Of course, it had to be famed scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson who ultimately brought Lydia and Charles Nixon together. The two had met years before as undergraduates in Southern’s Honors College, a program for academically gifted students. They shared an interest in astronomy but had never been more than good friends. Neither anticipated that a fateful date to hear the American astrophysicist speak would lead to them marrying and both becoming Ph.D. candidates at North Dakota State University (NDSU).
It all started when Lydia enrolled at Southern. Her family had a strong connection to the university and the humanities. Lydia’s mother Linda Olson was an associate professor of world languages and literatures who taught French, and her father Alan Friedlander was a professor of history. (The two retired in 2014 with emeritus status.)
Lydia, who wanted to study the sciences, found Southern was a great place to explore. “Originally, I was pre-med, but then I was so inspired by Professor Valerie Andrushko that I switched to anthropology with a biological anthropology focus,” she says.
Professor Andrushko encouraged Lydia to apply to two summer internships in Lisbon, Portugal, where she studied bones and bone fragments from Neolithic archeological sites. She also did a semester in Sweden because, well, why not? She graduated with a Bachelor of Science in anthropology with minors in geography and biology.
Although they are the same age, Charles had taken a year off after high school. He joined the Honors College as a freshman when Lydia was a sophomore. He wasn’t sure what he wanted to pursue. He tried different academic subjects — including French with his future mother-in-law. In the end, his interest in astronomy led him to a Bachelor of Science in earth science (geology concentration) with minors in French and environmental science.
Charles also gives a shout out to his Southern mentors for their support and nurturing: “I did my honors thesis in my minor of environmental science with Dr. Vincent Breslin, professor of environment, geography, and marine sciences. He was a big inspiration. [The late] James Tait, associate professor of science education and environmental studies; Thomas Fleming, professor of earth science; and Cynthia R. Coron, professor emeritus, in geology, were also big influences on me.”
Each of the Nixons feel they got a great amount of individual attention that helped them flourish despite such rigorous courses of study. “The small class sizes in the Honors College were really helpful with that. But even in the big classes, I still felt like there was a connection with the professors. I never felt like a number,” recalls Lydia.
Lydia and Charles became fast friends hanging around the Honors College library. “A lot of us studied there because it’s just a nice place to get away,” says Lydia.
Charles says some of his best memories of Southern took place at that library. “It was a hoot. There was always a funny conversation going on,” he says, adding that his favorite semester was when he took an EMT course at the same time he was in a field class. “I’d be out in Durham or Branford for field class, then have to race back for EMT class. It was a lot of work but I learned so much from exploring all these different directions. It was so stimulating!”
So, back to Neil deGrasse Tyson: Lydia and Charles stayed friends throughout college. Then a few years after her 2013 graduation, Lydia — then working on her master’s in biology at Southern — saw that the astrophysicist was going to be speaking in the area.
“I really wanted to go but my usual science friends were all off elsewhere for grad school. I thought, well, Charlie’s always loved astronomy. I texted him randomly; I didn’t even know if his number was still the same. But he was still in the area, so he said sure!” she says.
It became the date that never ended. Their connection continued even after Lydia moved to North Dakota to start her Ph.D. “I met my current adviser at a conference, who said she had a space in her lab where I could basically study whatever I wanted. I couldn’t say no to an opportunity like that,” she says. She is now researching the roosting behavior of big and little brown bats and is also president of the Biological Sciences Graduate Student Association.
Charles had a good job at an environmental firm, so he wasn’t sure he wanted to make the move. But then the two starstruck friends married at the Peabody Museum of Natural History (of course) in New Haven in 2018. Charles followed the Ph.D. path to NDSU where he is studying earth, environmental, and geospatial sciences. He is in the process of creating computer algorithms to pick out different features from topographical maps of Earth and Mars.
Both hope to achieve their degrees within a year…ish. And then? Not sure. Lydia would like to become a teaching professor; Charles is going to follow his now familiar path of seeing where the stars guide him.
“My philosophy is don’t sweat the choice you’re going to make after you graduate,” he says. “Explore a little. You never know where you can go until you get there.” ■
Feature photo: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Klaus Pontoppidan (STScI) photo; Alyssa Pagan (STScI) Image Processing