Celebrated astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has spent much of his career bringing the complexities of science and space exploration to the general public. Aside from his prolific writing, he is a well-known popularizer of science on television and radio. Between his numerous bestselling non-fiction books and over 14 million Twitter followers, he is arguably the world’s most recognizable scientist today. His academic background includes extensive research in the areas of star formation, exploding stars, dwarf galaxies, and the structure of our Milky Way. With degrees from Harvard and Columbia University, he went to work for the Hayden Planetarium in 1996 before becoming its Director. After serving as a NASA Advisory Council member, he received the NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal, the highest civilian honor bestowed by NASA. Notably, his contributions to the public appreciation of the cosmos have been recognized by the International Astronomical Union in their official naming of asteroid "13123 Tyson."
After a brief stint as a graduate student at the University of Texas, he transferred into the PhD program at Columbia in 1988. It was a good time to study at Columbia, too, because the astrophysics team had recently received an influx of financial resources, meaning they were increasing faculty and participants in more international telescope projects. During his thesis research, the telescope that he used to research the structure of the Milky Way was located in the Andes Mountains, 7,000 feet above sea level.
Back at Columbia, his professional career was finally starting to blast off. As a grad student, he published four research papers, published two popular-science books, received a NASA research fellowship, appeared twice on network TV, and was appointed to a postdoctoral research position at Princeton. At Columbia he earned two degrees, both in Astrophysics; in 1989 he earned a Master of Philosophy and in 1991 a PhD.
While his fame continues to propel him into the stratosphere, he still cultivates his Columbia roots. In 2001, he returned to campus during that year's Commencement ceremonies to receive the Medal of Excellence – an award given each year to a Columbia alumnus under 45 years of age whose record in scholarship, public service, or professional life is outstanding. And this wasn’t the first time he took an active part in graduation ceremonies. He was also selected to deliver the keynote address at the Graduate School of Arts and Science in 1991, the year he completed his PhD. Speaking to the importance of his alma mater, he said, “It is remarkable what can be accomplished when you are surrounded by people who believe in you . . .Thanks to Columbia’s interest in me, the love and support of my family, and the endorsement of the Department of Astronomy, I have truly lived and fulfilled a dream."