Dr. Aomawa Shields, LIFE ON OTHER PLANETS: A Memoir of Finding My Place in the Universe

Dr. Aomawa Shields, LIFE ON OTHER PLANETS: A Memoir of Finding My Place in the Universe

Dr. Aomawa Shields joins Zibby to discuss LIFE ON OTHER PLANETS, a stunning and inspiring memoir about her life as an astronomer, classically-trained actor, mother, and Black woman in STEM. Dr. Aomawa describes how she fell in love with astronomy and acting (it involves the movie SpaceCamp and randomly auditioning for a play) and how she grappled with both career paths. She and Zibby also talk about identity, grind culture, the pressures of productivity, and the importance of rest and community. Finally, Dr. Aomawa shares her best advice for aspiring writers.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Aomawa. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Life on Other Planets: A Memoir of Finding My Place in the Universe.

Aomawa Shields: Thank you for having me. I’m really excited to be here.

Zibby: Yay. I loved learning all about your life and everything from education to random viruses to kids. It’s amazing. I feel like I’ve gotten the whole spectrum here. Tell listeners a little bit about what your book is about and why you decided to write a memoir at all.

Aomawa: I have to say that I’ve been a fan of the title of your podcast for some time because that’s exactly how I feel as a mom, that I don’t have time to read books, which is, of course, ironic since I wrote one. I wrote this book because I’ve known for a while that my path was unique in that I had this love of astronomy and also loved acting, these two loves. Whenever I would talk to people about it, I frequently got a look of surprise, this quizzical look. How did that happen? How do you figure that out? It’s only more recently that I’ve become aware of how not as much of a rare magical unicorn I am, as I once thought I was. People have reached out to me since the TED Talk I gave in 2015 and have told me that they relate, that they have these, in some cases, it’s more than two loves, these things that they’ve been thinking about how to combine. They haven’t known how to. What that told me several years ago is that sharing my story could be beneficial to others in helping other people feel less alone compared to how I felt.

Zibby: Talk about how you discovered your love for both things in the, sort of, V pattern here.

Aomawa: When I was twelve years old, I was in the seventh grade, and we had these little teams that were team A, team B, team C, groups of seventh graders. We were shown movies. Our team, team A, was shown the movie SpaceCamp all together. That movie, it rocked my world. It’s funny because that movie, it’s not like it’s critically acclaimed or anything.

Zibby: I loved that movie. I loved that movie. Everybody around our age saw that movie. I don’t know, it needs a comeback, basically, a reboot.

Aomawa: It’s amazing. The kids get to actually go to space at space camp. Up until that point, I had some moments where I felt in awe of what I saw when I looked up. I write about how I was that kid that would look up, and I was often bumping into things on the street because I was looking up. My grandmother worked at Miramar Air Force Base, which is what it was called back then. I think it’s now called Naval Station Miramar. It was the place where the original Top Gun movie was filmed. I remember seeing that movie and that point when Kelly McGillis whips her head around and her hair is shining in the sunlight, these sheer, black pantyhose. She’s just a badass. I was like, hell, yeah, astrophysics, that’s what I want. There was those moments.

Zibby: There were easier ways to get black pantyhose. You did not have to go and get a PhD and all that. Okay, go ahead.

Aomawa: When I saw the movie SpaceCamp, it all came together. The Blue Angel shows that our family would go to see at Miramar, this aerial flight team that did these death-defying acts in the sky, and the Top Gun movie, it all was synthesized in this SpaceCamp movie. In my mind, my little brain was like, that’s it. That’s what I want to be. I ran home to my World Book Encyclopedia set and pulled out A and looked up astronomer and astronaut. I’m a planner. Even back then, I was like, all right, this is what I’m going to do. I’m going to go to MIT. That’s the best science school. I knew at the time. I’m going to major in astronomy. I’m going to apply to NASA. That set my trajectory for quite some time. What I realized I hadn’t accounted for was, you can make all the plans in the world, and then life happens. Things come into our view that can divert us from those best-laid plans. That’s what happened for me. I was at a prestigious prep school called Phillips Exeter. I was roped into going to an audition with some of my girlfriends for this play called Steel Magnolias.

Zibby: I’ve heard of it.

