2018 Graduation Highlights: Kay Davis

Originally from Denver, Colorado, School of Earth and Space Exploration Ph.D. student Kristina “Kay” Davis didn’t know right away that instrument science was right for her. She studied astrophysics initially, but found that a lot of astronomy research is done in an office and on a computer. “It wasn’t hands-on enough for me,” she says.

Then, Davis found a research position testing materials for a radio telescope. The balance of coding, data analysis, and setting up lab experiments had her immediately hooked on exploration systems design and instrumentation.

This May, Davis will be graduating from ASU with her doctorate in exploration systems design (instrumentation). She is also the recipient of the 2018 College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Graduate Excellence Award. 

Davis has accepted a National Science Foundation astronomy and astrophysics postdoctoral fellowship, and starting this fall she will be working at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She will be joining a team building far-infrared cameras, integrated with ground-based telescopes, to search for potential exoplanets.

And she’ll take some time for herself this summer to hike the Colorado Trail, which starts near her family’s home in southwest Denver, and continues for 485 miles until it reaches Durango. “Now that my dissertation is done,” says Davis, “all I’ve been doing is training and planning my gear list!”

Prior to graduation, Davis answered a few questions about her time at ASU:

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

A. I had the wonderful opportunity to go down to McMurdo Station, Antarctica as part of my research through ASU. Parts of being there were tense and stressful, but the rest of it was an absolute blast. The one thing I figured out while I was down there was the importance of setting time aside every day to just relax and think. Here at ASU, I am always busy going from one thing to the next, and feeling guilty about how much work I am not doing. But in McMurdo, I had to travel long distances and I had time to think. It was really helpful for me! Now, I try to make sure some part of my day is free of focus, maybe while I’m driving or cooking or running—no headphones, no radio, no news, just thinking.

Q. Why did you choose ASU?

A. I chose ASU because I was really excited to be in the Exploration Systems Design (ESD) program. I think it is the best program nationwide for instrumentation scientists. The ESD program gives you a very modular set of courses to take, so you can customize it to it your interests and research. You can choose to focus solely on instrumentation and engineering projects, or you can add science research if you want.

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

A. The best advice I’d give current students is to not let the program swallow you. Don’t give up on your health or exercise, your free time, or going home to visit family just to meet work deadlines. When I first started, I made all sorts of sacrifices and compromises because I thought that if I just put my head down and plugged along, this part of life would eventually be over and I’d be rewarded somehow in the next position with more time to enjoy things. But that is a fallacy! If you don’t find and practice a good work-life balance now, it will never get easier. It’s sometimes easy to fall into a school-centric bubble, but find some way to branch out and meet other people around town, or find a hobby that interests you that gets you out of your home and office. It can save you from going crazy.

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

A. I would focus on raising awareness about sustainable food practices. I think global warming is a huge challenge we need to address, and there are several ways we can change things to make our society fit within the limits that the Earth constrains us to. Renewable energy is a big one, but it has a lot more momentum behind it than sustainable food practices. Favoring plant-based foods over animal products is one solution, although I feel like eliminating animal products is not an agreeable solution to most people. Consuming fewer animal products is a good goal, as is reducing food waste, and consuming fewer processed foods.