But she loved to contemplate why things work, what makes systems move the way they do. When she figured out a physics problem, she felt "like a master of the universe."

Given her attraction to big questions, maybe it was inevitable that she would turn to the universe itself — the most elegant and fundamental of systems.

She took the space science course in tandem with a course on the use of remote sensing to study Earth's environment. Both got her contemplating the kinds of questions that could be addressed by dispatching satellites to space.

"You send up this box of metal with some fancy computer parts and you get back all of this new information," Noviello says. "It just fascinates me."

With her mind tilting up from fossils to cosmos, she pounced when the new space minor was formally announced early this year. Noviello downloaded the forms and submitted a plan to study the use of remote sensing satellites in examining the Earth's surfaces and atmosphere.

When her application was approved, she offered a Facebook status update: "I'm now a space minor!"

That prompted some questions from friends, who didn't know such a thing existed. But the consensus was that it sounded pretty cool.

Noviello knows that the nation's dreams, and spending priorities, have slowly turned away from space in recent decades. Earlier this month, she sat through a federal budget hearing in Washington, listening to legislators question the value of spending billions to explore the universe.

She's happy to give her two cents on the practical benefits. "It's not just about finding new planets and taking pretty pictures," she says. "It's about monitoring the state of our biosphere."

But the whole thing is about wonder for her. That's why her computer wallpaper flips to a new image from NASA every day.

Like her mentors at the university, she's looking for the means to convert childlike enthusiasm to real answers about the workings of the universe.

"I'm just a 5-year-old," Noviello says, "who somehow made it through the Hopkins admissions process."

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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