Aomawa: Everyone wanted a role in that play. I really didn’t care that much about it. Of course, that’s why I think I got cast. I hadn’t put much weight in how the audition would go. I was just like, I’m here with some friends. I’m taking a break from homework. Then I got this role. I got the role of Truvy, Dolly Parton’s character. Naturally, right? Typecast, to be sure. That changed the course of my life. Suddenly, I had this other thing that I really loved to do. I acted in play after play and became the acting girl on campus and the astronomy girl. I was a proctor at the observatory, which meant I had my own key. I could take friends out and show them stuff in the sky, and boyfriends too. That was fun. At Exeter, there didn’t seem to be a conflict with loving these two seemingly disparate things. Then you get to the point where it’s time to choose a school, and it’s like, what do you want to study? It became clear that I needed to choose. At least, that’s how it seemed to me. I stuck with what I had known for the longest time, but the things, they kept coming up. One dream, I would spend time doing that. Then the acting would knock on my door and was like, hey, you’re forgetting about me. I finished MIT. I started a PhD program in astrophysics. I did one year, but I couldn’t concentrate.

In a nutshell, while my classmates were doing problem sets, I was thinking about which movies were going to get nominated for best picture that year. I think in many ways, it was an escape because I wasn’t really focused. When I wasn’t doing well, it was like, but I can do this. This is where I can put my mental energy. This is something that is outside of this world. I have this. I sought it as that pure, untouched place I could go in my mind where no one could touch me. No one could tell me that I wasn’t good enough. I had an old white male professor in that PhD program tell me to consider other career options. I thought that was the final gavel of, you don’t belong. I did apply to acting schools. I had dabbled in this at MIT, applying to some acting schools. This time around, I really went for it full force. I did get in and decided to leave and did acting and got an MFA doing that. It’s that thing of one without the other never felt fully like me. Again, it kept shifting. I found my way back to — I did some awesome things as an actor. I got to act in films, and even one that went to Sundance. That was spectacular. I had a lot of false starts, like doing a science TV show and thinking, this is it. This is what my life has been heading towards. The science, the acting, it’s coming together. Then they recast the host. It was like, oh, god, it’s not. What am I supposed to do?

All along, there were these moments where I got help from outside. That was the thing that I hadn’t availed myself of the first time around in the first PhD program. As I struggled, I got smaller. I isolated. What I learned was it’s all about community. This is what I have to remember, too, even now because I think my tendency is to be in my own world, whether it’s my own world as a parent and a wife — this is our family. Who needs other things outside? I still need friends and mentors and supporters. I think many people feel that way. I ended up, the second time around, even though I was acting, realizing that I missed astronomy. I didn’t want to be on the outside of it learning about these amazing discoveries on the news. I wanted to be involved in that. At this point, it was ten years. Eventually, it became eleven between that first PhD program and when I became willing to apply again and go back and start over. This world of extrasolar planets had just exploded since I’d been away. This field was really prominent. That’s what I really became interested in and wanted to do.

Zibby: Basically, you’re wildly talented at two completely different things. For everyone else who’s trying to find their thing, the answer is you can actually have two things. You could be like you.

Aomawa: Or three or even four. I think the main message from the book is that it’s not either/or. It can be both/and or yes/and. If there are no role models for what we want to do, we can be our own role models. That’s what I wish I’d known earlier, but I’m glad I eventually learned. Just because I haven’t seen it done doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done.

Zibby: Maybe your whole thing is that you have to be in close proximity to stars. That could be Hollywood, the sky. There you go.

Aomawa: An earlier title of the book, I thought it could be Different Stars or something like that. There’s a chapter in there called Exploding Stars. I think this was the way to go.

Zibby: We don’t actually want the Hollywood stars exploding. I know you talked about some of your roles. Do you want to share a particularly exciting acting moment? You don’t have to.

Aomawa: Two come to mind. Of course, the one that got me my SAG card, which is that thing that every actor — that gives you your street cred. You’re in the union. It means, besides the fact that you can earn more money, your day rate is higher, it’s like a badge. I am in the big leagues, once you’re a member of the Screen Actors Guild. At least, it was at the time. Now it’s combined with AFTRA. Now it’s, I guess, your SAG-AFTRA card or something. When I first got my SAG card, the way I got it was getting this role in a film called Nine Lives, which was directed by Rodrigo García, Gabriel García Márquez’s son. I was working at the Skirball Cultural Center. It was one of my day jobs.

Zibby: He was on my podcast. He wrote a book. Didn’t he write —

Aomawa: — Yes, about his parents, right?

