Astronomical Alumna: A Shepherd By Way of the Stars

February 20, 2017

In achieving her childhood dream of becoming an astronomer, Deb Shepherd, A&S ’81, peered into the heavens through some of the world’s most powerful telescopes. Ultimately, she feels she saw God — not through the telescope, but in the beauty of creation and the faces of the people around her — and her new destiny came into focus.

Astrophysicist Deb Shepherd
Astrophysicist Deb Shepherd in her first career’s “natural habitat” — on an antenna platform at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s Very Large Array (VLA) radio telescope in New Mexico.

The altered career trajectory, inspired by a simple reframing of her astronomical pursuits, now finds Shepherd serving her fellow man by seeking to elevate the educational experiences of children in the heart of Africa who are culturally challenged by lack of opportunity in a rapidly evolving world. It’s an improbable saga for a first-generation college student who rose from unlikely circumstances.

“When I was in junior high school, my father, who was an alcoholic, left my mother and six kids without child support,” she says. “To keep us out of the foster care system, my mother started a group home for delinquent girls. While I see now that this was a good and useful experience for me, when I was 14 years old I thought otherwise. I became very angry with God for allowing this to happen to me, and I rejected God.”

Seeking to make sense of the world, Shepherd channeled her curiosity toward her new passion — science. Growing up about a mile from the Cincinnati Observatory in Hyde Park, she loved math, astronomy, almost any kind of science.

“I thought if I could just learn enough, I would find the meaning I needed.”

UC would prove to be the launching pad. She stayed home for college, majoring in physics because it was a mandatory step toward becoming an astronomer. Her chosen field of study required her to probe the limits of her capacity to persevere while also challenging gender barriers.

“Women were not encouraged to go into science in the 1970s — people said they weren’t inherently good at science,” she said. “People told me that I wouldn’t be good at science. But I didn’t believe them. It didn’t seem right.”

UC Mentors Show the Way

A pair of physics faculty members, Joe Scanio and Paul Nohr, gave her the opportunity to truly explore her enormous potential. When she initially struggled with the curriculum, Scanio convinced her that she could meet high expectations. Nohr, who was also director of the Cincinnati Observatory, embraced Shepherd’s aspirations.

“I would do anything to work in an observatory — I wanted to be an astronomer!” she said. “It was my junior year and I was running out of grant money. I was working four jobs to make ends meet.”

After she volunteered for a while, Nohr found budget money to pay his protégé.

Astrophysicist Deb Shepherd
Shepherd was the commissioning lead and project scientist for the Karoo Array Telescope (KAT-7) in South Africa. Now known as the MeerKAT, the KAT-7 Array is used for research into galactic evolution, the large-scale structure of the cosmos, dark matter, and the nature of transient radio sources.

“I helped refurbish the 12.5-inch telescope, I scrubbed 50 years of grease off the dome wheels of the 16-inch telescope, I organized the books in the library — anything I was asked to do. Paul was an amazing person, and we spent many long hours working together and talking about what was important in life.”

After graduating, Shepherd became a contractor for the military while earning a master’s in astrophysics from the University of Tennessee, followed by a three-year stint in Huntsville, Ala., as a NASA contractor designing space shuttle simulators, training astronauts and working on the science operations crew for shuttle missions. She then earned master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Wisconsin and began her life’s work — or at least Phase I, as things would later turn out.

After post-doctoral work at Caltech that combined her engineering experience, software testing skills, and ability to continue her massive star research, Shepherd became one of the first women to receive a tenure-track position at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO). She mastered mosaic interferometric techniques (combining multiple pointing centers of a telescope in order to image a larger area of the sky than will fit into a single beam), and discovered the first proto-planetary disk around a young massive star, which she considers her greatest scientific accomplishment. She also helped lead the construction of a large radio telescope in Chile, which led to a two-year assignment in South Africa on the leadership team building a prototype for the Square Kilometer Array (SKA), a radio telescope powerful enough to detect radio waves from objects billions of light years from Earth. The SKA will address such weighty issues as the universe’s evolution, the origins of stars and galaxies, and the nature of dark matter.

The Meaning of Life

But her time in South Africa raised even more profound questions about the intersection of her scientific pursuits and the human challenges she saw all around her. It was exhilarating to search the skies for answers to some of science’s most fundamental questions, yet troubling to ponder inequities back here on the little blue marble. In a field that thrives on big discoveries, Shepherd made a life-altering discovery of her own.

“It took me about 35 years to realize that science does not and cannot lead to the meaning of life,” Shepherd says. “I could learn how things worked, but not why. I felt a gaping hole inside of me; something was missing. Finally, just before I turned 50 years old, I came to the conclusion that I needed to pray.”

Astrophysicist Deb Shepherd
Shepherd was one of the missionaries who visited the Democratic Republic of the Congo to help Katanga Methodist University’s administrative and teaching staff update their organizational processes. Here, members of the university’s IT department work on the institution’s strategic plan.

She admits it was extremely difficult after having rejected God as a teenager and devoting herself to science. It meant admitting that not only was there a God in the first place, but that God cared enough about her to engage in such deep, inner conversation with her.

