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Yankton Sioux Student First in Tribe to Earn a Physics Degree

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Charee Peters wasn’t expecting to break any barriers when she made the decision to change her major from theater to physics while an undergraduate student at the University of Denver, but that’s exactly what she did.

When she was handed that bachelor’s degree in 2011, she became the first member of the Yankton Sioux Tribe to earn a degree in physics.

“It was very unexpected. It’s very surprising that in all the generations and people that have been in the tribe, none have done what I have done,” she said. “It’s a bit distressing to know that I am paving the way for others like me, but I'm pushing through to represent my tribe and to show the world what Native Americans can do.”

Over the next five years she plans on having her master’s, wants to be working toward a doctorate in physics or astrophysics and would like to have a couple research papers published.

She’s already working toward her first goal by attending Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. She expects to be done with her master’s in 2013 and after she gets her Ph.D. she wants to become a professor or work in a research lab or observatory. But what does being an astrophysicist entail?

She says it has to do with “studying and applying physics to celestial objects in the universe. There are many sub-fields in astronomy and astrophysics though, so depending on whom you ask, you may get different answers about what he/she specifically does. For example, you can be an observational astrophysicist, which would include collecting data using an observatory on Earth or a telescope in space like the Hubble space telescope. Another astrophysicist may be studying the origin of the universe. Most of my research has been theoretical and has included me working at a computer to model what the light looks like from exploding stars called supernovae. I have also been working on an archeoastronomy project where I’m looking for cosmic alignments with structures from ancient cities in Bolivia.”

Peters is working on the supernovae research project with Jennifer Hoffman, assistant professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Denver.

Hoffman explained what they are doing: “We are creating 3-D computational simulations of the ways that stars explode when they become supernovae. When we look at the polarized light emitted by a faraway supernova, we can figure out the shape of its explosion. Most of these explosions turn out to be not spherical, but instead asymmetric in some way. The computer models let us create a hypothetical asymmetric stellar explosion in the computer and simulate what we would see if we pointed our telescopes at it. Then matching the simulation with the actual observed data allows us to learn more about the detailed shapes of these cosmic explosions, even though they are too far away to image. The ultimate goal is to find out what caused the asymmetries to occur and use this information to learn more about what the star was like before it exploded.”

Hoffman said it’s Peters’ “rare combination of idealism and groundedness” that has made her such a successful student and scientist. She said working with Peters “constantly reminds me that being able to learn things about the universe is really cool! At the same time, she's very down to earth and practical; she never loses sight of what's important to her, and that gives her self-confidence while helping her keep everything in perspective. She's been a terrific colleague. I can't wait to see what she accomplishes in the future.”

But what advice does this super student have for other Native American students?

“Don't let anything stop you from doing what you want to do. It's so easy to make excuses, which can keep you from doing your best,” she says. “Where you come from and the circumstances that you’ve been through do not determine what you can achieve; only you do. If you work hard and always put your best foot forward, you can do anything.”