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From inner Kenwood to outer space: Marissa Rosenberg

Astrophysicist Marissa Rosenberg of Kenwood recently had the chance to observe space from NASA’s SOFIA Science Center (Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy).  Submitted photo

Astrophysicist Marissa Rosenberg of Kenwood recently had the chance to observe space from NASA’s SOFIA Science Center (Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy). Submitted photo

Lorna Sheridan/Index-Tribune Education Editor

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Marissa Rosenberg grew up in Kenwood but is currently in the final year of her Ph.D. in astrophysics at University of Leiden in Holland. She received her master’s degree in space studies from the International Space University in Strasbourg, France and received her undergraduate degree in astrophysics from UCLA.

So how did a little girl from Kenwood launch herself, almost literally into outer space? Hard work and a passionate interest in her subject area.

“I first got interested in space when I was 3 years old,” she said. “We visited a family friend in Cape Canaveral, Fla., and were there for one of the few night launches of the Space Shuttle. I watched the countdown on TV and felt the ground vibrate. I ran outside and the roar was deafening. I eventually saw the Space Shuttle pop out from above the tree line in their backyard. Ever since then, I have wanted to be an astronaut.”

Now 26, Rosenberg moved to Kenwood when she was 12 and attended Kenwood Elementary briefly before going to Rincon Valley Middle School and Maria Carrillo High School in Santa Rosa. Her parents, Rebecca and Gary Rosenberg, own the Sonoma Lavender Company.

A summer program at the Advanced Space Academy in Huntsville, Ala., when she was 15 crystalized her ambitions. “I met an astrophysicist who showed me images from the Hubble Space Telescope, and for the first time explained to me what astronomy actually is. I quickly realized this is what I wanted to study.” Five years later, in college, she returned to Huntsville to work at the NASA Academy.

She urges students who think they aren’t good at science not to disregard science-related fields of study. “In school I was pretty terrible at physics but I still found it very intriguing. I have a feeling my science teachers would be shocked that I ended up where I am today.”

Midway through high school, her parents took her on a tour of California colleges and she fell in love with the UCLA campus. She explained, “The red brick buildings have a very Ivy League feel. I also liked that it is a big sports school, is highly ranked, and for me, was located a ‘Goldilocks’ distance away from home.”

Fast forward to her graduation, and Rosenberg received her degree from UCLA, cum laude, and she was named the most outstanding student in astrophysics at the university, with the highest departmental honors in both physics and astrophysics.

While Rosenberg enjoyed studying in her home state for college, trips abroad made her realize that she was living a very sheltered existence. “America is an isolated nation, making us inherently pretty ignorant about other nations. And Sonoma County is an incredibly sheltered spot in which the liberal agenda is applied and works flawlessly. Growing up here means that you most likely care about the environment, have solar panels on your house, drive a fuel-efficient car, recycle, are perhaps spiritual but not religious, accept LGBT individuals and fight for their equal rights, etc.”

Her summers in Huntsville, Ala., provided Rosenberg with a rude awakening that the rest of America tends to disagree with the things that most Sonoma County-ers take for granted. “With the political environment post 9/11, I realized that I was no longer proud to be an American and that I wanted to better understand how the rest of the world lives and how they view America.” She received a full scholarship for graduate school, and studying overseas seemed like the best way for her to continue to travel, while also continuing her course of study.

Five years later, Rosenberg continues to be amazed to be living in Europe. “I am now living the life I saw when I traveled to Europe when I was younger.” She finishes with her Ph.D. at the end of this year, however, and for the first time in her life, she doesn’t have a set plan for the future.

She plans to “find something I love doing enough to bide my time until I can apply to be an astronaut.” And her plans will likely take her back to California. “I’ve travelled the world and honestly there is no more naturally beautiful place. In five years, I see myself in a management position in science, or somewhere in space industry. In 10 years, I hope to be an astronaut, preparing for a mission.”

So was Rosenberg one of those students who never looked up from their books? Nope. She played basketball and softball in high school, was an avid snowboarder, performed in an all-girls band, and loved tutoring. For the past five years, she has been working at least 12-hour days, but has managed to carve out time to be published in scientific journals and to present in front of the scientific community. Still not impressed?

Rosenberg speaks Portuguese, Spanish and is fluent in Dutch. For fun, she plays on Leiden’s city basketball and softball teams, travels around Europe as much as possible and even brews her own beer. “A fellow space nerd and I have a pretty amazing set up here, including a homemade refrigerator with a tap coming out of the keg, so we can serve people our beer as if they were in a bar.”

Looking back at her high school career and path after college, Rosenberg urges students not to hold back. “College is absolutely the most fun experience of your life. Not only do you get to expand academically, but also personally. Leaving your hometown, making all new friends, and adapting to a new environment are critical skills to help you succeed in life. Also, if nothing excited you in high school, that doesn’t mean something in college won’t. Keep an open mind. If you hated science your entire life and all of a sudden you find yourself enjoying your mandatory chemistry class, just run with it. My last piece of advice is probably the best advice my dad ever gave me: “Embrace change.”

It is this last piece of advice that shaped her life. “If you not only accept, but embrace change, then everything thrown your way immediately becomes an opportunity. I have seized every opportunity that has presented itself to me, and it has led me here.”