“After a month of fasting, praying, talking to God, and trying to discover what I felt was missing in my life, I discovered a faith that was still buried within me. I had come back to my roots: I was Christian, yet different from any Christian I had ever known. I still had a solid grounding in science with almost no theological training. I only felt God inside, and I wanted to become a better person. My friends were an eclectic and beautiful mixture of agnostic, atheist, Muslim, Buddhist and Christian, and I knew that God did not limit grace to only some. But I wanted to know who this God was that I was feeling ever stronger inside of me.”

She realized that her time in South Africa revealed a new way of approaching life, and she felt compelled to redirect her career toward a greater humanitarian emphasis, blending science, faith, education and humanitarian aid.

“I knew I had only another 15 or so years left in my career, so if I wanted to take a big risk and do something really big, I needed to do it now,” she says.

An Oasis in the Desert

Astrophysicist Deb Shepherd
Shepherd’s work has taken her to exotic places around the world, such as this rocky terrain in the Western Cape of South Africa.

Shepherd started attending church and volunteering more, but didn’t see much overlap between her work and her faith until a trip back to South Africa a year later when she began working with the people of Carnarvon, a small town in the Karoo desert, to create an after-school training center. The work took a deeply personal turn when an HIV-positive orphan named Aphiwe Bonani became Shepherd’s foster son for six months.

“Aphiwe needed intensive tutoring in math, English and science, so he came to live with me,” she says. “He was a great kid but it was tough on him to be away from his friends and culture, so after six months he chose to return to the orphanage. I continued to visit him and other children there until I had to return to the States.”

Also pivotal was the day when she realized the huge SKA project wasn’t integrated with the future development of the population.

“I asked some visiting government officials about their strategy for leveraging the technology coming into Africa to help the average person,” Shepherd says. “I learned the project could only provide scholarships to students who survived the education system as it was. Immediately I saw the disconnect. My mind quickly went to the church — it had to be the church’s mission to help those in need.

“But wait — the church can be science-phobic. How could they leverage the benefits of the area’s technological revolution for the people I had come to know?”

At that moment she committed to step into the gap to bring technology, science and faith to bear on the problems that touched her so deeply. In a leap of faith, Shepherd quit her job at NRAO and went back to school yet again, this time to California’s Fuller Theological Seminary to earn a master’s of divinity with an emphasis in leadership and mission administration.

“We shall see how much I can do in my lifetime. Maybe it will not be much. But I have taken the first step, and I’ll see where God leads me.”

Success Redefined

This new chapter also has included three months in 2015 spent in the Democratic Republic of the Congo assisting leaders of the Katanga Methodist University in developing a strategic plan, organizational structure and budget management system. She also worked with teachers and administrators in Muleji to build a new high school for the village’s 4,000 schoolchildren under age 17 who have had none.

Astrophysicist Deb Shepherd
Through her life as a missionary, Shepherd cherishes her opportunities to get to know people such as Aze, a young girl she befriended at the orphanage in Gugulethu Township, just outside of Cape Town, South Africa.

“Working in the D.R. Congo, helping the people create a complete educational path so kids have the opportunity to go to college, combines my technical and science background with project management in a matrix of faith,” Shepherd says. “Now this is what I call success.”

Back in the U.S., Shepherd started the New Mexico chapter of the American Scientific Affiliation, a network of scientists who also embrace Christian theology and cultivate dialogue around the intersection of faith and science. With her Fuller divinity degree in hand, she envisions a new career blending her project management skills, scientific knowledge and desire to offer humanitarian assistance where it is most needed.

Reflecting on her life’s travels, Shepherd appreciates its origins.

“When I think of where I came from and how inexperienced I was when I first entered UC as an undergrad in physics, I could never have imagined this life and career,” she says. “UC prepared me to start a life of adventure, where my career and my love for life and others could intertwine in joy. I am indeed fortunate to be given this opportunity.”

Shepherd says her “career shift” emerged from a series of conscious decisions — a process of surrendering her fear of change and the unknown for the possibilities inherent in helping others. It has led to a place that perfectly suits the person she has become, and which she believes is extremely relevant in these turbulent times.

Astrophysicist Deb Shepherd
Shepherd and a young girl in the village of Muleji stand beside a stack of bricks that villagers fired to help build the local high school.

“When people think science and faith are mutually exclusive, they may be misinformed or have an agenda they want to push — either science phobia or faith phobia,” she says. “People can be afraid of change and they often want to know things with certainty even when that is impossible. Generally I find that when someone is closed to hearing another perspective, it is because they are afraid — it threatens their own cherished worldview. This seems to be true for anyone regardless of their religious views.

“I have several really good friends who are atheists, and we have great discussions about religion and faith and the meaning of life. I learn from them and they learn from me. Spirituality exists in many forms and it pervades our lives and our very being. Whether you find meaning in connection with creation when you are hiking in the mountains or in a church, it is still connection with God — feeling the wonder of creation and being a part of it. There is beauty in us all, and as long as we are willing to talk together, there is life and hope.”


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