the physical copy that I held in my hands for the first time, my first thought, unfortunately, wasn't 'Oh my God, I did it! I'm so awesome.' My first thought was, 'Oh, well it's a little short...' I was worried that I just wouldn't be able to say enough, 'cause I've always had trouble meeting word minimum requirements. But I think that I've since gotten over it <laugh> and I realized that I said what I wanted to say in this book, and if I had drawn it out any more, then it wouldn't have been the book that I wanted.


AB: Could you share a little, you know, highlight or the tiniest snippet of what to expect out of The Milky Way?


MM: Ooh, yes! <Laugh> Let's see... The book itself covers the formation and evolution of The Milky Way galaxy, from its conception <chuckle> and it does talk about its birth and its early years, all the way to the eventual fate of the universe, while also talking about the evolution of human understanding. So, it talks about the myths that we used to explain the Milky Way galaxy, all the way through our scientific understanding with telescopes that we have launched out into space, but it's all told from the perspective of the Milky Way, which I imagine to be this very sassy, irreverent personality, kind of with a big ol’ chip on its shoulder, and it is upset that humans have stopped telling its story. If you think about the vast chunk of human history, we were using the Milky Way to navigate, to keep time, to keep ourselves entertained. There are so many myths that people told about the night sky, and then when we started understanding it through science and telescopes, we kind of stopped doing that. So, for the last 300 years, the Milky Way's been like, 'Yo humans, where you at?' <Laugh> Like, why aren't you stroking my ego anymore?' And again, it was kind of influenced by my imposter syndrome where I was like, 'So many people have written about the Milky Way; who am I to add anything new to this from my perspective?' You know, like, I'm awesome! I understand that, but I'm still human. And I probably wouldn't be able to add that much new and interesting material, but the Milky Way sure could!


AB: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.


MM: I actually was testing this at an open mic in New York City at a place called Caveat in the Lower East Side–shout out to Caveat! They used to have these open mics before the pandemic and I got up on stage and I was like, 'Yo, I have this idea I wanna test out. What if I wrote a book from the perspective of the Milky Way? Here are the chapters that I would want to include.' And the crowd seemed to enjoy it, although it was a very friendly crowd. Then I approached my agent and said, 'Hmm, I'm thinking of writing this from the perspective of the Milky Way.' It helped that I had just read a book called The Raven Tower by Anne Leckie, which is told from the perspective of a rock, but that rock also happens to be a very powerful god, so I was already in the mindset of these different perspectives. When I told my agent, he did not immediately laugh in my face! <Laugh> So, I thought that was a good sign!


We did get some push-back from editors, actually, who thought that this autobiographical angle would be too childish, so we did not end up working with any of those editors, [because] this book is not written for children. I'd say that the youngest audience that I would be comfortable reading this book is high school students, but it's mostly for adults.


AB: Okay, that's very good for our listeners to know. Because you knew that you had a natural propensity for storytelling, SciComm, everything that you're doing now, I'm wondering if you mind sharing what the lesson that you're learning at this stage of your career is? You didn't fall into this profession; you always kind of had a natural pull towards it. What's the big lesson you're learning?


MM: Oh, so many, all the time! <Laugh> I'd say right now, the lesson that I am in the midst of learning–I'm still not done–is accepting that as a science communicator, you are going to get things wrong and that's really hard for scientists and science communicators to get; do you have that? Do you have that feeling?


AB: 100%! And I know so many that do because we are told that we have to have the answers and saying 'I don't know' is a learned skill... It really is. I think because when we walk into undergrad and even the early years of graduate school, so much of your identity–especially if you've been a high-performing student or trying to be–is your knowledge base, what you know, and how you can apply that knowledge, and to get to the point where you're like, 'I honestly don't know the answer to that' can be really, really daunting, but also very freeing. And I'm sure you can speak to that as well.


MM: Yeah! I'd say one instance I had that really helped me internalize this was the first time I was on live TV. It was at 5:00 in the morning, so [humorous] I was not at my best, [normal] and it was to talk about the discovery of the TRAPPIST system of planets. This is a system of seven planets that are all very close to their star, which is much smaller than our sun, and four of the seven were said to be in the habitable zone of their system. So, I was talking about this discovery and one of the news anchors asked me how far away the system was in light years, <deep sigh> and I was prepared to talk about it in parsecs, which is the unit that astronomers use, but I was put on the spot and had to do quick math in my head, and I ended up saying a number that was totally wrong. Afterwards, it was all I could think about, so I went on Twitter and I posted a correction. I'm sure nobody cared at all! And in that experience, what I realized was that for most people, if you're doing science communication for the general public, most people aren't listening for the details.


AB: Mmm <affirmative>.


MM: A lot of them are listening for the general concepts. Even though I got the number totally wrong, I know that what most people heard was 'really big number.' Most people don't super have a grasp of the difference between billion and trillion, so to them, it is just, like, huge frickin’ number! That was really helpful, but I'm still learning, still trying to give myself grace when I know I don't have all the answers or when I know I say something wrong, because as a science communicator, if you are a professional full-time science communicator, and you're talking about science all the time, eventually you're gonna say something wrong, and you just have to be okay with that and learn better for next time.


AB: Absolutely! And yeah, show some kindness to yourself as well!


MM: Exactly!


AB: You're a human being, and it's such a wise way to put it, saying that the details, the minutia is never going to be the thing that someone carries away from a particular conversation or a talk. They're going to get general gist and ideas, overarching ideas. Very, very wise words. I'm wondering if you could end this interview with some wise words for yourself, to your younger self, perhaps the girl who grew up in Pennsylvania, you said it was rural Pennsylvania, right?


MM: Very rural. People literally drove tractors to school sometimes!


AB: Oh, wow. Okay, so if you could talk to that girl, you could give her a phone call–you could FaceTime her, blow her little mind–and say, 'I have some words of wisdom for you; make sure you do this.' What do you think those words would be?


MM: I actually don't think I would wanna tell her anything, 'cause she did great!


AB: Yay!


MM: And I was such an anxious child. I was so incredibly concerned that I wasn't going to make it out of my hometown and that I would get trapped there and that I wouldn't get to live out my dreams, so I think if I got a visit from my future self as a middle-schooler and she was like, 'Don't worry, Moiya, it's all gonna work out fine! You're gonna write a book with your best friend from third grade one day.' 'Cause the illustrator for this book is my oldest friend. We've been best friends since third grade.


AB: [joyous] Oh, my goodness!


MM: I feel like that maybe would've extinguished some of her fire. I have not had the easiest life. There were times when I was very upset, very unhappy. A lot of this book deals with mental health trauma, really, and as unfortunate as a lot of that is, I am really grateful that it led me to where I am today.


But if I did have to give some advice, not from myself to my past self, but from the Milky Way to everyone else, it would be, recognize that you are not who you are in this snapshot in time, that you are a composite of yourself at all of the different moments in time. I used to get so wrapped up in the idea that whoever I am right now is who I'm always going to be. That's a very fixed mindset way of thinking. As I was writing this book from the perspective of the Milky Way, really trying to embody a galaxy's mindset, I realized that things are changing and evolving all the time. Things grow, things learn, and I am a thing! <Laugh> I am also learning and growing and evolving, and that's awesome.


AB: Oh, my goodness, what a wonderful way to end off our conversation! Thank you so, so much, Dr Moiya. I hope all of you get your hands on a copy of The Milky Way. Thank you so much for joining me today, Dr Moiya.


MM: Oh, thank you so much for this invitation! I've really thoroughly enjoyed this conversation.


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