Zibby: Yeah. I read that, about his parents. I can’t remember now what it was called. I interviewed him. It was fascinating. Anyway, sorry, go on.

Aomawa: How do you have time to read books? You have four kids, right, or five?

Zibby: I have four kids. I do. I have four kids. That’s not even why I don’t have time.

Aomawa: And a publishing company and a store.

Zibby: I don’t know. I skim. I can skim. I can’t sit around and read a book for eight hours anymore. I can skim. Some, I read slowly. Mostly, I don’t read slowly, unfortunately.

Aomawa: That might be the way to go because at least you’re getting most of a lot of different people’s writings.

Zibby: It’s nice that they all get sent to me. If I was buying all these books, it would be an issue. Yes, it’s working out well. I love my job. I love what I do. It’s the most fun. Rodrigo, keep going.

Aomawa: Mulholland Drive is this very snaky road through the Hollywood Hills of LA. I was driving home from the Skirball job that day, and I got this call. I had done an audition. The producer, Julie Lynn, was married to a history professor who taught at Exeter. When I went to an alumni function, I was like, “By the way, I’m an actor.” That’s how I got the audition. I never in a million years thought it would pan out. I got this call from Julie. She was like, “Want to be in Nine Lives?” It’s a miracle that I didn’t drive off the road into the basin of LA. Then I said, “Well, I’m not in SAG.” She was like, “,” which means that you don’t have to jump through the hoops that you normally do to get your SAG card or be, as an extra, on a bunch of sets. You just get it. The movie producers decide that you have something that they can’t get within the union, the population, and that they need to bring you into it. That will always be a moment in my heart of arriving in many ways. Then the experience of filming it was fun because that film in particular has a unique quality in that it’s shot with a steady cam. What that means is that there’s no internal cuts to a scene.

It’s called Nine Lives. It focuses on nine different women and about fifteen minutes in their lives. These women are played by Sissy Spacek, Amy Brenneman, Glenn Close, Dakota Fanning, and Robin Wright. I was a prison guard with Miguel Sandoval, who I knew from Clear and Present Danger. I was totally into the Tom Clancy, Jack Ryan-type films back then. Now of course, he went on to be in Medium and stuff. We were both the prison guard wrangling Elpidia Carrillo, who was the woman whose life was featured. She was in prison. Her daughter was on the other side of the glass. She was trying to have a conversation with her daughter. The freaking phone wouldn’t work. It’s this moment that I now finally, as a mother, I can have an inkling of understanding of how frustrating and despairing that moment would be. The whole circumstances of why she was in prison were very, very sad and traumatic at it was. She couldn’t have a phone call with her eight-year-old daughter. She just freaks out. We’re trying to wrangle her. She just loses it, naturally. That moment and shooting that and how — we did maybe three or four takes, and it was done. The camera follows the whole action. There’s no cuts. I had fourteen lines. They all stayed in the film, which is a big deal.

Zibby: That is a big deal.

Aomawa: The other role that sticks out to me, it was just classic theater. I was in a play called The Trojan Women by Euripides. I played Andromache. There’s a scene where I have to say goodbye to my son who’s going to be flung off a cliff because that’s what happens in Greek tragedy. Again, I wasn’t a parent at this point, so I had to use all my training and try to imagine me as if I were that person. My method acting teacher came to the performance. She told me after, she was like, “You weren’t there.” , she’s a formidable person. She was like, “You were there. You weren’t there.” That was this moment. I felt like she was right. I knew I had. I had completely committed to that moment of what that would be like.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, amazing. You talked later in the book that you completely believed that you were immortal until you started getting sick. Tell me about that. Obviously, you didn’t really believe that, but I know what you mean by that feeling. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Aomawa: I think I still had that twenties — in my twenties, and maybe other people relate to this, I felt like I was invincible. I’m never going to die. I had always been healthy. I had known people who had health issues. That was never me. This was the year of going up for tenure at my institution. It was incredibly stressful. I had been told, oh, this is a slam dunk. It very much wasn’t. That fall, I went in for some tests. I think it was just routine labs. Oh, I had had some weird couple of days where I felt flu-like symptoms. Then it went away. Then I went in for some routine bloodwork. My liver enzyme scores were off the charts. They were like, what’s going on? More bloodwork. At one point, there were fifteen vials of blood they had to take on one particular occasion. It turns out I had a hyperthyroid condition called Graves’ disease and had to start taking medication. The weird thing was that thing I had, that flu-like, it was almost like a mono-type virus called CMV, cytomegalovirus. It’s just this random thing that people can get. The liver enzymes calmed down. The one thing that didn’t after all this bloodwork — I write about how the great thing about this vigilance that the medical system has is that, yes, they will catch things. They’re going to catch something. It’s great that nothing’s going to fall through the cracks, but they’re going to find something. I’ve been treated for that. That seems to be not an issue anymore.

