This is our first “How I Work” with a student—and what a student. Ana Humphrey was this year’s winner of the Regeneron Science Talent Search, the nation’s oldest and most prestigious science and maths competition for high school seniors. She was awarded the $354,555 top prize for developing a mathematical model “to find the existence and probable locations of exoplanets missed by the Kepler Space Telescope.”
Ana is also an environmental activist and the founder and president of the Watershed Warriors Initiative—so when she’s not finding planets outside our solar system, she’s just, you know, saving the Earth. This is how she works.
Name: Ana Humphrey
Location: Alexandria, Virginia
Current gig: Exoplanet researcher and high school senior at T.C. Williams High School
Current computer: Acer Aspire 7 (for my research and personal use) and school-issued Lenovo 300e Chromebook (for school work)
Current mobile device: iPhone
One word that best describes how you work: Intense
First of all, tell us a little about your background and how you got to where you are today.
I am a high school senior who moonlights as an exoplanet researcher. Exoplanets are planets that orbit stars beyond our own solar system. For the past two years, I have been looking for exoplanets that we might have missed with the Kepler Space Telescope in systems where we’ve already found multiple planets. The Kepler Space Telescope finds exoplanets using the transit method, which measures a star’s decrease in brightness when a passing planet blocks its light (like an eclipse).
However, exoplanets that are inclined outside our “plane of view” or too small to block much light may go undetected. Based on an accepted hypothesis that planetary formation creates dynamically packed systems, I used mathematical modelling to seek “unpacked” spaces and determine whether a new planet could fit between those known to be nearby without disrupting their orbits. I found as many as 560 places that could contain missing planets and identified 96 as prime search targets based on locations of other planets in their systems.
I did this project largely as a science fair project but have expanded in the past year to present at astrophysics conferences as well. I recently just won the Regeneron Science Talent Search, a program of the Society for Science and the Public where the top high school seniors from across the country compete on the merits of their research projects and scientific ability.
(And no, if you told me a few years ago I would be where I am now, I definitely would not have believed you!)
Take us through a recent school day.
Life has been a little crazy lately as it has been the end of the school quarter and as I have been missing school more frequently than usual to attend events related to my research. Last Thursday, I woke up at 6:40 am so that I could get to school early at 7:30 am to make up a test on the three branches of government. When the school day started at 8:35 am, I got permission to miss my first period class so that I could make up a chemistry test on acid/base reactions.
I then went to English class, where we were discussing The Death of a Salesman, and then to lunch, where I studied for a quiz I had on court cases later that day. Next, in chemistry class, I took notes during a lecture on electrochemistry. I then went to my last period government class and took my quiz on court cases. After I finished my quiz, I left school early to drive an hour to the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center where I had a media interview and a meeting with my mentor.
What are your plans for college?
I will be attending Harvard in the fall as part of the class of 2023. I plan on studying astrophysics and getting my Ph.D.
Besides your phone, what apps, gadgets, or tools can’t you live without?
Gmail and Outlook apps:
Between my personal, school, club, and organisation emails, I am connected to five different email accounts. Having mobile apps for these accounts helps me catch incoming emails in a streamlines location on my phone and shoot off quick emails if I’m out and don’t have access to my laptop.
I’ve been programming in Matlab since I started teaching it to my myself in 8th grade for a science fair project. So far, it’s my favourite language for quantitatively analysing images and data. My major research projects over the years, including the project I presented at STS, were primarily programmed in Matlab.
Spreadsheets (both Excel and Google Sheets):
I’m just going to say it: I love spreadsheets. As someone who is both visually and quantitatively inclined, spreadsheets are a perfect marriage of features that let me simultaneously analyse large sets of data and visually inspect them. My first major science fair project in 7th grade was a mathematical model built in a spreadsheet. When I was starting my college search, I used spreadsheets to create a custom college-ranking system based on my preferences in school qualities. Whenever I have a question about something in my daily life, it’s to a spreadsheet I go to aggregate data and identify trends with formulas and conditional formatting.
Google and Apple Calendars:
I use Google Calendar to keep track of all of my tasks with deadlines and my phone’s Apple Calendar to keep track of my phone calls, meetings, and appointments. I keep two separate calendars because I treat my Google Calendar more like a to-do list and my Apple Calendar more like a traditional calendar, and the two platforms have different features that work best for my two different uses.
The Grammarly Chrome extensions is great because it will spell check across most text fields in Chrome. It’s especially helpful in Google Docs, which I use all the time for school assignments, and emails. I also have the Grammarly keyboard installed on my phone to do a quick double check for spelling on any emails I send from my phone.
I use Zotero to store and organise the journal articles I use for research. It has great web extensions that will download the citation information, abstract, and PDF of a paper (if available) with a press of a button. It also has great tools for sorting, tagging, and adding notes to papers and can be accessed both offline from the PC/Mac app an online through the website.
What’s your workspace setup like?
Mobile. I am constantly relocating depending on my schedule that day. My favourite places to work are the dining room table, the large desk in the guest room/office, and a local coffee shop (Especially St. Elmo’s and Nectar in the Del Ray neighbourhood in Alexandria). I also put in time in teachers’ classrooms (depending on which of my teachers are staying late on a given school day) or whatever location is convenient if I’m out and about. Wherever I am, I need a large surface so that I can spread out and have my laptop(s), notebooks, papers, and/or textbooks in front of me and visible.
