Open Labs Spotlight: Chantanelle Nava


For Chantanelle “Chani” Nava, her appreciation for the scientific method really “took off” in eighth grade.  She had entered into a bottle-rocket building competition that awarded a prize to the bottle that flew the highest.  The only materials allowed were a 2-liter plastic bottle and a sheet of cardboard paper.  With no previous experience, Chani spent the building time trying out wings with different shapes and sizes, placing them in different positions on the bottle.  She then tested how high each bottle flew when she threw it, and adjusted her tests based on which design did best.  Her accidental but effective use of the scientific method launched her all the way to first place!


These days, Chani continues to use the scientific method as a second-year graduate student with Harvard’s Astronomy Department.  Though she originally intended to become a medical doctor, she stumbled onto her passion for astronomy after taking a physics class her second year in college.  With strong mentorship from her lab instructor, Jaylene Naylor, and later research mentor, Professor Nate McCrady, Chani was able to navigate through challenging coursework and personal doubts to become the strong researcher she is today.


Now, Chani works to detect planets orbiting stars other than our Sun, or exoplanets, with the Doppler shift method.  As planets travel along their orbits, they cause their host star to wobble slightly around the common center of mass of the planet and the star.  We are able to observe this wobble as a periodic red and blue shift in the color of the star’s light.  Sometimes, this shift becomes hard to find due to activity on the star’s surface that causes similar color shifts.  Chani’s research focuses on better characterizing this activity on the star’s surface so that astronomers everywhere can detect planets more confidently using this method.

When not finding other planets, Chani enjoys exploring this planet!  She likes to spend weekends mountain biking, kayaking, or even snowshoeing through the wilds along with her boyfriend, Russell.  She also enjoys embarking on adventures in Boston, where she lives, exploring the local landmarks and museums.  Things can get hectic as a graduate student, and so Chani makes sure to take the time to cook full meals and play with her pet cat Kiki every day.


For Chani, it is important to evaluate and reevaluate your goals often.  Your future self may end up very different from what you imagine now.  As you go through big decisions in life, it is always important to take a step back, take stock of how your feelings, and take risks.  “When you are feeling unsettled about where your future is heading, turn off your autopilot mode to address those unsettling feelings, even if it is intimidating to veer from a course for which you have already laid much groundwork.”  Taken from a Montana girl who was once enroute to becoming a doctor and is now a successful astronomer, your life could lead you anywhere, so make sure you catch all the turns in the road!

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