Mariah Jones is excited to share her story. The 18-year-old is ready to make her mark on the world not by looking outward but by turning upward — toward the galaxies beyond Earth — and follow in the footsteps of famed astrophysicists, like Nobel winner Andrea Ghez and the late Margherita Hack, who carved a path for her in a field that has long been dominated by men.
Jones' journey from a young girl growing up in Pittsburgh to a high school researcher and a full scholarship winner wasn't written in the stars. The senior at Baldwin High School has had her fair share of challenges — from moving into a shelter with her family following abuse to contracting and living with the effects of Covid-19 — but she's not letting any obstacles get in the way of her ambitious dreams.
TMRW: Where did your interest in science and astrophysics come from?
Whenever I'd be bored, I would just go on YouTube, and I found that the videos I loved the most were the ones talking about either the ocean or outer space and all the things we haven't explored. I would watch more videos on different discoveries and Jupiter (my favorite planet) and the videos would get crazy.
I love all the planets but Jupiter just stood out to me because it was the biggest one. I mean, at a young age, big things attract little people, and I had learned so many different things about it. It's so beautiful in the different structures. It blows my mind, and I just want to learn so much more about the planet.
TMRW: You cold called Dr. Brett Andrews to join his research team at the University of Pittsburgh. What was that like? What are you studying now?
My principal encouraged me to reach out so I can get my feet wet in the research process, because I know that I want to do research at college. So I emailed many different professors and Brett actually was one of the few who got back to me. And he was like, "I see that you have the drive, and I want to get started with you." ... We got started, I would say, less than two weeks later.
We’re measuring the relationship between the metallicity in the star count of different galaxies ... it's the amount of mass in a galaxy.
TMRW: What are you looking forward to most in college?
I'm going to be majoring in physics and astronomy. I'm looking forward to new opportunities ... I know I want to do a lot and I want to get as involved as possible. Just try and get my name out there.
TMRW: How has a full scholarship changed everything for you?
I signed up for College Point through College Board. It's free college advising for students from moderate-to-low income households. I got matched with an advisor, who's also been a really big help to everything. Her name's Caitlin Singleton. We'd meet occasionally and she heard about everything I've been going through and she was like, "Mariah, I think that you'd be a really nice match for QuestBridge." She told me how it matches students from low-income households who are in really high academic standings with leading institutions across America. I was like, "Caitlin, that's not me. I'm not as smart."
I didn't really believe in myself, but she did. She was like, "Mariah, I think you should apply." And I was like, "OK, I have nothing to lose." The application was a very extensive process. I think it was a month after that, I found out that I was a finalist. After you're a finalist, you get to rank the different college partners with them in order of your preference.
On Dec. 1, I found out that I matched with Vassar and I recorded my reaction, and it's so funny, because my voice is so shaky. I was just so nervous. I clicked the button, and I saw the confetti and I was like, "Oh, my gosh!" Up until that point, I had no idea how I was going to school. Then I saw it, and I was like, "All my dreams are about to come true!"
TMRW: What's your dream job? What do you hope to do one day?
I just applied to the NASA summer internship. So I think that working for NASA might be my dream job. Also, I could work for an observatory, or I could stay where I am now and NASA might be sending me projects. I have no idea honestly, but it would be pretty cool to work for NASA.
TMRW: You've been through some tough challenges in your childhood. Can you share what that was like?
When I was living with my dad, I would hear him and my mom argue constantly and my mom and my older sisters would get screamed at constantly. My mom was saying she didn't want us to think that was the norm but it almost got to a point where I was thinking, "This is how it's supposed to be just because that's all I've seen."
I had just turned 6 when we moved out and into a women's shelter. My mom and all of the other women who were there would take turns cooking in the kitchen and have meetings. It was different because my mom was finally at peace and so were my older sisters and there was no chaos for me to hear. I loved the environment there. For a couple of years after we left, we would still go there to do group activities and they would have music sessions, which is why I'm so involved in music now.
Then we moved to a temporary home for about a year. We had started rebuilding ourselves in the shelter but the temporary home was where we applied everything that we learned and we started growing more.
After a year there, we moved to where we are currently, in a townhouse. That's where I've spent the bulk of my childhood growing with my sisters, learning a bunch of life lessons, spending summers outside and playing outside riding bikes. I would say that, given my circumstances, I had a pretty awesome childhood.
TMRW: You contracted Covid-19 recently. What happened?
I remember this vividly. It was Dec. 31. I work at a nursing home and had gone into a resident’s room and he was new. I didn't know what preferences he had so I was talking to him, and he was really hard of hearing. I had to really speak up and get closer to him. He started engaging in conversation so I started talking to him, but I was in his room for less than 10 minutes.
I go to work the next day and my friend tells me ‘Hey, room so-and-so just was moved to the Covid wing’ and I was like, ‘I was just in his room talking to him.’ She was like, ‘Oh, you should be fine’ because I was wearing my double masks and everything. But I didn't know it could enter through your eyes and that's how I got it. I also ended up getting pink eye because of that.
Covid was really, really bad for me and I gave it to my immediate family because I didn't know that I had it at the time. It was my mom and my two older sisters who got it from me, but we all got it in different stages.
I remember the first day I found out that I had it, I was trying to join my school meets and I just dozed off in the middle of class. It was rough. I couldn't focus. I couldn't stay awake. I had to take two weeks off of school. I was really behind in school. It was really crazy.
Because I survived and I wasn't hospitalized — and I could have had it a lot worse — so because I was one of the more fortunate individuals, I would say that I'm kind of glad that I experienced it because I can tell different people my story. I posted on my YouTube my experience with Covid. So I could bring awareness to everyone who thinks that, "Covid only affects old people." No, it can affect young, healthy individuals too.
TMRW: You've already been through a lot of things that some people consider are really big obstacles. What has helped you through all the ups and downs?
I would say having my friends and family there to support me through everything. Whenever I couldn't talk to my friends about something, I had my family. Whenever I couldn’t talk to my family about things, I had my friends. So really just, that sort of backbone structure, I wouldn't have done a lot of things without them.
TMRW: When you're just having a bad day, what's your favorite way to comfort yourself?
When I'm having a bad day, I will say I like to cry. But also, I think my puppy is a big help. We got him a year ago. Biscuit was a rescue and he was abused, and he still is really jumpy when it comes to different things. And so I see him and I'm like, "Well, if he can get through everything he got through, a little dog, I can get through everything." So he really inspires me. He just makes me so happy.
TMRW: When you were a young girl, did you imagine all the good that has happened to you so far?
If I would have told myself even three years ago, I'd be here where I am now, I would be like, “You're insane.” I had no idea what I was going to do with my future. I knew that I loved education. I loved school. I've always loved learning. But I also knew that due to financial struggles, I would not be able to afford college. So I was thinking, “Maybe I'd go to community college.” I had no idea whatsoever. None.
Reach for the stars. Go after opportunities, even if it seems like you won't get it because you never know and you have nothing to lose.
TMRW: is there any advice you want to give to younger women out there who might not know what their future's is going to look like?
Never doubt yourself and your potential because even if you don't see something in yourself, other people will, which is what happened with me. Also, I would just tell them to literally reach for the stars. Go after opportunities, even if it seems like you won't get it because you never know and you have nothing to lose. Honestly nothing to lose. So I would just say, just reach for the stars.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.