What’s your favourite shortcut or hack?
I love keyboard shortcuts. They’re so simple yet they greatly improve my efficiency whether I’m programming, finding journal articles, switching between school assignments, or writing emails. My favourites are the classics. I find that people generally know them or they don’t, so here they are just in case (these are valid on my laptops. Macs have slightly different keyboard shortcuts):
Alt+Tab → Switch windows
Ctrl+C → Copy
Ctrl+X → Cut
Ctrl+V → Paste
When word processing or working in a spreadsheet:
Ctrl+(left arrow key or right arrow key) → move words (word processing) or blocks of horizontal cells (spreadsheets) at a time
Ctrl+(up arrow key or down arrow key) → move paragraphs (word processing) or blocks of vertical cells (spreadsheets) at a time
Ctrl+Shift+(left arrow key or right arrow key) → select words (word processing) or blocks of horizontal cells (spreadsheets) at a time
Ctrl+Shift+(up arrow key or down arrow key) → select paragraphs (word processing) or blocks of vertical cells (spreadsheets) at a time
Take us through an interesting, unusual, or finicky process you have in place at work.
One work habit I have that’s absolutely essential is keeping a research notebook. I keep one for each year of my project. I write absolutely everything down in my notebook, from half-thoughts on problems I’m solving to equations I working through to notes on my procedures to reflections on conversations I’ve had with researchers. Actually, it’s not completely accurate to say that I write all of this directly in my notebook because I often will write on whatever scrap paper I have on hand and then paste it in. You’ll also catch me pasting in my code from my research and typed reflections on my presentations and quarterly work.
Keeping a notebook is one of the most important, if not the most important skill I learned in my research class. The first is that it helps me catalogue my procedures. One really important (and often under-appreciated) aspect of good science is reproducibility. If you don’t keep track of your procedures, then it can be really hard to reproduce an experiment or repeat it with different variables. Keeping track of your procedures can also help you catch mistakes. We’re all human. We all make mistakes. If you write down every little procedure, it’s much easier to catch the small mistakes before they lead to major pains later on.
Keeping a notebook is also really valuable at tracking the development of your thoughts over time. It’s really useful to be able to trace an idea back to the exact eureka moment or to the series of thoughts I had the led to it. I can show you the exact page I wrote on December 31st, 2017 when, sitting in my grandparents’ office late at night over winter break, I drew out the first concept of how I would look for missing planets analytically. (This is the idea that is the very foundation of my last two years of research.) It a great intellectual tool because it allows me to reflect on my past work and analyse why I was successful, but it’s also a great nostalgic tool as well.
How do you keep track of what you have to do?
To-do lists are huge. I keep a “visual” to-do of assignments with deadlines in my google calendar. I organise assignments into different calendars by topic or class. I’m a visual person, so each calendar is colour-coded with a colour I associate with the topic or class (e.g. my research deadlines are purple, my chemistry assignments are lime green, my English assignments are dark blue etc.). I also have a rolling to-do list in my phone notes of miscellaneous tasks or tasks with flexible deadlines. I try to keep these in order of priority, and when I tackle these tasks, I try to start at the top and work my way down.
When I have really busy weeks, I try to create plans for the entire week of what I’m going to get done and when I’m going to do it. I start by figuring out my daily schedule and then create time blocks around it. I then take a look at my google calendar and rolling to-do list and assign specific tasks to specific blocks. Where I keep these master lists depends on how I’m feeling that week and what will help me feel most productive. My favourite places to keep them are in a phone note (one per week) with a separate schedule lists for each day or on a gird schedule I draw out on a blank sheet of computer paper.
What’s your favourite side project?
It’s not a side project, it’s more of a main project. I am the founder and president of the Watershed Warriors Initiative, a grant-funded, student-led, 501(c)(3) organisation. We write and teach environmental STEM lessons to local elementary schools. We use hands-on lessons and labs to connect the Virginia Science Standards of Learning that the students cover in class to real environmental issues they can find in their backyards or local parks.
We target elementary schools in our school district with high proportions of low-income and at-risk students. Since the club was founded in 2014, we have taught nearly 800 fifth graders. We teach two to four lessons in each elementary school classroom per school year. At the end of the year, through a partnership with the National Park Service, we take the students on a field trip to a local wetland where they apply the concepts we’ve taught them by completing service activities like restoring wetlands and testing water quality.
What are you currently reading, or what do you recommend?
I recommend The Glass Universe by Dava Sobel. It’s a “Hidden Figures”-type story about the Harvard Computers, a group of women including Annie Jump Cannon, Williamina Fleming, and Henrietta Swann-Leavitt that analysed stars at the Harvard Observatory in the late 1800s and early 1900s. These women were pioneering in science at a time when most of society thought that academia was not a place for them.
Their discoveries and innovations, including the star classification system and the relationship between stellar variability and intrinsic luminosity (a relationship that allowed astronomers to determine how far away stars are), form much of the foundation of our knowledge of astronomy and astrophysics.
Can you share a music playlist you’ve made, whether for working or elsewhere?
I listen to a lot of different music when I work, but my absolute favourite to listen to is David Bowie’s album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. I swear the space theme is purely a coincidence.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.