I think what that told me — I’m glad you asked this because I’m in a phase now where I’m recognizing how internal the pressure is to do and to work and to produce. I just finished reading the book Rest is Resistance by Tricia Hersey. She talks about this grind culture that is a legacy in our country. It dates back to slavery and white supremacy and capitalism. It’s all of the structures that are in place in this country to encourage people to believe that if they’re not doing, then they don’t have value. What that’s told me now post-tenure is that slowing down is what I have to remember more because that allows me to be my best, healthiest self. That idea of “you can’t take it with you” when it comes to money is also very present when it comes to work. All that work that I do in whatever I’m producing, I can’t take that with me. What’s most important for me is my relationship with myself and others and the quality of life. I’m a little bit more aware now of the fact that I’m not immortal. I think the gift in that is, how do I want to live each day? That sense of presence and letting my body be my guide rather than the to-do list.

Zibby: You know, I can hear this a million times, but it takes, often, something to happen to get you to actually slow down. We can know that it’s important, but it’s hard to just do it. Isn’t it?

Aomawa: Really true.

Zibby: In terms of the writing of your book, what was the experience of going through your entire life like? What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

Aomawa: It was very healing and affirming too. At one point, there were those moments where I was like, gosh, there was so much random stuff that happened to me. Is anyone going to want to read this? Of course, what is the most important to include? There are a lot of stuff I could’ve said. Thank goodness for editors. They help with that. The affirming part was, yes, this is important. Yes, this story needs to be told. I feel like if I can be of service to someone out there who has a nontraditional background or a nontraditional story and that person reads the book and feels comforted and inspired, then my job is done. The book’s job is done. Natalie Goldberg is my writing teacher. She taught me how to write and how to keep the hand moving even when the mind was saying, oh, that’s dumb. Oh, that’s stupid. No one’s going to want to read that. To keep the pen moving through all of that. I think that helped stand me in good stead when I was rereading, when I was deciding — that inner critic, that inner editor or whatever you call it, the monkey mind, it’s always going to be there, the imposter syndrome that I write about a lot in the book. It’s always there, but the volume knob gets turned down the more and more I go. As she says, continue under all circumstances. When I was at a retreat of hers and I was freaked out about failing my qualifying exam, as I write, I told her about it. She basically said two sentences on a paper. I’m not sure if I can swear on the podcast.

Zibby: Go for it.

Aomawa: She wrote, “You’re on the horse. Now fucking ride it.” All that stuff in my head that — I was hearing someone recently say they call it the shitty committee. Now I’ve sworn twice. My head, it’ll justify anything. I write my own mind was my biggest racist back in those days telling me, you shouldn’t do that. There are no Black women who care about theirs looks and are astronomers. That same mind can tell me, you’re not a good writer. Why write this stuff? You still think you can be an astronomer right now? That mind is always going to go, but what I do with those thoughts is different now. I can recognize those thoughts as those old tapes that will play when I’m trying to meditate and feeling freaked out by the silence. Then I’ll revert to old tapes because then that’s something that I can listen to. Instead, I can tell myself, okay, old tapes. Go back to breathing or some other way I can take care of myself. I think the process of writing the book allowed me to accept myself on an even greater level. I encourage people who are thinking about their stories and questioning whether they have a story to tell, usually, the people that are asking that question always have a story to tell. Just tell it. Hemingway said one word after another. Eventually, those sentences add up to something that can really inspire others and maybe even the whole world.

Zibby: Wow, beautiful. Thank you so much. Thank you for sharing your whole world and many other worlds, perhaps, with our listeners here. Thank you so much. It’s a good reminder that our place in the universe does not have to be one specific place. It can be an all-encompassing thing. That’s important too.

Aomawa: Thanks so much, Zibby.

Zibby: Thank you. Thanks for coming on. Take care.

Aomawa: You too. Bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

LIFE ON OTHER PLANETS: A Memoir of Finding My Place in the Universe by Dr. Aomawa Shields

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