Mason doctoral student aims for the stars through a passion for math


Some people’s interest in space exploration begins in elementary school, while others grow a fascination through sci-fi television shows or movies. For Sky Ratcliffe, a George Mason University student in the second year of their PhD in mathematics, it was a personal connection through their great uncle, a former NASA engineer who worked on Apollo 11, 12, and 16.

Sky Ratcliffe GIA Scholar
Mason PhD student Sky Ratcliffe. Photo by Ron Aira/Office of University Branding

“My interest in NASA started at a young age and began with a sense of being enamored by space, more specifically pictures of it, as that appealed to my artistic side,” Ratcliffe said. “My mom gave me a big binder of original photos of some of the rockets and moon landing pictures, [which belonged to my great uncle]. It felt so special to own original copies of those pictures you come across online when searching ‘the moon landing.’"

Originally from a small town in upstate New York, Ratcliffe, who identifies as nonbinary, has a strong affinity for the stars from being able to see them so clearly back home.

“I have a unique experience [because] I grew up off the grid. My house was powered through solar and wind power, and we had a generator. It wasn't easy to deal with as a child,” they said. “This inspired me to get out of the house and go to college right away knowing I wouldn’t be faced with limitations on electricity usage.”

While initially dreaming of becoming a chemist when they started their undergraduate studies at St. Lawrence University, Ratcliffe eventually realized their interest in chemistry was specifically due to the mathematics behind chemical processes.

“I have ADHD so all the memorization in chemistry was difficult for me, while math was just more appealing because it wasn't about having a good memoryit was about learning to understand,” Ratcliffe said. “I realized that if you learn to understand rather than learn to memorize, it becomes much easier and much more interesting.”

Applying to graduate school during the peak of COVID-19 was an overwhelming experience for Ratcliffe. Coming from a low-income family, they were thrilled to receive an email from Mason stating that McNair Scholars, a first-generation college student program for individuals interested in higher sciences that Ratcliffe took part in during their undergraduate studies, are eligible to apply for a PhD program at no cost.

“I didn’t realize how much I would enjoy my time at Mason until I got here,” they said. "There is a strong support system in the Mathematical Sciences Department. We all want to see each other succeed, and I can see myself working with and being friends with these peers long into my career.”

Focused on pursuing the mathematics side of chemistry, Ratcliffe’s interests landed on differential equations and dynamical systems, a type of math seen in engineering.

“’Applied math' can be referred to as math that pertains to our world directly such as math used in architecture or population models or, more topically, tracking the spread of diseases such as COVID-19,” said Ratcliffe. “This is opposed to theoretical math, which is simply math that hasn’t been applied to our world (yet), and one day it may.”

Still new in their PhD journey, Ratcliffe has not conducted any official research. Matt Holzer, associate professor for the Department of Mathematical Sciences who began working with Ratcliffe this semester, said he is impressed by their independence and work ethic. “They have been taking the lead in the readings that we have been doing and are doing a fantastic job.”

In search of a scholarship geared toward first-generation students in need of financial aid, Ratcliffe applied to the Graduate Inclusion and Access (GIA) Scholarship program at Mason and was accepted in 2022. “The scholarship allows me to not only progress more quickly in my program, but provides me the opportunity to be here and continue doing what I enjoy most: mathematics,” Ratcliffe said.

“Sky’s background as a McNair Scholar has helped them quickly contribute toward building inclusive communities of peer support, both within Mathematics PhD program and the GIA cohort,” said Senior Associate Provost for Graduate Education Laurence Bray. “They are the kind of scholar who is going to make a positive impact in this world and for whom the GIA scholarship is intended.

Ratcliffe said they feel content knowing other GIA scholars with whom they can connect and said they are thankful for the many resources available on campus to help them with any questions or concerns throughout the PhD journey.

“It’s good to know there are other first-generation students around since I feel like we sort of had to navigate a lot of applying to and attending college on our own,” they said.

Ratcliffe plans on a career that will have a positive impact on the environment and hopes to work in an industry that is dedicated to healing and sustaining the Earth. Their childhood environment plays a significant impact in Ratcliffe’s deep care for the environment, which they hope to continue throughout their life.