Path to PhD started with a small planetarium and an intro astronomy course

December 6, 2021

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable fall 2021 graduates.

In his junior year of high school in Nashua, New Hampshire, Greg Vance enrolled in an introductory astronomy class that captured his imagination. While learning the night sky from his high school’s small planetarium, his physics teacher pointed out that studying astronomy required a lot of the same knowledge covered in physics class. PhD graduate Greg Vance PhD graduate Greg Vance. Download Full Image

Since then, Vance earned his bachelor’s degree from Connecticut College in physics and mathematics with a minor in astronomy in 2015. This December, Vance will graduate with a PhD in astrophysics from the School of Earth and Space Exploration.

The decision to attend ASU was partially based on Vance’s parents and brother moving to the Phoenix area in pursuit of warmer weather, drawing him to Tempe. Having his family nearby and not having to shovel snow anymore was certainly appealing. But the cross-disciplinary environment of ASU also had strong appeal.

“The interdisciplinary nature of the School of Earth and Space Exploration made it feel like a unique and interesting place to pursue a PhD in astrophysics, in contrast to the standard physics or astronomy departments at most universities,” said Vance. “I was intrigued by the supernova simulation research of Professor Patrick Young, who eventually became my PhD adviser.”

In the six-plus years working together with Young, Vance learned how to apply programming skills to solve research problems, how to ask big scientific questions, and how to write scholarly journal papers.

“But the most important lesson,” says Vance, “is that he taught me how to be patient and understanding, not only with others, but also with myself.” 

Young said, “Greg embraced the spirit of our school by extending his work on supernovae from simulations to observational messengers ranging from elusive subatomic particles to meteoritic grains of dust predating our solar system, solving some stubborn scientific problems on the way.”

During his studies at ASU, Vance was awarded the Summer Exploration Graduate Fellowship and the Graduate College Completion Fellowship as an outstanding graduate student. After graduation, Vance would like to work in data science or software development or may consider positions providing software support for researchers.

Vance shared a few thoughts about his time at ASU.

Question: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

Answer: In the classroom, I was surprised to learn that computer programming was a much larger part of modern astrophysics than much of my past education had led me to believe.  It's not just equations on blackboards. Numerical computing and scientific visualization are important skills for making sense of large datasets, too. Outside the classroom, I was surprised to learn just how many professional astronomers aren't night owls. I'm a decently nocturnal person, but the school’s astronomy classes for grad students are all at 9 or 10 a.m., while the graduate geology classes are in the afternoon!

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: Make sure to pause along the way to help others, especially when you're feeling ahead. One day, when you're really falling behind, you'll appreciate the people who stop and make time to help you out. Otherwise, just keep your goals straight. Make sure you know why you're doing what you're doing and where you're going with it, instead of just doing it because you're doing it.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: I like to eat lunch sitting on the north-facing balcony on the side of the College Avenue Commons building. It's a great spot to stay in the shade and watch the planes fly past "A" Mountain on their way to Sky Harbor Airport.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: Many of the biggest problems in today's world are deep social issues like racism and poverty, and I'm sure that motivated people in nonprofit organizations dedicated to fighting these problems could do a lot of good with a $40 million charitable donation. If I'm tackling the problem myself, I think my skills mean that I'm best equipped to address something like climate change. Investing in renewable energies, developing carbon-capture technology and scouring data to find more sustainable and efficient ways to solve problems — these are the moves we have to make as a species to prevent catastrophe occurring within my lifetime. 

Catherine Shappell

Digital communications specialist, School of Earth and Space Exploration


Biomimicry grad discovers life's purpose in nature

McCall Langford seeks to advocate for a global reconnection to the natural world to create a more sustainable and regenerative future

December 6, 2021

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable fall 2021 graduates.

McCall Langford was introduced to the design principles of biomimicry at a very early age. She came to appreciate the intricacies of nature’s complex systems, processes and forms through the work of her grandfather, Ray Anderson, founder of eco-friendly and sustainability-focused textile manufacturing company Interface. Langford was influenced by the biomimicry and sustainability thought leaders with whom her grandfather worked closely to design products inspired by the regenerative properties of the natural world.  Selfie of blonde woman (McCall Langford) smiling McCall Langford. Download Full Image

After receiving her bachelor of business administration in marketing from Georgia State University, she channeled her passion for equity and sustainability into the environmental nonprofit sector, serving as the director of development of One More Generation.

The pull of the natural world was strong, and she stepped away from her corporate career to immerse herself fully in nature, spending over a year camping and backpacking in the U.S. wilderness. It was there that she was able to observe just how nuanced and special the harmonious nature of the biological world truly is. 

Upon returning from her adventures, Langford had solidified her life’s purpose: to not only reacquaint herself with nature, but to advocate for a global reconnection to the natural world to create a more sustainable and regenerative future. She enrolled in the College of Global FuturesMaster of Science in biomimicry program through ASU Online, and she hopes to use her experience and degree to continue to help bridge the gap between modern technology, innovation and the natural world.

