A triple major keeps her head in the stars and her feet on the ground

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Editor’s Note: About 50,000 students, staff and faculty members and visitors converge on the University’s Twin Cities campus every day. In the midst of this sea of people, it’s easy to think of the strangers passing by as just anonymous faces.
Every Monday during spring quarter the Daily will peek inside the lives of some of the strangers you see every day. Randomly chosen from the University phone book, those profiled could sit in your class, ride your bus or pass you on the sidewalk someday, and now they won’t be strangers.
Story by Emily Babcock

Heidi Brandenburg can often be found lost in her study of a faraway galaxy.
However, in conducting research at a local lab or studying at coffee houses, the busy Institute of Technology senior is surprisingly down to earth.
Brandenburg, a 21-year-old triple major of physics, astrophysics and computer science, seemingly spends every spare moment studying for her classes. Her favorite class is Methods of Experimental Astrophysics. An outspoken passion for stars explains her devotion to the class.
As part of her class duties, she and a partner take images of their galaxy, break them up into a series of rings and subtract the cluttering to judge the relative brightness of the galaxy. Brandenburg’s galaxy is NGC4303.
“I think it is exciting to actually work out how galaxies evolve,” she said. “Astronomy as a whole — to be able to go out and to look at something — to figure out how it works is the most exciting part.”
Between all of her research and study, she still finds time to keep up with “The Simpsons,” though she doesn’t own a television.
“The things she really enjoys in life are working with her galaxy and her hedgehog,” said her brother, Trevor, an eighth grader in Cedarburg, Wis., Brandenburg’s hometown.
Named after the eldest daughter in “The Sound of Music,” Liesl the hedgehog is her best buddy. Although Brandenburg grew up with a dachshund and would like to own one again someday, she said she doesn’t have the time to take care of a dog.
Seth Trarbach, who rooms with Brandenburg in an apartment across from Loring Park, attributes her attraction to dachshunds to their stubbornness. And it is this same feature that guides Brandenburg through her physics classes, said Trarbach, a College of Liberal Arts senior.
“It gets hard,” he said. “But she will not say no, and she keeps going at it until she gets it.”

