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Katherine Freese

Jeff and Gail Kodosky Endowed Chair in Physics, Physics Department, University of Texas

 

And - Author, The Cosmic Cocktail: Three Parts Dark Matter

Photo credit: Marcia Rosengrad

Many women in STEM think they are not good enough. They think they have been awarded a position not because they are qualified but because they are lucky.  This is never true.

What do you do?

"I work on a variety of “big questions,” including “What is the Universe made of?""

I am a theoretical physicist, with an emphasis on cosmology, the study of the Universe as a whole.  I work on a variety of “big questions,” including “What is the Universe made of?” We know that only 5% is made of ordinary matter, the stuff of our everyday experience. The rest is made of 25% dark matter and 70% dark energy.  Most of the mass in galaxies, including our own Milky Way Galaxy, is made of dark matter, and we are trying to figure out what it’s made of.  Our best bet is some kind of unidentified fundamental particle. I’ve proposed ways to look for it, and my theoretical proposals have helped to pioneer the field of direct detection of dark matter, experimentalists looking for dark matter particles in laboratories deep underground.  On a daily basis, I talk to my collaborators in person or via Skype, I use pencil and paper to solve equations, and computers to do problems that are too hard to solve by hand.  I also teach, sit on committees, etc.  These days I lead a large group of five students and six postdoctoral fellows, and mentoring their research work takes most of my time. 

Why did you choose this field?

I took a course from a wonderful inspiring professor, David Schramm at the University of Chicago.  At the time I was working on an experiment at Fermilab, the particle accelerator outside of Chicago, and I got up very early three times a week to get to his class in the city.  The course in cosmology became the most exciting part of my week.  He was one of the founders of the field of particle astrophysics (as well as being an Olympic hopeful in wrestling). I switched fields to become his student and he became a powerful mentor.  I strongly recommend to young women to find strong mentors who are in a position to further their careers even once they move on to new places. 

What do you look at and think, "I wish younger me would have known this was possible"?

"Ladies, believe in yourselves!"

I’ve been far more successful than I ever imagined. In fact, after my freshman year at MIT at age 16, I was made to feel stupid, and I was sure I’d never get anywhere in a physics career.  It took another 30 years for me to get my confidence back. I never thought I’d make it by my early 30s to a tenured position at a top institution worldwide (University of Michigan). I never thought I’d write papers that people are still referencing 30 years later.  I never thought I’d become Director of Nordita, one of the most important theoretical Physics institutes in the world.  

Why do you love working in STEM?

It’s pretty cool. We get to be creative, more than in any other field.  Technology keeps changing, and that allows us to probe more and more of the Universe.  I invent ideas that I hope are actually describing nature. It’s fun!

Best advice for the next generation


Believe in yourself!  Many women in STEM suffer from the “imposter syndrome.”  In other words, they think they are not good enough. They think they have been awarded a position not because they are qualified but because they are lucky.  This is never true.  If you were chosen as a student or a postdoctoral fellow or a professor, the competition is stiff and you had to be super good to get the position.  I myself suffered from imposter syndrome for most of my career, starting from when I was 16 until very recently.  Not any more!

Fun fact


I love science fiction.  One of my favorite recent books is The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigaluppi, a dystopian tale that rings all too true.  Also short stories by Ted Chiang who wrote the story Arrival that was made into a movie.