Carol Hundal ’18, 2018 Watson Fellow

Carol Hundal

Tell us a little bit about your Watson project and where it will be taking you!
I’m an astrophysics major — I study other planets. In grad school I’ll be getting a PhD in planetary science at Brown University, and learning how to engage with planets intellectually. How old is the surface? Was there water there? Were there conditions such that life could have formed? Being an explorer is so much more than tables, numbers, and figures (although those are really fruitful ways to engage with planets). When I think about the most important aspects of being a planetary scientist, I think of helping to create this bridge for other people to planets.

A lot of what my Watson year will be about is going to these otherworldly places on earth, and saying to myself ‘What would it be like to be on Mars? To look at a landscape that is totally devoid of life, of water, of vegetation? What does it feel like to be in that all-encompassing solitude?’ You can in part answer these questions by going a place like the Atacama Desert, where there is no water, there is no life. And being able to translate that experience into something that other people can appreciate the grandeur of, I think is really important as a planetary scientist — to communicate not just the fact, but also the feelings of what it means to be an explorer of other planets.

The quantitative aspect is also really important to me, so I am very glad that I’m going into grad school. Originally, when I was applying for the Watson, I was thinking that I would ask to be part of field expeditions with other planetary scientists or geologists. But I also knew that was something that I would be able to do in grad school; to engage with these landscapes from a geological perspective. I won’t be able to engage with them from that experiential, emotional perspective.

During my Watson year, I’ll be dealing with not just geologists, but farmers, artists, conservationists, and spiritual groups—people who interact with these landscapes much differently than geologists. They actually live there. So they have a much more grounded experience of what it’s like to live in a place without water, what it’s like to deal with these extremely harsh environments. Of course, they don’t live there and think to themselves, ‘Oh, this volcanic field is just like Venus.’ But I’ll come there with that perspective, while they’ll just be living there. And that’s so surreal — that they live in this place that looks like a completely different planet, but it’s just an everyday experience for them.

I’ll be going to four countries. First, I’m going to Iceland, and in Iceland I’ll be going to the Kirkjubæjarklaustur Volcano, and the Lakager Highlands. And my dream is to be working with Icelandic farmers, especially if they have Icelandic ponies. I grew up on a horse farm, so I can really appreciate living on a farm as a way of being embedded in the planetary system. Then I’m going to the Atacama Desert in Chile, then the highest dunes in the world in Namibia, and then impact structures in Western Australia. (I can’t believe this is happening. I still feel like it’s hypothetical!)

The travel will be solo, in that I am not going with anyone I knew before. But the Watson Foundation definitely encourages you to establish contacts in every country — people who you will be living or working with. A big thing about the Watson is learning how to reach out to other people, form connections, and build support structures so that you can do the things that you need to do.

What (or who) are the major influences in your life that has inspired you to pursue this path?
Before I started the Watson application process, I mostly attributed wanting to go into astronomy to watching Star Trek with my dad. That was very formative. He’s also an amateur astronomist — he’s always outside with his telescope. But when you’re writing your Watson application, you need to really need to be able to explain why this is so important that you would leave everyone you know for a whole year. Why is it that important? This narrative of watching Star Trek didn’t quite explain it all — and the truth is that I didn’t really know why it was that important, and I wasn’t sure I could explain why. But I think that the application process really taught me a lot about how powerful reflection is. You don’t always have time to reflect, especially here. And I was even scared to reflect — I was worried that I might realize that this whole time it wasn’t really planetary science that I wanted to go into. I had put so much energy into that direction.

But after some intense reflection I realized that why I was driven to be here was that my brother was really sick when I was little, and seeing him being so sick really made me stop and think, My health isn’t really guaranteed. I need to get on the fast track of doing something with my life that is very meaningful to me, and do it really intensely to honor the value of being alive. The process of applying, and the process of reflecting, helped me to understand the root of my passion and my drive.

How has your time at Wellesley shaped your proposal? Your professors? Career Education?
Being at Wellesley made me interested in other people, and made me appreciate much more how beautiful and unique Earth is. Earth is quite extraordinary, and I don’t feel like I appreciated that at first, when I was primarily interested in space. I took a class with Ed Silver (Assistant Professor of Religion) on the Hebrew Bible. I didn’t even really think I would be interested in the bible, but after taking that class, I just read about the Bible in my free time! It feels so much deeper and more urgently important than it was before. It made me realize that there is this depth everywhere, and I’m just not seeing it, or I’m not able to appreciate it. In that way, that really influenced my project, in so far as it’s very people oriented. I’m going to these places to work with other people to see how they live in these landscapes. What is that human/planet interface?

What did you learn or gain from going through the Watson application process?
Reflection — I know that I’ll use that skill for the rest of my life.

Nisreen and Hans (the other 2018 Watson winners from Wellesley) were talking about their projects, and why there were so interested, and what they were doing. It was really so exciting to talk to other students who had also been through this process. They were just as excited as I am about what they wanted to do, and I so deeply felt that their projects were something that needed to happen. That this experience would totally revolutionize the way that they saw their disciplines.

What inspired you to take the leap and apply?

My thesis advisor, Wesley Waters, (Assistant Professor of Astronomy) knows an alumna, Melissa Rice ‘05 who did the Knafel, and she went to Mars Analog Environments — very similar to what I’m doing. She told me about her experience, which was really amazing for her. And now she does work with Curiosity Rover. I talked to her, and got some advice from her about traveling the world. It was so nice to talk to a Wellesley alum. We talked a lot about our field, and how it’s really male dominated, and she totally got it.

So, my Advisor suggested that I apply, and I’m very much of the mindset that I’ll be applying for things for the rest of my life, so I might as well practice. I think a lot of it was thinking that even if I don’t get it, that the practice of applying for something that was really intensive — something that’s different from grad school applications — I felt that it would be a good experience to go through the application process, and that I would gain a lot of good skills like interviewing that I wouldn’t be able to develop otherwise.

I originally wanted to look at impact craters on earth, but they are super hard to get to — they’re in very remote places. For instance, the impact structure from the asteroid that hit the Earth and decimated the dinosaurs — you can go to that impact crater. It’s in Mexico, it’s called Chicxulub Crater. It’s really degraded, mostly because the impact happened half on the water and half on land, so all the water erased evidence of the crater. There are probably about 60 impact craters that you can go to. I went to Meteor Crater in Arizona last summer, and I literally cried the whole time I was there. I had never seen a crater with my eyes — been there, touched it — and it was like all of the images that I had seen on my computer, that were just this big, were now in real life. My jaw was dropping, I was getting goosebumps — it was so crazy.

So that was originally what I wanted to do; look at impact craters. But that ended up being too difficult, because impact craters are eroded by water, and those that aren’t are in arid places where people don’t live. So that was kind of what I started out trying to go for, but then I changed the scope of my project after researching more and talking to Kate Dailinger and Liz Mandeville. It was really helpful to have their input.

Or, what would you say to encourage your peers to apply?
I don’t think anyone really applies feeling like they are ready to go on a year of solo travel. I don’t know if anyone really applies thinking that they are just as passionate as this this person, who got this fellowship. I did know that I was just bonkers about craters and studying planets in general — and I think that’s all you really need to begin thinking about applying for something like a Watson. It’s okay to be totally overwhelmed by the idea of planning a year of solo travel, just so long as it doesn’t stop you! As long as a student has that topic that lights them on fire — then the rest will fall into place with time, reflection, and the support at Wellesley.