A Daily Double
With such a diverse list of interests and talents, Brandenburg’s routine reads like a group of “Jeopardy” categories.
From explaining an opera to detailing the history of the harp, she can talk music forever. She can play, too. Brandenburg picked up the harp in seventh grade during what she refers to as “an Irish phase.”
She can also talk literature, from fiction classics by Thomas Hardy to contemporaries like Toni Morrison. But she knows the literature in between like the science fiction of Carl Sagan to fantasy writer David Eddings. She is interested in world events, and whether she hears of them on National Public Radio or reads about them in Ms. magazine, she is constantly thoughtful and reflective of what she listens to and reads.
The self-proclaimed food snob also enjoys cooking. But her idea of cooking extends beyond macaroni and cheese to exotic Indian dishes she creates herself.
By the end of the summer she wants to have a freezer full of curry pastes made. She likes to experiment. But the independent chef might have to invest in a cookbook before summer’s end because she’s afraid she has exhausted all her creative abilities.
Her enthusiasm for food inspires her to contemplate culinary school at moments, or even to become an organic garlic farmer.
Trarbach said a good food dynamic between him and Brandenburg has made the living arrangement work out. The two often cook together.
Brandenburg met her roommate more than a year ago through a mutual friend. And when they had a quantum physics class together the following quarter, they studied together, and moved in together last September.
Trarbach describes their relationship as just a good, solid, close friendship. When they see each other they will sit down and talk about everything from physics to music.
Besides dinner with her roommate, or an occasional dance outing, Brandenburg prefers the company of herself. She is not afraid to do her own thing whenever she gets the urge.
One time she went out with Trarbach and a “gaggle” of his friends. By mid-evening, she wasn’t enjoying the conversation, music or atmosphere, so she just departed instead of wasting any more time.
The whole idea of dating is dumb to her.
Her conception of dating is spending time with an individual in order to decide whether she will want to spend more time with him.
She had a couple relationships during her first two years of college, but she doesn’t have time to date now.
“I already know if I want to spend time with them or not,” she said.
Trevor said their parents got annoyed with Heidi’s choice in boyfriends during high school.
“Her boyfriends weren’t always the brightest bulbs in the lighthouse,” he said.
Brandenburg admitted her boyfriends got in trouble and did drugs, but disagreed with her brother.
“They were all really intelligent,” she said. “They just did really dumb things.”
Instead of worrying about meeting men on Friday and Saturday nights, Brandenburg’s weekends are usually spent programming or calculating something.
When she is not in class or lab, Brandenburg is most likely in the Society of Physics Students room. The organization, in which she serves as treasurer because she is the only one she trusts to handle the finances, is a networking opportunity for students and a recruiting tool for employers. But the students have also organized an outreach program where physics students host programs at the University and visit Twin Cities classrooms to attempt to entice them into science.
The organization’s room in the Tate Lab of Physics is used for activities other than business. Brandenburg and her peers do homework, work on the computer, or just hang out.
“To tell you the truth, there’s not a whole lot of homework that gets done in that room,” said Adrian Durand, president of the Society of Physics Students.
Durand describes the organization as a type of brotherhood, where there is always someone there to help out with a physics problem or to talk.
Brandenburg is an active sister in the group and is usually in the mood to raise a discussion. She is opinionated and not afraid to disagree. However, she maintains fairness and is respectful of other opinions.
Several weeks ago Brandenburg turned a quiet study time into a debate after she read an article in The Minnesota Daily about minority faculty in the Institute of Technology. She said the article didn’t even mention women, which was unfair because there are so few women in IT. The discussion continued on the existence of behind-the-door politics in the sciences today.
The issue of socialism vs. capitalism is often debated between Durand and Brandenburg. When she brings the subject up there is a distinct compassion in her voice for everyone that has ever been failed by society.
“Corporate capitalism is the great evil in my life,” she said. “I am extremely leftist. I am not a big social activist, but I will tell people what I think.”
She did have a revelation about capitalism, though. And like usual, her explanation is refined, clearly reflective and shows contemplation.
“Corporations and capitalism will be the driving force of the push into space,” she said. “Sometime within our lifetime, we are going to run out of everything we need and we are going to have to go into space. That means that we will have to develop the technology to get out there.”
Just as she explains the revelation, she gets the disgust for capitalism back in her head, and asks, how many people are going to starve before we get out there?
Science, of course, is another issue close to her heart, and she is always willing to defend it. It annoys her to think that people just allow the media to be their scientists and don’t take the time to actually understand it for themselves.

Life in the ‘burbs
Brandenburg recently went back to her suburban home to celebrate her younger brother’s confirmation. She said her father started sending Trevor to a Lutheran church to elude the chances of “Trevor turning out like his sister,” a liberal non-Christian.
She and her mother joined a Unitarian Universalism church while Heidi still lived at home. She spent most of her time in high school with friends she met at the church’s youth activities. She has found one near her Loring Park apartment to attend when she has the time.
She describes her religion as extremely humanistic and liberal. She is attracted to the church because there are members from all religious backgrounds and there is no strict doctrines to follow.
Brandenburg spent the first seven years of her life as an only child. She said she has been mature for her age and was a loner. She still has vivid memories of childhood like her rock collection and spending much of her time by herself outdoors.
But some of her memories have been blocked out because of her family life. What was supposed to be an ideal suburban life in quaint, historic Cedarburg, was “not the best scene,” as Brandenburg describes it.
Her father was an abusive alcoholic, and her mother was chemically depressed. Her parents each spent part of her third grade year in treatment hospitals and divorced shortly after.
“I will say this,” Brandenburg said. “They took turns.”
She understands her mother’s illness better now, but remains somewhat bitter and sarcastic about her childhood. Brandenburg admits she still doesn’t know how to deal with it, and sometimes it is still hard to believe depression is a disease.
“I’m still fucked up,” Brandenburg said. “I stay away for fear that she’ll set something off in me.”
Heidi’s only sibling is Trevor, 14. The two don’t see much of each other because Heidi only makes it home a couple times each year. However, they still talk about once a week on the phone.
Her parents shared custody of both Brandenburg and her brother, and the siblings rotated homes. She grew up with nearly constant allergies, sinus infections, and spent two years in casts because of club feet. However, she said in her sarcastic tone, she has been healthy since she has left home.
Her own family scars with divorce have left her a bit pensive about marriage. She realizes the importance of the commitment and doesn’t even know if she can see herself with a husband. However, she does want children someday.

