New student wants to uncover the mysteries of the universe

Pa Chia Thao arrived at Carolina with two big goals: to find a community of Tar Heels working to advance astronomy, and to support the representation of women and minorities in the scientific field.

Thao headshot
Pa Chia Thao (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

Pa Chia Thao decided she wanted to become a scientist in sixth grade, but she rarely saw other women — let alone women of color — in her STEM classes or textbooks.

“I remember in high school I took a robotics class, and in the whole classroom, out of like 25 people, there were only three women,” she said. “Being in that environment, I noticed it. It was really hard. I was intimidated, and I didn’t always feel welcome.”

But Thao didn’t quit. Instead, she persevered all the way to Carolina, where she will soon begin her first year as a doctoral student in the College of Arts & Sciences’ physics and astronomy department as a National Science Foundation graduate research fellow.

Thao said she has had to fight to be heard and taken seriously in the male-dominated field, but the questions that inspired awe in Thao as a little girl continue to drive her today.

“One of my interests is: could there possibly be life out there? What makes Earth so special that it’s able to sustain life? Or is it really not that special to begin with?” she said. “These are the overarching questions. It might just be one piece of the puzzle, but it’s something. It’s getting us closer to those answers.”

Since UNC-Chapel Hill has access to state-of-the-art telescopes all over the world, from the Cerro Pachónmountain in Chile to a field station in Cape Town, South Africa, Thao will now be able to look across the universe to learn how planets evolve.

Her advisor, Andrew Mann, is the perfect person to mentor Thao to success, not only because he studies young planets that may one day sustain human life, but because he understands the obstacles Thao has had to overcome.

“I feel like my voice matters with him,” she said. “I appreciate it because he’s always willing to listen. I know research is the biggest thing, but it’s also about having that strong relationship with your advisor, which ensures a supportive environment, so that when you wake up and go to work, you’re excited.”

Mann enjoys working with Thao just as much as she enjoys being part of his research team.

“Pa Chia is one of the most driven and thoughtful researchers I have had the pleasure to work with,” he said. “I was excited when she decided to come to UNC and continue to study young exoplanets with our team, despite numerous offers of admission from other highly-ranked graduate programs.”

When the academic year begins, Thao aims to find a community of Tar Heels who are working to advance astronomy, as well as the representation of women and minorities in STEM.

Until then, the Minnesota native has a list of Carolina landmarks to check out, starting with the Morehead Planetarium and Observatory, where some of America’s most famous astronauts trained in space navigation.

“I didn’t realize how much UNC was investing in space research,” she said. “It’s amazing to be part of it and to continue it. I feel very fortunate to be part of this.”

Thao plans to work in an observatory after completing her Ph.D., where she can share her research and passion with others.

More importantly, Thao hopes to inspire more young girls and people of color to pursue STEM careers.

“Something [Mann] said that always speaks to me is that I might never win a Nobel Prize for research, but what I can do — my power — is to give people these opportunities to research and learn,” she said, “and that matters. I feel so fortunate.”