Early in her astronomy Ph.D. program, Aomawa Shields found herself without words. She had an undergraduate degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology but had left science for 11 years—a full solar cycle—and now she was back. It was her turn to present scientific findings to her peers, but Shields, who also had an M.F.A. in acting, developed a terrible case of stage fright. Getting ready for her talk, she was too shaky to tie her shoes.

“I guess that was the closest thing I've ever had to a panic attack,” Shields recalls. While he helped her with her laces, her husband assured her she could talk circles around the others. But things didn't improve. During Shields's presentation, a fellow student interrupted her with a question about the rotation of Saturn's moon Iapetus. She wasn't sure how to answer, so she mimed the moon's rotation, twirling like a hula dancer. She remembers hating the realization that she had to “break the fourth wall”—a term in theater that refers to the invisible barrier between the performers and the audience.

In her telling, a trifecta of issues allowed imposter syndrome to take root during her graduate studies at the University of Washington. Shields is a Black woman in a field dominated by white men, she was an older returning student, and she was educated as an actor. “The imposter syndrome didn't just visit. It pitched a tent, had a cookout, started planning parties, and hosted ritualistic dances, howling at the moon on my doorstep,” she explains in her new memoir Life on Other Planets (Viking, 2023). Writing with a conversational tone, at times witty and poetic, Shields relates the story of her decision to return to her first love, the night sky, after an acting career. Now a professor studying exoplanets at the University of California, Irvine, she is one of just 26 Black female astrophysicists in American history. Shields says she wanted to write her book to show others what it took her a long time to learn: dreams have no expiration date, there is no one way to be a scientist, and if no role models can be found, you can be your own.

Scientific American spoke to Shields about forging new paths in science and motherhood and about why empathy is at the heart of acting and teaching.

An edited transcript of the interview follows.

When you were studying astronomy in graduate school, were you concerned that your path was not the same as that of your colleagues who went “straight through” to their Ph.D. program?

At first. After M.I.T., I applied to grad schools in acting and in astronomy. I applied to the top three acting schools, and I didn't get into those, but I did get into astrophysics grad school, so I went to the University of Wisconsin–Madison. But that division that I had felt didn't go away just because I'd made a choice. So I applied to acting schools again and got in. When I came back to astronomy, I had an inkling that I wanted to be in an environment that had a broader idea of what a grad student could be. So I went to the University of Washington, where I remember [learning] during the prospective students' weekend that one [of the other students] had gone to pastry school, and another had been in the Peace Corps. I gravitated to that. But even then my first instinct was to sweep away the acting background. The 11 years I'd been away, the M.F.A., the film I had done, the TV—I didn't mention it, because I thought to be taken seriously, I needed to be purely science, and that's it.

It took me several years in that grad program to get to the point where this unique background could actually help me. I had a mentor who encouraged me. She's a chemical engineer, and she was a professor at the University of California, Riverside, at the time. She's from Ghana. She said, “Your theater background is your superpower.” I had never thought about that before. It took a while for me to get comfortable with realizing that there was no fourth wall in science. But once I discovered that this unique background really could help me be a better scientist, everything got better for me.

One thing I think your acting and astronomy careers share is the need for a sense of empathy. Acting is more than just pretending to be someone. It's trying to understand experiences, what they mean and how they shape people. Has that been useful as a professor?

I love this question. I think it has helped me. In astronomy, it didn't seem as if my feelings were that relevant; it was about what I could produce, what I could understand, how much I could synthesize. That very objective quality of the physical sciences was deemed more important, or that was my perspective. So then I get into acting, and it's, “No, we want to know how you feel.” That took some digging. But once I had that, I felt more fully alive, and I was able to identify long dormant feelings, including empathy, which is one of the key feelings to hold on to when you're playing a character.

That's why I love this question so much—because I think the kind of adviser I am is informed by this more authentic, more emotional and more holistic side of myself. It's not about covering feelings up or fixing them or getting students to stop having feelings. Once we accept the feelings, then they pass. In the past I was so attached to whatever feeling I had that I thought feeling meant the truth. But I have so many feelings in a given day. I think had I not been in an acting program, I might not have been as aware of that as I am today.

You write that the sky was your first love—it's been a constant for you. But how have your feelings about it evolved as you've grown in your career and as a parent?

There have been months where I haven't looked up since becoming a mom. Certainly, in acting grad school, I was like, “I'm done with that; now I'm doing this.” But when you leave a dream, it doesn't ever go away. You continue on your journey, but eventually it's going to catch up. And that's what happened for me. I started to look back up.

Since becoming a mom, it's been important to me to share this love of the night sky with my daughter. I wrote about this moment when there was a comet that was passing by Earth, and it had a 7,000-year orbit, and it was only visible in the night sky at 9 P.M. And that was way past her bedtime. I had this crisis of conscience. The astronomer part of me was like, “But this is space!” And the other part of me was like, “We are finally getting her on a regular sleep schedule, and I really love to sleep,” you know? Eventually I just had to let it go. I went up to the hill and viewed it through some binoculars, and I knew there'd be other comets to see in her lifetime. There's always a part of me that's like, “I'm not doing enough of this.” But whenever I do look up, specifically at the moon, that's when I feel most grounded. I always come back to myself.

In the book you mention that you like Saturn's moon Iapetus because of its different hemispheres, and you describe how that idea of polarity is compelling to you. And this sort of explains your path, which includes contradictions but also mixtures that make more sense than one might think. You have a beautiful passage about your name, Aomawa, and how the vowel sounds carry their own meaning just by being. And that's how I think about astronomy sometimes: We can learn about stars and nebulae and galaxies; we know the physics underlying them. But there's also poetry in the fact that they exist. Do you think these disparate ideas are more connected than they might appear?

Yes, yes. This is why I formed the program Rising Stargirls. At first it was, “Hey, I have this interesting background of theater. Could this be useful in helping young girls of color explore the universe?” And then I dove into the astronomy education literature and discovered that in fact there's precedent that creative exercises, literary exercises and role-play exercises actually increase girls' confidence in asking and answering questions in the sciences. I understand now that astronomy and acting were both about my love of stories. Everything has a story. Even planets and stars have their own stories—stories of their births, stories of their evolution and stories of their deaths. And how the planets and stars are influenced by their environments contributes to that story—and so, too, for humans.

With Rising Stargirls, middle school girls of color aren't just being told, “That's a star. This is what a galaxy is. Now regurgitate this information on a test.” We're saying, “You are a part of the universe.” And because the creative arts are inherently personal, you're going to not only learn about these astronomical phenomena but also write poems about them and draw artists' depictions. You're going to process this information through the lens of your own experience and your own family history. How you feel about the universe matters. What you think about the universe matters.

I think science and art work best when interwoven because I can more holistically process the human experience. In the sciences, there's poetry, and in poetry, there's science—anyone who's written poems or studied poetry understands there's a structure within. They're not nearly as separate as I once believed.