Abbie in GEEK t-shirt, Nerd Nite Amsterdam Nov 2015

Dr. Abbie Stevens is the manager of public programming at the MSU Museum CoLab Studio, an innovation engine that combines art, science, and culture to address pressing global issues. She also maintains active astronomy research connections with JWST, current and future X-ray space telescopes, and open-source software.

One of her favorite aspects of being a scientist is talking with non-scientists (adults and kids) about astronomy, physics, and space science. She also loves incorporating scientific concepts in art via hands-on workshops, performances/ presentations, consulting on creative projects (books, visual art, tv, film, and video games), and giving popular science talks to a variety of audiences.

Photo from the Nerd Nite Amsterdam Dry T-shirt Contest in 2015.

East Lansing, Michigan (2018-now)

“Dr. Abbie” is enthusiastic about making science entertaining and accessible by incorporating concepts in art and storytelling, for virtual and in-person events. She has been a keynote speaker for the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada – Calgary centre; astronomer on the “May The Fourth Be With You” Star Wars panel with Skype A Scientist, panelist on social media in science communication at the FORCE11 conference, and for the Adler Planetarium‘s “Adler After Dark: Out in Space” 2019 Pride event; writer and presenter at the REO Town Reading Series; science consultant with Inquiry Arts virtual residency; returning speaker for Astronomy On Tap Lansing; lecturer for the Great Lakes Lectures series; and presenter of Schrodinger’s Cat Is In Town II with the MSU Broad Museum Art Lab. Her kid-friendly programs and events include the “Make Your Own Pulsar!” activity with the MSU Science Festival, JWST Day at the Abrams Planetarium, and multiple talks with MSU Science Festival and the Abrams Planetarium. Dr. Abbie also volunteers with the MSU Observatory and Spartan Young Astronomers Club.

As an academic research scientist, Dr. Abbie studied black holes and neutron stars with rapid variability signals coming from matter in their strong gravitational fields, to probe how matter behaves in extreme environments and look for signatures of general relativity. Though she now works full-time in art+STEM outreach, she still sings alto in the MSU physics choir.

Dr. Abbie has also taught collegiate-level classes and workshops ranging from non-STEM-major science literacy courses (Integrative Studies in Physics at MSU and Citizen Science at Bard College in upstate NY) to advanced graduate computational workshops (LSST Data Science Fellowship Program and a School on Statistics, Data Mining, and Machine Learning in Spain).

Photo of Nova the rescue dog.

Abbie's rescue dog, Nova

Amsterdam, the Netherlands (2013-2017)

In April 2018 Abbie completed her PhD in astronomy with Phil Uttley at the Anton Pannekoek Institute, University of Amsterdam. She was a founding member and chair of the API PhD and Postdoc Council, organizer for journal club and Timing Club, and a Nerd Nite Amsterdam boss. As a teaching assistant, Abbie coordinated a seminar-style overview course for MSc students and taught BSc-level observational astronomy lab with the Anton Pannekoek Observatory. Abbie was an invited presenter at the Science-Art Slam, where she talked about her research while accompanied by free-improv jazz. She also volunteered with Science Park Open Day, Anton Pannekoek Observatory public nights, and a Dutch-language after-school enrichment program.

Her PhD research was on variability in X-rays from X-ray binaries. The X-ray emission from X-ray binaries is variable on timescales from microseconds to years. Depending on the source, we can see very rapid sub-second variability in the form of periodic pulsations and/or quasi-periodic oscillations (QPOs). The idea is that some physical process is causing the variability in signal (though we don’t conclusively know what it is), and this process is affected by the geometry of the emitting region. Understanding the variability can help us make sense of the underlying physical processes and how matter behaves in the curved spacetime close to compact objects. If for some reason you want to read her PhD thesis, it’s available online here. TL,DR: the X-rays from black holes and neutron stars change rapidly in color and brightness, which tells us that stuff in super strong gravity close to black holes is wobbling around.

The black hole at the center is surrounded by matter in an accretion disk. This disk forms as the dust and gas fall onto the black hole, attracted by its gravity. Also shown is an outflowing jet of energetic particles, which is a compact source of high-energy X-ray radiation. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Abbie really enjoyed living in Amsterdam for 4 years, and she compiled an Amsterdam travel guide you should look at if you’re visiting there. Her blog post on cycling/biking through the tulip fields is especially popular.

Edmonton, Alberta, Canada (2011-2013)

The telescope domes, decorated for Halloween in 2012. Credit: U of A Observatory.

Abbie lived in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada for two years while working towards an MSc in astrophysics at the University of Alberta with Sharon Morsink, and she defended in August 2013. Her thesis research involved simulating light curves from thermonuclear X-ray burst oscillations from accreting neutron stars and fitting the pulse profiles with an evolutionary optimization algorithm. TL,DR: some parameters pretend to be other parameters, so it’s hard to get the right answer, even when you know what it should be.

Abbie fell in love with science outreach in Edmonton as a teaching assistant and volunteer wrangler for the U of A Campus Observatory. She organized and ran many activities for Science FUNday, Women in Scholarship, Engineering, Science, and Technology (WISEST) Choices Conference, and the annual Department of Physics Open House. Her enthusiasm for public speaking started with presentations for Nerd Nite Edmonton and LogiCON Edmonton in 2012-2013.

While in Edmonton, Abbie was a part of the Assiniboia Community Housing Co-operative (yes, a hippie housing co-op). Some members briefly worked on on an archive of the co-op’s rich history, which you can read here.

Annandale-on-Hudson, New York (2007-2011)

Dr. Stevens completed her undergrad at Bard College, a very small, very liberal arts school in upstate New York, majoring in physics and minoring in mathematics. In her senior year she completed an undergraduate thesis in general relativity exploring how the equations that govern motion in strong gravity would be different in a universe that was two-dimensional. TL,DR: black holes couldn’t exist in a flat 2-D universe 😢 Her whole bachelors thesis is available online here. Abbie received a Bachelor of Arts in May 2011.

At Bard, Abbie was also involved in theater and choir. She was in Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins, two opera choruses (David Bruce’s A Bird In Your Ear and Maurice Ravel’s L’Enfant et les sortileges), an opera workshop piece, two 24-hour theater festivals, and a staged cantata. She also sang in the Chamber Singers for 4 semesters. Abbie started off as a theater major, but after her first semester in college she missed doing math and computer programming (yes, it surprised her too). She ultimately decided to to make a career out of physics and astronomy research and do some theater and singing as a hobby, than to try to make a living as an actor and do recreational astrophysics (which isn’t a thing).

Abbie now combines her love of art and science by developing programs for MSU Museum’s CoLab Studio, and giving public talks about astronomy, physics, and space science.

Rochester, New York (birth-2007)

Originally from Rochester, NY, Abbie graduated from the International Baccalaureate program at Wilson Magnet High School in 2007. At Wilson, she played cello in the band and was actively involved in Girls’ Varsity Swimming and Drama/Video Club (now Dream Visualize Create, a community theater group).

Fun! (always)

In her spare time, Abbie enjoys knitting, listening to podcasts, watching tv, home design, and cute animals. She likes to go on long walks and casual bike rides, and she’s done a lot of yoga, some pilates, and powerlifting. The book she’s currently reading is usually posted to her mastodon profile. She drinks a lot of tea, and finally got a fancy electric kettle that keeps the water at the perfect temperature. Abbie loves pollinator-friendly gardening, and uses permaculture techniques to make the gardens more robust to climate change. Before COVID, Abbie travelled often (for work and for fun), and her favorite places to visit in a new city are the natural history museum, the nicest park, and a good tea shop.