Question: What was your “aha” moment when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in? 

Answer: I was exposed to biomimicry when I was really young through my grandfather’s work. He became really active in the sustainability community through his mission at Interface. His organization worked with biomimicry consultants to create regenerative and sustainable designs.

In my undergrad, I did nonprofit development work in fundraising and donor management, later serving as the director of development of an environmental youth education and endangered species advocacy nonprofit. I also took some time away from the corporate world to backpack.

During that time, I was immersed in nature. I really started to observe the level of complexity and efficient productivity of natural processes. These natural systems are filtering water, sequestering carbon, removing air pollutants, cooling the ground, generating abundant nutrients and so on, without causing any of the issues or challenges our human designs cause. There are so many complex cooperative relationships in nature. The ecological systems surrounding us are performing all of the functional tasks that the human race is trying to accomplish, and they’re doing so much more efficiently than us. 

Nature creates conditions conducive to life because its sole purpose is to continue surviving. I realized the power of nature’s advice, and biomimicry helps us formalize the process of asking, “How does nature do this, and what can we learn from her?” We could solve a lot of wicked challenges that we're experiencing at this very crucial point in human history. My big “aha” moment came from looking around and seeing all of this very complex solution space where these answers already exist and knowing I wanted to tap into the library of solutions the biological world is leveraging. 

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective? 

A: It really struck me while I was in this program just how much humans are designing. Obviously we're designing buildings, infrastructure, products and a plethora of tangible things that give us modern conveniences. We are also designing so much more than that. The human race designs intangible processes and systems as well. Whether it's how you're going to spend your morning or how to engage a community, we are constantly generating new ideas for how to optimize our lives. With biomimicry, we have the opportunity to bridge innovative human design with efficient and effective nature-inspired design solutions. 

Q: Why did you choose ASU? 

A: In the early ’90s, (her grandfather) Ray Anderson set out to identify leaders and change agents in the sustainability field to aid in the development of sustainable designs inspired by nature at Interface. Janine Benyus and Dayna Baumeister, the co-founders of Biomimicry 3.8, were among those leaders, and I followed their careers closely over the years. What I appreciated about ASU and its partnership with Biomimicry 3.8 was that the program not only stressed the importance of emulating nature in design, the ultimate goal is to create ethical and sustainable systems that work in harmony with nature. ASU’s program instills emulating nature for the sake of sustainable and regenerative futures. 

The holistic design thinking methodology offered at ASU guides a comprehensive approach to mimicking natural systems to establish a genuine symbiosis with the Earth. We can create conditions conducive to life, just like our natural ecosystems do, and in that process, we can re-engage a deep relationship with the natural world. 

In addition to the unique opportunity to learn from leaders of the field, ASU is recognized for its prestigious and well-equipped online programming. In my eyes, there was nowhere else I wanted to go but ASU.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: Dayna Baumeister is the backbone of the biomimicry masters program. We also have a wonderful group of adjunct professors that uplift and support Dayna’s work while bringing additional knowledge and perspectives into the program. It’s so difficult to choose just one professor who has had an impact. They have all played a massive role in the advancement of my academic career.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school? 

A: My best piece of advice is to go above and beyond what the courses require of you. More specifically, identify how you can be an advocate for the work you are doing here. The master's program is built to be flexible for career professionals, designed to be accessible and achievable with this underlying implication that you can go further and customize your education and experience. It’s not about the grades on your transcript, it’s about learning everything you can and then taking that knowledge and applying it to make the world a better place.

Q: What was your favorite spot for power studying?

A: I really don't consider this solely an online program because we're being called to go out into nature and learn from her. This program encourages us to be outside all of the time, so truly I spent most of my time out in the field, observing and learning how to view the natural world through a functional lens. 

Q: What are your plans after graduation? 

A: I'm formally practicing biomimicry within my regenerative design career. I'm currently working as a biomimicry consultant on a project bringing biomimetic design to an 18-mile stretch of testbed highway that's been deemed an innovation lab for regenerative design. The innovation lab initiative is showing interest in pulling in bio-inspired design to improve the regenerative qualities of our nation’s transportation systems. After graduation I'm going to continue leveraging biomimetic design to get us closer to the harmonious place that I know we can arrive. 

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle? 

A: The School of Complex Adaptive Systems focuses on developing frameworks to guide the design of our systems, while in a highly technical way, also incorporating these frameworks into social and conceptual designs. To do both, you have to have a culture shift, so I’d love to put that towards encouraging people to invest in biomimetic solutions by showing them how regeneration will improve their conditions. I would invest the $40 million into demonstrating the value of funding and implementing regenerative and efficient systems inspired by the natural world in lieu of a lot of the current maladaptive “solutions.” 

We’re getting there. Over the past decade we’ve seen a massive culture shift towards a more equitable and inclusive social mentality. We definitely have to address the economic and social perspectives before we can see the massive complex systems change necessary to solve these wicked problems. 

Madelyn Nelson

Editorial Associate, Global Futures Laboratory, Knowledge Enterprise