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Editor’s note: This story is part of ‘Meet a UChicagoan,’ a regular series focusing on the people who make UChicago a distinct intellectual community. Read about the others here.
The summer before Joalda Morancy, AB’22, started high school, they were aimlessly scrolling through YouTube when something peculiar showed up in their recommended videos feed – an astronaut making a peanut butter and honey sandwich on the International Space Station. Though they had only a passing knowledge of outer space at the time, they instantly found the subject fascinating.
“I remember being super confused yet very intrigued about it,” they said. “The next thing I knew, I was falling down a spiral of research and discovery in the topic that would become my life-long passion.”
Nearly a decade later, Morancy, who studied astronomy and astrophysics in the College, has turned their fascination with space and alien lifeforms into a new children’s book.
Joalda Morancy’s book, “Aliens,” was released nationwide and internationally by Neon Squid, a publisher within Macmillan, on Oct. 18. This nonfiction children’s book explores the search for alien lifeforms, sorts myth from fact and takes readers on a journey through the solar system and beyond in 80 pages of colorful illustrations and engaging text.
This book, which is being translated into multiple languages, is a culmination of a long journey that started when Morancy was growing up in the suburbs of Tampa, Fla. As a first-generation, low-income student, Morancy often had to give up chances to enrich their education beyond their schoolwork due to a lack of resources.
However, these difficulties didn’t stop their pursuit of learning. On the internet, Morancy was able to research all kinds of science topics, especially space science and spaceflight, and incorporated themselves into several different online science communities, especially on Twitter.
In their last year of high school, they participated in a STEM summer program hosted by MIT and took a course that taught science communication in the form of journalism. Morancy was able to interview scientists and engineers on topics that interested them as part of this class, then wrote an article based on their research. This was just the beginning of their interest in science writing, which they found ample opportunities to cultivate at UChicago.
When Morancy began college at UChicago, they were initially overwhelmed by the transition to a large, private institution. With so many educational doors open to them, Morancy took as many classes as they could to further pursue their interest in science. They explored so many different subjects that they changed their major several times before finally deciding to pursue astrophysics in the winter of their third year.
Morancy’s favorite class in the College was called Explorations of Mars, which covers the history of humans learning about the planet Mars. Taught by Jordan Bimm, a postdoctoral researcher at the UChicago Institute on the Formation of Knowledge, the course combines perspectives from the social sciences and humanities to investigate how knowledge about Mars is created and communicated in science and technology, as well as across public culture.
“There were a lot of fun assignments in that class, like going outside to observe the planets and reading science fiction stories or popular science articles,” said Morancy. “For my final, I got to write a short story regarding the things I learned in class, which was quite exciting.”
From there, they continued to explore science writing at UChicago by joining Triple Helix, an international organization that gives undergraduate students the opportunity to publish original research, write about intersections between science and society and host scientific researchers for campus events. It is the largest scientific journal on campus that is open to student submissions.
Morancy wrote for one of Triple Helix’s flagship print publications, the “Science in Society Review.” There, they published several articles regarding space topics and learned how to effectively write about scientific topics.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, like many, Morancy found themselves with a lot of free time on their hands and decided to spend it researching and sharing information on different subjects in the space industry.
“At first, I just wanted to explore these topics and learn more about them myself,” they said. “But then I thought, ‘why not share all this cool information that I’m learning with other people?’ So I decided to write some Twitter threads about it.”
On Twitter, Morancy began writing about a number of space-related topics, including space elevators, farming in space, and how humans might be able to live on Venus. They have also covered a few science fiction topics like interstellar travel and time travel. Soon, their threads began gaining attention, and eventually “blew up” on the site.
Morancy’s most popular thread to date is on the topic of terraforming Mars. Here, they explained the process of transforming a planet to resemble Earth and become suitable enough to support human life, specifically in the context of Mars, as well as issues that may come with it. The thread garnered thousands of likes, retweets and comments—far more engagement than Morancy had seen on any of their previous threads.
“It’s really exciting that other people want to learn as well, especially about these niche topics,” they said.
A few months after Morancy began posting threads on Twitter, an editor from Neon Squid reached out to them and expressed interest in their writing. He said he was impressed by the ease with which they communicated the subject and offered them an opportunity to write and publish a children’s book about similar topics.
“It was a huge jump from my Twitter threads, but I jumped at the chance immediately,” said Morancy.
Soon after, Morancy signed a contract and began working on the project, from March to November 2021. They were given extensive creative liberty throughout the process—from the topics they wanted to focus on to the accompanying illustrations they had in mind.
“It was much more collaborative than I thought it would be, which is definitely a positive thing,” they said. “What I’ve realized from this experience is that there are a lot of people in the publishing industry that are very ready to support projects and ideas for books, as long as you’ve provided good backing for why you think people would be interested in reading it.”
After completing the book, Morancy graduated from the College this past summer. They are currently working at Blue Origin as an aerospace engineer, where they are testing avionics for its upcoming lunar lander program.
Morancy also began exploring other genres of creative writing, and is currently working on a science fiction novel, another story about aliens featuring a dark academia setting.
“I’ve just been researching subjects and outlining the story for now,” they said. “I definitely underestimated how much work goes into putting together an entire novel. It’s a huge undertaking, but slowly and surely, I will have something drafted.”
Check out Joalda Morancy’s debut book, “Aliens” here.
—A version of this story was originally published on the University of Chicago College website.
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