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Finding Your Place in the Universe

Photo by Nate Edwards

Astronomy professor Denise Stephens encouraged students to embrace their talents and use them for good at a recent BYU Women’s Service and Resources leadership event.

As an astronomer, Dr. Stephens researches the creation and destruction of stars in the universe, stars that are big and bright as well as stars that are small and faint. She shared that even though the sun isn’t the biggest or the brightest star in the universe, it is unique and perfect to our solar system. It is just bright enough to light up our world and just warm enough to sustain life.

Stephens linked the sun’s journey to each individual’s life. “Each of you has the perfect qualities and attributes you need to fill the measure of your creation,” she said. “Never be ashamed of who you are or hide your talents because they don’t seem to be the same as others.”

Dr. Stephens also recounted some of the difficulties she faced in her schooling and professional career over the decades. The hardest experience she shared was about a scholarship interview she attended as a student. Instead of being asked questions related to her academic excellence, Denise was asked questions about her gender and socioeconomic background. “I never had a chance,” she said.

Denise never thought she would have to choose between having a family and having a career in science. She always thought she could do both. So, she did do both. Dr. Stephens had a large family while also managing her career. She graduated at the top of her class and became a physicist. She didn’t do it to prove the critics wrong: she did it because she wanted to do what she loves.

Her experiences throughout her career have taught her to accept that while there are people who are biased, there are also people who are rooting for her success. She shared her story not with the intent to have students resent unfair experiences, but to help them overcome discrimination.

“There will always be critics that judge you based on your background,” she said. “They will tell you that you can’t do something, and they won’t give you a chance. Don’t listen to them. They’ll put obstacles in your way, but you can get through them.”

While Dr. Stephens’ undergraduate experience was long ago, she hasn’t forgotten how challenging the college years can be for all students. She shared that college is a time to explore new knowledge and learn about self-identity. At times, female students may feel their future choices are rigid and limited because of the societal pressure to forego a career to raise children. Stephens encouraged students to look to the many successful female professionals in the Latter-Day Saint community as examples of how to fulfill family responsibilities while pursuing excellence in other areas of their lives.

For students exploring career options, Stephens recommended By Study, By Faith as a great online resource. This website documents great examples of Latter-Day Saint women who choose to live their faith and have a profession at the same time.

Stephens invited participants to always remember the people who helped them on their journey to success, for no one will do it alone. There are people who cheer for us and teach us lessons along the way. We can remember to thank them and also be a positive influence for others who are finding their way.

Dr. Denise Stephens is an associate astronomy professor in the College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences. As an undergraduate student Dr. Stephens majored in physics at BYU and later earned her master’s and Ph.D. in astronomy from New Mexico State University.

Before coming to BYU, Dr. Stephens worked at the Space Telescope Science Institution and John Hopkins University. She is the mother of seven children and is the current president of the Faculty Women’s Association at BYU.

To hear more from Dr. Stephens, see BYU Speeches for her July 2018 devotional address.