Meet Kemi Ashing-Giwa

Her planetary adventures are both fact and fiction.

March 2024

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Kemi Ashing-Giwa and her reflection in water.

Photography by Toni Bird

Kemi Ashing-Giwa was in the middle of a college biology class, learning about Ophiocordyceps unilateralis (aka the zombie-ant fungus), when an idea sprang to mind. “I was like, ‘Ah, I love fungi. I’m going to write a short story about fungus zombies.’” As soon as class ended, she opened a Google document and began.

Ashing-Giwa was a sophomore at Harvard when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. After a long day on Zoom, she would scroll for hours through an unrelenting stream of depressing news updates. Writing fiction offered both an escape and a way to process reality, with some intergalactic espionage thrown in. “Lots of bad things [were] happening. It was a lot to take on at one time, and I needed a healthy way to work through the things that I was feeling,” she says. In 2023, The Splinter in the Sky, the space opera she’d begun writing during quarantine, was published by Saga Press/ Simon & Schuster. A USA Today bestseller, the book follows a young scribe-turned-assassin living on an icy moon that’s been colonized by imperial forces. Ashing-Giwa—flexing her scientist muscles—precisely calculated the details of her solar system, from the travel time between planets to the metal content of asteroids.

It’s no surprise Ashing-Giwa is drawn to the science side of fiction. She’s currently a second-year PhD student studying ecophysiology and conservation biology, particularly the ocean conditions that wiped out an estimated 96 percent of all marine species at the end of the Permian period, some 252 million years ago. In the lab, you might find her adding sulfidic water to tanks filled with clams. And she never misses a chance to blend lab and lit. Between experiments, she’s written three more sci-fi books, two of which are scheduled to be published. “I am paying attention in class,” she says, laughing, “but I’m also paying attention to what I can put into a story.” 

Kemi Ashing-Giwa and her reflection in water.

“I like being in school for many reasons, but one is that it’s great for story ideas.”

Writing has always been a solace for me. One of my first best friends, every time we had a sleepover we would just hang out together and write, write, write. That became the natural way for me to deal with stress or work through things that I was thinking about in life.

“I grew up watching Star Trek with my mom. That’s why I minored in astrophysics—I thought we would just be looking at pictures of galaxies, and I’d be like, ‘Wow. Space. So beautiful.’ They’re like, ‘No. Just math. Just calculus.’

“The earth and planetary sciences department was the place for me because it’s a mix of astronomy and biology and geology. I like having my hands on things and being able to study the world around me while also keeping my toe in things that might be happening on other planets.

“In fiction writing you’re telling a story, and for science you’re also telling a story. I’ve been applying for grants—even though the form that the story takes is very different, you’re still trying to convince someone of something, whether you’re convincing someone that they’re on another planet or that your research is worth funding.

“Writing in a science fiction universe lets me delve into issues with a freedom I would not have if I were writing historical fiction, for example. I think people have a lot more sympathy for Luke Skywalker defeating the Empire than a real-life activist who’s trying to effect change, because in the real world things tend to be more complicated.”

Kali Shiloh is a staff writer at Stanford. Email her at

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