How Stephen Hawking changed the life of this UBC astronomy student

Steffani Grondin admits it sounds “super cheesy,” but Stephen Hawking convinced her to reach for the stars.

They never met, but Steffani Grondin, 20, says Hawking's work had an immeasurable impact on her

Stephen Hawking discusses theories on the origin of the universe in a talk in Berkeley, California in 2007. The world-renowned physicist died early Wednesday morning at age 76. (Kimberly White/Reuters)

Steffani Grondin admits it sounds "super cheesy," but Stephen Hawking convinced her to reach for the stars.

Grondin, 20, is in her third year of a joint astronomy and physics honours program at the University of British Columbia. She's also co-president of the school's astronomy club and works for the school as a teaching assistant.

Like many people around the world, she says she is devastated by the death of the renowned theoretical physicist at the age of 76 early Wednesday morning.

Steffani Grondin says other members of the UBC Astronomy club are devastated by the loss of Hawking, and she's not the only one who he inspired. (Steffani Grondin)

"I was talking to the club members just five minutes ago, and they were all saying, 'it's so sad … he inspired me,'" she said.

"He just had such an impact on the astronomy community, astrophysics as a whole. It's just a huge loss for everyone.

"It's just so sad."

And while she's saddened by his death, she says she remains inspired by his contributions to science and wants to carry them forward.

Book changed everything

Grondin says Hawking had an immeasurable impact on her professional life, even though the two never met.

Four years ago, she was 17 years old, growing up in small-town Castlegar, B.C.

She had medical school ambitions but says she wasn't exposed to science very often while growing up.

But, on a whim, she checked out a book from her local library: A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking.

His famous 1988 bestselling book was a bestseller, and was widely regarded for explaining complex ideas about the universe in plain language accessible to non-expert audiences.

"I thought, this might be a fun read, but I'm not going to understand any of it," she said. "It was fascinating … I thought after reading that, you know what, that's what I have to do with my life. 

"He really inspired me to realize there's more out there than what we think."

Steffani Grondin, co-president of the UBC Astronomy club and an honours student of astronomy and physics, observes the 2017 solar eclipse. Grondin says she never would have pursued the path she's on if it hadn't been for Stephen Hawking. (Steffani Grondin)

His ideas on the vastness of the universe as a whole drew her in, she explained.

She says it's easy to think of our lives on earth and what we see and experience as the limit of what's possible but Hawking's work gave her a new perspective on just how much is actually out there and how much is yet to be discovered.

"It's hard to grasp and it's very, very humbling."

She says she is especially interested in researching black holes and Hawking radiation, a concept he first theorized that "defies the laws of physics."

"He's done a lot, and leaves us young, aspiring astrophysicists to get out there and start learning more," she said.

"Maybe one of us will be the next Stephen Hawking. Who knows?"

About the Author

Liam Britten

Digital journalist

Liam Britten is a journalist for CBC Vancouver. You can contact him at liam.britten@cbc.ca or follow him on Twitter: @liam_britten.