Meteoric success

Planetary scientist Myriam Telus, a NASA Planetary Science Early Career Award winner, reflects on her journey to UC Santa Cruz to study meteorites: Discovering her passion, seeking out mentors, and finding inspiration in the courage of civil rights movement leaders

Myriam Telus, assistant professor of Earth and planetary sciences, studies cosmochemistry,
Myriam Telus, assistant professor of Earth and planetary sciences, studies cosmochemistry, the chemical analysis of meteorites. (Photo by Carolyn Lagattuta)

Myriam Telus, assistant professor of Earth and planetary sciences at UC Santa Cruz, was always interested in exploring her environment and figuring out how things work.

But it wasn’t until she did a summer research internship at Rice University’s Earth sciences department that she found her passion. She thought it was amazing that you could use the chemical signatures of rocks to find out how they came to be. 

“I found it fascinating that rocks, the land beneath your feet, mountains, valleys—things we often take for granted—can tell us about Earth’s history,” she said. “They hold a record of what occurred a long time ago—billions and billions of years ago.” 

She knew that this kind of work fit her very well. “It was detective work but also laboratory analysis, which I had grown to really enjoy,” she said. 

Her skill in the field led her to win funding last year from NASA through the Planetary Science Early Career Award program. She will use the money to assist in her research in cosmochemistry, the chemical analysis of meteorites. She is one of six scientists to get the grants, which are awards of up to $200,000 each. 

The child of immigrants from Haiti, she grew up in the Little Haiti area of Miami. Her father still works there as a foreman in a cemetery. Her mother is a certified nursing assistant at a nursing home. Telus is the first person in her family to get a bachelor’s degree, a doctorate, or be a professor.

The third of six children, Telus was never pushed by her parents to succeed in science.

“Basically, they just wanted me to finish college,” she said. “They never pressured me to do anything in particular. I felt the freedom to try different things.” 

Telus started off in environmental studies, but found that it was mostly centered on public policy, which didn’t fit her interests. She gravitated to Earth sciences because it involved using physics, chemistry, and math to understand how the Earth formed and changed through time. 

Over time, she moved past the Earth to focus on studying meteorites—rocks from outer space. 

“I just fell in love with the idea that we have rocks that formed a long time ago when the solar system was forming and when planets were baby planets,” she said. “They record a period of time that we no longer have access to.”

When she began her studies at college, she was so excited about what she was learning that she didn’t pay much attention to the fact that she was the only Black person in her geology classes. As she neared finishing her doctorate and started to consider finding a job, she became a bit nervous. 

“I didn’t see people like me in these positions,” she said. 

But she found a lot of support every step along the way and was encouraged by connections she made with Black scientists at conferences. She sought out mentors who could give her the guidance she needed. 

“If you know you have certain disadvantages, it helps to have people who will help you and be your cheerleaders,” she said. 

She appreciates growing up in an area with a lot of Black people where Black History Month was celebrated every year. She remembers singing songs and learning about famous civil rights leaders and other famous Black people in elementary school. 

Now that she has her own kids, she wants to pass on that knowledge. 

“A lot of people died for a simple right to live and be an individual, and I think that should be celebrated,” she said. “Their strength, courage, and sacrifice should be remembered. It doesn’t just benefit Black people. Every oppressed person in the world benefits from the civil rights movement and all of the things Black people have had to overcome.”