Like many first jobs out of college, Amanda Heiderman's is not high paying.
But the small stipend she does receive pales in comparison when she sits down in front of a computer, about 9 a.m. each day, and spends eight hours "reducing" data at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Charlottesville, Va.
Studying the heat and gas emissions from faraway galaxies in the Hickson Compact Groups, the University of California, Berkeley astrophysics graduate is studying for the process of universe formation.
Her work involves crossing sets of data of infrared heat with data of hydrogen gas to see the story they tell. Although the Hickson Compact Groups are far away from our own Milky Way Galaxy they are close to one another.
"The really cool thing about these groups is they model the beginning of the universe as we know it," the 23-year-old said.
While she is cross-referencing data on just a few of these groups, there is virtually batch after batch of galaxies to study in the Hickson Compact Groups. Many of these batches contain four or more galaxies, some of which are moving away from each other and some which are moving toward each other.
Heiderman's own big bang into the field occurred when she was a junior at Carson High School and took a semester-long astronomy class. It was instant love.
"I always wanted to go into science," she said. "I just kind of knew that this was it."
After graduating from high school, she attended Western Nevada Community College for two years where she took foundation courses in science, as well as a summer astronomy observational course.
Dr. Robert Collier was her mentor there and helped her through.
When it came time to transfer to a four-year college, she had to go out of state because the University of Nevada system does not offer astronomy degrees, she said. Transferring was a competitive process for Heiderman, who wanted to go to school in Arizona because she likes desert climates.
However, upon visiting and being accepted at Berkeley, she found a place that fit.
Astronomy, the study of cosmological objects in motion, examines stars, galaxies and the entire picture of the cosmos. What fascinates Heiderman about the field is that the building blocks for all of life comes from the same source.
"All the molecules and atoms that we know of came from the stars," she said. "All the things get made inside stars and get transferred out when the stars die and shoot out into space and form more stars and planets and life."
Although she discovered astronomy in high school, the thirst for answers was in her along.
"I definitely want to continue in astronomy," she said. "I love it to death. I couldn't see a better field for me right now."
She hopes to lengthen her internship at the observatory, an internship that started in June and is scheduled to end in August, when she will present her conclusions.
Unsure where her future will lead - if it will be back home to teach at WNCC or to New Mexico to study at what is known as the "Large Array" of 27 radio telescopes - her next deliberate step in the upcoming year is finding the right graduate school. Her search for the explanation of the universe, however, will continue on indefinitely.
"I think it's a search over many lifetimes," she said. "Not just one."
n Contact reporter Maggie O'Neill at email@example.com or 881-1219.