Looking For Life Beyond Our Own

Former FVCC student returns to Montana to talk about her work looking for life beyond Earth

By Justin Franz

Sarah Rugheimer still remembers staring at her computer screen seven years ago and wondering if she should even bother spending the $90 it costs to apply to Harvard University. After all, $90 is a lot of money and it could easily pay for a few nice meals with friends or a night out. And what were the chances one of the most distinguished universities in America accepting her?

But then, a little voice in Rugheimer’s head told her to just do it: Let them turn you down, don’t turn yourself down, she thought.

“I hit send and shut the computer,” she said. “I’m really glad I did.”

A few months later Rugheimer, who grew up in Kalispell, was moving to Boston after she was accepted to Harvard’s Center for Astrophysics, where she has spent the last seven years trying to answer the question we all want to know: Are humans alone in the universe?

“For the first time in human history we’re about to have the technology to answer that question,” Rugheimer told the Beacon last week. “It’s so easy for me to convince people that my work is important because it’s such a cool question.”

Rugheimer was back in Montana last week to talk to students about the education opportunities that can be found here and beyond Big Sky Country. For Rugheimer, the quest to answer the question man has tried to answer for centuries began right here in Northwest Montana, at the Flathead Valley Community College.

In 2002, Rugheimer had graduated from Flathead High School in Kalispell and was starting to look at colleges. Although in the past she shuddered at the thought of studying the area her father and siblings did, physics, she eventually gave in because of a teacher in high school. Looking to get some prerequisites out of the way while also saving money and staying close to home, she enrolled at FVCC in the fall of 2002. More than a decade later, she said it is one of the best decisions she ever made about her schooling.

“Some of the best classes I’ve ever taken were at FVCC because the teachers there are so dedicated,” she said. “I thought that the quality of education would be better for a first year student at a community college because at a big university most classes have 700 kids and the instructors are often busy with their own research.”

After a year at FVCC, Rugheimer went to the University of Calgary where she graduated with a degree in physics. After that she enrolled at Harvard, where she has spent the last few years working on a doctorate in physics. She also was chosen to be one of eight Harvard Horizon scholars and had the chance to present her work on how humans are trying to detect life in the atmosphere of other planets. She graduated from Harvard this year but will continue her research thanks to a Simons Origins of Life Postdoctoral Fellowship that will send her to the University of St. Andrews in Scotland for the next three years.

She said in the next few years, humans would finally have telescopes powerful enough to detect life in far reaching parts of our galaxy and the universe. She said with 40 billion earth-like planets in our galaxy and 400 billion galaxies in the universe it’s likely that we are not alone. She said in her opinion, we probably won’t find human-like species but are more likely to find microbial life, such as bacteria.

“We haven’t found any evidence that there is life out there but that does not mean there isn’t life. We just don’t have the evidence yet,” she said. “If there is, that would have huge impacts on science, philosophy and religion. It’s a game changer.”

A decade after she enrolled at FVCC, Rugheimer walked into the very school her college career began and told students to set their sights high and don’t diminish them because of where they are from. She said that while she loves Montana, she is so glad she sought out opportunities beyond her home state.

“Don’t limit yourself because you’re from Kalispell or went to FVCC,” she said, recalling her Harvard application. “Let them turn you down, don’t turn yourself down.”

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