Crush party
For the past year Brandenburg has assisted professor Roberta Humphreys with her automated plate scanner project.
Brandenburg, who knows what it is like to be one of the only females to walk into a science classroom, said she enjoys working under and admires Humphreys. Right next to a room-sized computer called “Big Brother,” Brandenburg scans images to prepare information to be dispersed on the World Wide Web.
Brandenburg meets with a class of about 20 astronomy students each Wednesday and leads a cooperative recitation called an “active learning session.” The class discusses topics from star formations and lunar cycles to life in the universe. The same passion that sparks her eye when she talks about astronomy shows up when she talks about teaching. One student taking an interest in the subject she’s teaching is nearly enough to give Brandenburg a buzz.
Nick Krings, a CLA sophomore who admitted he has a crush on the teacher, said Brandenburg is always willing to help her students.
Besides gushing about his attraction, Krings commended her willingness to be there for the students and her ability to further explain material presented in lecture.
“I expected some physics dork,” Krings said.
Durand said Brandenburg is willing to help, whether it is the students in beginning astronomy class or a peer stopping in the student organization’s room inquiring about quantum theory.
“She makes every effort to make sure she does her job to the best of her abilities,” Durand said.
Chad Borseth was expecting someone unapproachable as well.
“She’s cool,” said Borseth, a senior in University College. “She can talk Star Trek.”

A major headache?
Brandenburg jokingly rationalizes the three majors as discovering her inability to do one major really well, but the ability to do three majors moderately well. The truth is she added her computer science major after her yearly crisis.
The yearly crisis occurs where she gets completely burned out and reassesses her life. Partly, to ensure herself a job, she enrolled in the computer science department.
She said she is going through her crisis this spring, and most of its cause is coming from a computer graphics class she is taking. Her muscles become tight, forming bulletproof shoulders, she smokes nearly a pack of American Spirits daily and contemplates dropping her computer science major altogether.
But she said she will get through this crisis as she has all the others. She will also stick with the computer science major. She is far too used to doing so much to slim down her schedule now. The annual crisis is canceled out by her passion for science and math, which is detectable when she starts talking about differential geometry or galactic evolution.
She is not at all worried about getting a job after graduation. Her attitude is if all else fails with astronomy she can always program something. However, she doesn’t really intend on letting her astronomy dreams get away. She wants to go on to graduate school to get a doctorate in astrophysics.
“I am more worried if I could ever bring myself to work in industry if I needed to. The whole concept of a management team is appalling to me,” she said.
“If I am working for a corporation, I do not have myself invested in what I am doing,” she said. “There is nothing there for me other than the paycheck. At least at a university, I am really interested in what I’m doing.”
She has also applied for a grant that would allow her to study hydrogen formations in another galaxy for the summer from images taken on a radio.
If her life path doesn’t take her the science route, there are, naturally, plenty of other things that she is interested in to keep her busy.
She doesn’t just think about the theory of relativity, she considers developments in culture and how they relate to things such as science, religion or music. She has a huge list of the places she will visit in her lifetime, but on the top is the city of Jerusalem. It is not because she follows any dogmas of Western religions, but because she is so fascinated by the place’s power to the human psyche.
However, 10 years from now, Trarbach predicts Brandenburg will be with her telescope and her dachshund up on a mountain somewhere working on all sorts of astronomy research.
“At the moment, the most exciting part is the experimental stuff,” Brandenburg said. “Going with a telescope, taking data and reducing your data.”