Rising Star

Hubble Sees the Force Awakening in a Newborn Star-NASA Goddard photo

Fair warning: today’s post is the unabashed crowing of a proud surrogate mom whose “kid” is one of only 20 people on the planet chosen this year to give a TED talk. If you’d rather not listen to me sniffle, skip this.

Here’s how our story started:

My writing group, Authors of the Flathead, sponsors an annual student writing contest. The judging is blind—we don’t know the identities, grade level, or which school.

About 20 years ago, a short fiction entry about the underground railroad blew us judges away with its beautiful writing, realistic characters, compelling tension, and important theme. It was the hands-down winner out of 100+ entries.

The author was a 16-year-old high school junior named Sarah Rugheimer. We invited her to a meeting to read her story and receive her cash prize. Afterward, she and I chatted. She was bright, capable, energetic, determined, and enthusiastic. When she asked if I would mentor her, I couldn’t say Yes! fast enough.

We worked on her writing through high school and her first year of college. Sarah pushed herself hard and excelled in science, Irish dancing, and writing. We spent hours hiking in the Montana mountains or sitting at my dining room table to brainstorm story concepts, characters, and plot lines full of twists and surprises.

Her discipline and drive pushed her up the ranks in Irish dance competitions. My kitchen became a studio where she practiced difficult steps. She also entered and won more writing contests.

Our face-to-face meetings unfortunately dwindled when she moved to the University of Calgary to study physics and Irish dance.

Thank goodness for email. She would send me essays and papers. The subject matter was way over my head. Exoplanets? Biosignatures? Brown dwarf habitability? Chirality? The only words I recognized were one syllable: the, and, is. At that point, the little help I could offer was to insert missing commas.

“When you win the Nobel Prize, I’ll be sitting in the audience,” I often told her, only half joking. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to recognize this young woman was going places.

Then came time for grad school. Her goal: a PhD in astronomy or astrophysics.

On a lark, she decided to apply to Harvard. Despite her brilliant academic record, she suffered from a bad case of imposter syndrome and was positive she would never be accepted.

She even tried to talk herself out of applying, protesting, “The fee is $90. I could buy three nice dinners for that.”

“You’re going to be accepted,” I predicted.

“No way,” she insisted.

“Yes, you will.”

We worked over her essay answers and polished them to a high gloss.

I knew that the judges and scholars who reviewed her application would recognize the drive, focus, discipline, and imagination I saw in her.

Was she accepted?

Of course.

She was amazed.

I wasn’t.

For the next 6 ½ years, she worked her butt off. Despite a full scholarship, her road was not easy. Her father, a retired physics professor at Montana State University, was in declining health. He lived with her in Cambridge while she juggling study with caring for him.

His death, although expected, was still a body blow to Sarah. Other major personal crises piled on top of her and she had to take more than a year off from classes.

But she persevered and was named one of only eight Harvard Horizons Scholars in 2014.

She also took up mountain climbing. We’re talking serious mountains—Kilimanjaro, Aconcagua, Chimborazo. At elevations of more than 20,000 feet, she was climbing closer to the planets and stars she wanted to explore.

In January 2015, she defended her thesis.

I flew to Boston for that momentous event. Sitting in a hallowed hall at Harvard with 60 of her colleagues and professors, I listened to her talk about searching for life on distant planets and her aspirations to explore the universe.

As she was pronounced Doctor Sarah Rugheimer, I used up a package of Kleenex.

Dr. Sarah Rugheimer – photo credit: Ben Gebo

Her post-doctoral proposals and applications for various fellowships contained ever-more-obscure vocabulary. How was I supposed to critique a paper entitled “Quantifying Activity Induced Variability in Spectra of Exoplanets”? At that point, when I edited her articles, I wasn’t even sure where to put the commas!

She also developed a love of teaching and has the rare gift of translating complicated concepts into terms even regular people—like me—can understand. Her students love her.

A couple of years ago, one student she had mentored achieved publication in a prestigious journal. Sarah was button-busting proud.

I told her, “Now you know how I feel.”

In her spare time, she continues to write creatively. We spend hours on the phone, brainstorming plots and building relatable characters for her ambitious sci-fi novels. Writing remains her great love. My crystal ball predicts a Nebula award in her future. 

Two summers ago, she returned to our hometown to give the commencement address at the local college graduation. “Don’t limit yourselves,” she counseled. “Don’t let fear keep you from applying to Harvard or wherever your dreams lead you.”

Where is she now? Teaching and pursuing research at Oxford, another pinnacle of academic achievement. Here’s her website.

A few weeks ago, she called me from England. “Don’t tell anyone yet but I was chosen as a TED scholar for 2020. I’m going to give a TED talk.” That puts her among only 20 people so honored each year.

I was thrilled but, again, not surprised.

Our friendship started with a high school writing contest.

Now I’m standing on the ground, watching a brilliant star rise into the heavens. [Sniffles.]


Others mentored me. I mentored Sarah. Now she’s mentoring a new generation.

TKZers, whose shoulders did you stand on? Who’s standing on your shoulders?

This entry was posted in Writing by Debbie Burke. Bookmark the permalink.

About Debbie Burke

Debbie writes the Tawny Lindholm series, Montana thrillers infused with psychological suspense. Her books have won the Kindle Scout contest, the Zebulon Award, and were finalists for the Eric Hoffer Book Award and BestThrillers.com. Her articles received journalism awards in international publications. She is a founding member of Authors of the Flathead and helps to plan the annual Flathead River Writers Conference in Kalispell, Montana. Her greatest joy is mentoring young writers. http://www.debbieburkewriter.com

26 thoughts on “Rising Star

  1. Amazing story. You have every right to be proud. So nice to see something positive these days.

  2. What a beautiful story, Debbie! I thoroughly enjoyed it, box of Kleenex at my side. Thank you for sharing it.

    I will tell you about a teacher of journalism and creative writing at my local college, in a town of a mere 100,000 or so. I went back to school in my late 40s to, of all things, become a nurse. Bleh. That didn’t work out so well. Jumbled in my prereqs was a class entitled “Mass Communications”.

