How a Queen guitarist played a part in a Texas Tech student making up her mind that astrophysics was the path she wanted to follow.
Shelby Courreges showed up on the campus of Texas Tech University convinced she could go places. The Department of Physics and Astronomy provided the direction in her quest to reach well beyond the skies.
In a few months, Courreges, a third-year student, will embark on a new adventure, traveling to Laurel, Maryland, to begin a Brooke Owens Fellowship at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, where she will be working with the lab's planetary exploration group.
She is one of only 47 students across the country to be selected for the prestigious honor.
“I'm excited about the opportunity to meet people there,” she said. “I'm hoping to transition from astrophysics to a more technical field, so this is a chance to work at Johns Hopkins in applied physics, not just physics.”
The Road to Texas Tech
Courreges, who is from Mount Pleasant, Texas, is scheduled to graduate in December. Texas Tech was the only school she visited as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic taking hold in March 2020.
“It's kind of a funny story how I ended up here,” she said. “I toured Texas Tech the first week of March, and it ultimately became the only university I was able to tour, but I'm so glad it was. When I was here, I learned a lot about the Honors College and the research opportunities involved there. That's a big reason I decided to come here.”
She also knew she would be challenged academically. She is pursuing a physics degree with a concentration in astrophysics and a minor in mathematics and has also been driven by an intense interest in research.
“She approached me when she was a freshman here,” said Thomas Kupfer, a member of the physics faculty and Courreges' adviser. “She wanted to get involved in research early on, which is something I really appreciated.”
Her aptitude for research has paid off in impressive ways. Kupfer said she will be presenting findings during an international research conference set for September in Northern Ireland.
“It is rare that an undergraduate receives this kind of an opportunity,” he said. “What I really like about her is her persistence and determination. We discuss a problem, and she goes to work on the problem, and she is very persistent until she finds a solution. She asks the right questions along the way and has a mindset where she really wants to understand things to the core, asking, ‘Why do we do this?' or ‘Why are we taking this?' It's a great attitude.”
The Attraction of Physics
The Brooke Owens Fellowship is a nationally acclaimed program that recognizes exceptional undergraduate women and gender minorities with space and aviation internships, senior mentorship and a lifelong professional network, according to a news release from the organization.
Courreges has been attracted to the world of physics for some time now, finding a discipline where her intellectual curiosity is repeatedly challenged.
“I took all sorts of different science classes when I was in high school,” she said, “but physics was the only class that ever really challenged me, and I kind of like that. I wanted to learn deeply about it instead of at just a surface level.”
She also had another reason for plunging into astrophysics.
“My favorite guitarist from the band Queen (Brian May) is also an astrophysicist,” she said. “At the time, I also likedastronomy, but when I learned he was an astrophysicist, I thought that was perfect.
“I remember sitting down and having an epiphany that astrophysics was the perfect major for me. Brian May gave me the confidence that an artist could also be an astrophysicist.”
It was no crazy little thing, that's for sure. Just like that, Courreges was no longer under pressure to find the space where she could make a difference.
“The Brooke Owens Fellowship is honestly something that's amazing for women who are interested in aerospace engineering or the aerospace field,” she said. “I really like how it gives them such a great opportunity.”
The Road to the Fellowship
Courreges is part of the seventh class of fellows, having been selected as a result of a rigorous process that includes written and creative submissions and interviews with Fellowship and aerospace industry leaders. Fellows were selected from among almost 1,000 applicants based on talent, desire to pursue an aerospace career, creativity, leadership and community commitment.
“The first round of applications was due in October,” she said. “In the first application, they want you to do a longer essay as well as a creative aspect. The longer essay I wrote about what creativity means to me.”
For the creative part, she got, well, creative, designing an informal animated drawing based on the theme of fear in the workplace.
“I like making art,” she said. “The drawing looked at the value of fear in the workplace, and it was about a star, since I'm in astrophysics, and every time fear came over him, he got bigger and then exploded at the end.”
The Transforming Power of Art
In her application essay, she wrote about her passion for art and the transformational impact it can have on people – despite language barriers.
“It stands as a unique way to communicate even if you do not share the same language as the viewer, you are still able to speak your purpose with passion,” she wrote. “As a young adult, I realize that my art passions can help inform the work I do in the space industry.”
Between now and the start of the Fellowship, Courregeswill be assigned a mentor from the aerospace industry who will provide support and other resources to augment her professional development.
The Fellowship was founded in 2016 in honor of D. Brooke Owens, an industry pioneer and pilot who lost a battle with cancer at the age of 35. Co-founders are Lori Garver, former deputy administrator of NASA; Cassie Lee, the CEO of Sound Future; and William Pomerantz, vice president for special projects at Virgin Orbit.
“We are overjoyed to welcome our seventh class of ‘Brookies,' to the Fellowship, which is now providing nearly 300 women and gender minorities access to the ever-more important aerospace industry,” Garver said in a news release announcing this year's group. “The program is expanding the diversity of the workforce in the sector and the experience and knowledge gained by these talented individuals will help it deliver a better future for humanity.”
That's something Courreges can get behind.
“They (Texas Tech) have given me the chance to be involved in research since I was a freshman and participate in various competitions,” she wrote in her essay. “I also ended up graduating valedictorian of my high school class and in Texas, the valedictorians get their tuition paid for at state schools. Those factors are ultimately why I chose to go where I did. With my degree in astrophysics, I hope I can achieve my dream of helping find new information about the universe and change the world.”