From Astronomer to Circus Artist, Exist Was Born

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Hi!  My name is Stephanie, the creator of Exist. By day (all 24 hrs of it), I run a circus company with my best friends. Cirque Roots is a grassroots community built circus gym in downtown Tucson, with a performance company that supports it. It’s been open almost 7 years now!!  I love it there. On the side, I teach astronomy at Pima Community College and sometimes do freelance analysis and programming work. People frequently ask what led me to this unique combination of circus and astronomy.  Well, it was one of the most vulnerable, risky, and adventurous paths I could have taken.

Here it goes.  I was in the PhD program in astronomy from 2005-2011 at Steward Observatory at the UofA.  Graduate school was a hard time for me. I compare it to brainwashing as it was used to force people to conform, to force people to believe, to make everyone the same (here’s another opinion of this effect).  The grad school roller coaster is different for everyone, some do really well in that environment, some departments are more nurturing, some advisors are just awesome.  My office mate throughout grad school, who is also named Stephanie, became my best friend and she saw some sweet hoop dancer and encouraged me to order a hula hoop with her.  At the time, I couldn’t even keep it on my waist!  We ordered these gigantic 42” hoops, because the more beginner you are, the bigger the hoop you’ll need. Hooping became my savior from the stresses of grad school, and this planted the seed for all future circus shenanigans...Thanks Steph!  By the way, Steph is a total badass astronomer now, and she also makes fantastic art.  She designed and painted our Orionness set piece (more on this later).

Oh yeah, back to grad school.  I had a few different advisors for a variety of reasons, one went on sabbatical, one moved to a different country - and it would’ve been too hard continue working together long distance. After a couple years, I became a Master of Science and then switched to my third and final advisor.  He was new, young, going through the tenure process, his wife was having babies, and he had a couple grad students - so he had a lot going on. We had a difficult relationship, I felt really lost most of the time, and didn’t know how to approach this problem - so I didn’t.  Now I know that I do better with some helpful, supportive, positive direction (aka good advising), I should’ve believed everyone when they said “choose your advisor wisely”. DUH! Eventually I just got so burnt out, and I knew that I didn’t want to be following the straight and narrow path typical in academia. Hell no! I wasn’t going to jump through all those hoops on top of the challenging relationship issues, to be what they all wanted me to be: a professor at a research university.  I felt trapped and unclear on what the heck else was out there, and nobody talked about other things we could do with our degrees. I had been in school studying physics, math, and astronomy for 11 years - and I was not living the scientific dream that I had in mind.  So I quit. I just quit. One day I just never went back. It was the scariest and most vulnerable decision I had ever made. I went head first into starting a circus company with my best friends, and decided to YOLO for a few years (great decision).  Turns out I don’t do well feeling trapped, so shortly after all of that, I also got a divorce. When it rains, it pours!

Six years later, after doing circus full-time, I decided to go back to astronomy.  But this time, I’m doing astronomy the way that I want to do it.  I teach astronomy 101 and 102 at Pima Community College.  Teaching is great because I get to stay connected to the material, and interact with students who are learning about the wonders of astronomy for the first time.  It’s quite a trip coming to the understanding that we are just one species on a small planet in a vast universe, and that we have only been around for a very, very short time. Witnessing these types of realizations is why I love teaching, and it brings humanity to their lives. It’s important to me to help people understand where we came from and why we’re simultaneously insignificant and special, and we should use that realization to be nicer to one another.  I also do freelance data analysis on the side.  Programming and image analysis were my favorite parts of doing research.  Writing papers and dealing with egos, not so much.  Quitting was the scariest and best decision of my life, and I'm so grateful that I had the courage to do that.  Now I am doing astronomy exactly how I want to be doing it, and now combining it with circus production feels like exactly the right thing to do.  I’ve never had so many things fall into place and feel so certain.  Here’s to quitting and doing what you love!