    The teacher was one of those who’s hard to forget. A master of encouragement, he gave me the highest grade for my end-of-semester creative writing project. He later told me I’m wasting my time becoming a nurse. I’m not sure if he was right about that, but he said “the world needs more great novelists.” That was in about 2001.

    My day job was in a cancer center, from which I am now retired. (I never became a nurse, though.) A few years back, he became a patient. I had the high honor of sitting down with him and telling him about the three books I’d written and published between 2016 and 2018, and to thank him for the one class I took which gave me a different vision for the second act of my life. He was elderly by then-this was in 2018, seventeen years after I was his student. But his eyes glowed as he shook my hand. His daughter was with him and she told me he remembers every one of his students. It was truly a precious moment for both him and me.

    I don’t know if anyone is standing on my shoulders yet. But I hope some day to feel the weight of their feet.

    • Oh, Deb, you made me grab more Kleenex. What a beautiful gift from the teacher to you and how fortunate you were able to share your later success with him.

  3. Love this story, Debbie! Use all the tissues you need. That young woman is a reflection of your outpouring of love and guidance, and you should be proud. She sounds like an incredible young woman.

  4. Incredible. I am sharing. These wonderful talents are out there. Sometimes they get overlooked, sometimes they’re never given a chance. Sometimes people like yourself take that extra step to make sure they’re given every chance to succeed. You did good. Sarah did great, will continue to do so. Just… such wonderful stuff to read about.

    • Thanks, Chris. The brains and drive are all Sarah’s. I just feel lucky I got to go along for the ride. It IS heartening for all of us to see someone rise above a world so full of trouble.

  5. What an inspiring story! Congratulations to Sarah on her achievements, and to you, Debbie, on pouring so much of yourself into her life. She is fortunate to have had you for a mentor.

    I’ll be watching for her TED talk.

  6. Indeed a wonderful story. On the question of whose shoulders do I stand on, I was not drawn to my teachers, although there were several who helped me a great deal along the way.

    There is one staff member actually from my college days. Fr. Ray Lagesse, SJ who helped me a lot. A Catholic priest? I was somewhat involved with the campus ministry. Fr. Lagesse was in charge. Being almost the only Jew on campus was hard at times and Fr. Lagesse always had my back. While I was at Parks College, were almost everyone was a pilot, Fr. Ray learned to fly and earned his pilot’s license. He is gone now, but thanks for everything Fr. Ray.

    • Alan, your story supports my strong belief that some of the most meaningful relationships are not based on blood, ethnicity, religion, nationality, or other external factors but by a connection between two hearts. My adopted mother was black and her values live on in me. Fr. Ray connected with you and made a significant difference at a time you needed a friend. I suspect you have passed that spirit of friendship on to others during your life.

  7. Whose shoulders do I stand on? I like to think I stand on my father’s. Dad was the child of immigrants. My grandfather came to the United States in 1902 as a little boy. My father, uncle, and aunt were the first in the family to go to college.

    My uncle and father became lawyers. Uncle Eugene represented real estate developers. One was building a hotel in Downtown St. Louis. They were going to have a Trader Vic’s restaurant. He gave the job of getting a chef from China to St. Louis to his little brother, my father. My father relished the bureaucratic details of immigration law. Chef Chen wanted his BBQ smoker from China and an air conditioned kitchen. Dad made it happen. Then dad worked to bring assistant chefs from China to the US. Executive Chefs were ‘re-educated’ during the Cultural Revolution. There were a long line of Michelin star chefs turned brick layers and carpenters under Mao. Dad brought them to America. And then the Central Americans. Then the Bosnians. Then the Indians, Russians, Czechs, Where was the worst place in the world to live? The client list shifted.

    He helped the people like his father who came to America decades before looking for a better life.

    Today I help organisations find homes for refugees in St. Louis. What would dad be doing if he were alive today? Probably learning Spanish and working the system to get people past that stupid wall. And working way harder than an 80 year old should.

    • Alan, I read this after I posted a reply to your first comment. Thanks for adding yours and your family’s stories to the legacy of helping others. Isn’t that what life…and writing…is all about?

  8. Debbie, that’s a beautiful story. Thank you for sharing! Congratulations to you and Sarah, and I’ll be sure to look out for her TED talk when it comes out on the website!

    Whose shoulders do I stand on? I never had a writer who mentored me. I’ve had to go out and find places like TKZ and TerribleMinds and KM Weiland (among others) to find indirect mentorship and instruction. It’s been invaluable.

    However, one guy stands out a bit more than the others. Mr Irwin, one of my university English teachers, took the time to look over a short piece of fiction I had written. I had zero training in creative writing, other than essays. He had a lot of questions and lot of things to say (that’s putting it mildly). But, I’ll never forget that he took the time out to speak with an 18-year-old girl who didn’t know craft from a hole in the ground.

    • Mollie, learning the craft writing today is much easier than when I started b/c of the abundant online resources you mention. But it still helps to have a personal contact. Glad your teacher took the time.

  9. What a beautiful story, Debbie. I have hope for the world when I read pieces like this one. Thanks for such an uplifting message today and for taking the time to pay it forward. I’m so grateful for all you do here.

Comments are closed.