A&S Class of ’24: Astronomy’s Becky Williams Brings Biology to the Stars

Becky Williams
Becky Williams
Ava Proehl

This spring, Becky Williams will graduate with a double major in astronomy and biology.

“It’s a unique combination, but I really like STEM and the interdisciplinary aspect of sciences, and I really like the idea of trying combine as many sciences as I can,” Williams said.

With several offers in hand, she’ll head to graduate school this fall to pursue a Ph.D. in planetary science.  After completing her senior thesis on the potential for planet-forming regions in the universe to be filled with other forms of life in the form of complex, possibly prebiotic, sulfur molecules, she hopes to focus her graduate studies on the field of astrobiology, which involves the search for signs of life or habitability on other planets or the origins of life on our own.

As an astronomy student, Williams has won the American Astronomical Society’ Chambliss medal for exemplary student research, and she has published a paper in the AAS’s Astrophysical Journal with her advisor, Ilse Cleeves, focused on the search for evidence of breathable oxygen, in planet-forming regions of the universe.  She has also worked with UVA astronomer Michael Skrutskie studying occultations, a precise technique for determining asteroid shapes and sizes, and in pursuit of those honors and interests, she has seen a lot of the country.

When Williams arrived at UVA, however, she wasn’t especially interested in astronomy, but after taking an introductory course, she fell in love with the subject.

“By the end of the semester I was convinced I wanted to be an astronomy major,”

Part of the appeal of the major, Williams said, is the small but exceptional group of students it attracts and its tight-knit community of students and faculty.

“Everyone here at the university is studying things on earth except for the astronomers,” Williams said.  “We’re studying everything outside of it.  Everyone in the department is really interested in space and is really interesting to talk to.”

As a biology major, Williams found a similarly supportive network of students and faculty in the Department of Biology, especially when she was looking for undergraduate research opportunities.

“They’re such a kind group of people and willing to mentor undergraduates,” Williams said. “That’s sets you up really well to explore your interests and helps you narrow them down when you’re deciding what you want to study in the future.”

Outside of the classroom, Williams has explored a wide variety of extracurricular activities, from working with UVA Sustainability as a Zero Waste ambassador, making compost bins available on Grounds, to crocheting and knitting with Warm Up America, a University club that makes blankets for local shelters, to dancing with the UVA Tap Club, artistic pursuits, Williams said, that seem to attract an unusually large proportion of STEM students.


Read more about the A&S Class of '24