Astrophysicist, Institute for Advanced Study
There are a lot of really amazing and wonderful women in STEM that have been through this and are waiting for you with open arms.
WHAT DO YOU DO?
I am a Postdoctoral researcher, with a National Science Foundation Astronomy and Astrophysics Postdoctoral Fellowship. When talking to kids I frequently say that I throw virtual photons at virtual black holes and ask whether or not the photons fall into the black hole. What I mean by that is that I run simulations of how matter and light move around black holes and compare these simulations to real astrophysical data from the Event Horizon Telescope. One of my current projects involves simulating what black holes might look like if our current understanding of gravity was wrong. I use these simulations and EHT data to test the theory of gravity itself.
WHY DID YOU CHOOSE THIS FIELD?
I realized I wanted to study black holes when I was in high school. I had always enjoyed math but hadn't really decided what I wanted to do for a career. I took physics, calculus, and astronomy at the same time during my junior year and was amazed by how we can use math to not only describe the universe we live in but even make predictions for it. We learned about the basics of black holes and I couldn't stop asking questions about them. I was really fascinated by how gravity could affect the passage of time and realized that I wanted to spend my career trying to understand these mysterious objects.
WHAT DO YOU LOOK AT & THINK, "I WISH YOUNGER ME WOULD HAVE KNOWN THIS WAS POSSIBLE?"
I am a member of the Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration (EHT) and all of my thesis work was motivated by this project. The EHT published the first ever image of a black hole in April of 2019. I was really shocked by the response the image received from the public, we made the first page of every major newspaper around the world. I am from Brazil and am the only Brazilian involved in the EHT. The Brazilian media realized this and I've been interviewed for TV, radio, and print/web many times over the last year. I've also given a talk tour in Brazil and had thousands of people come to my talks and hundreds of them waited in line for over an hour to have a chance to meet me and take a picture with me. A Brazilian senator took note of this and started the process for me to get an official award from the Brazilian senate. The award got approved by the rest of the senate and I got to give a talk at the senate. Younger me would never in a million years have thought that this could happen to me.
WHY DO YOU LOVE WORKING IN STEM?
I will admit that doing research every day can be a bit frustrating at times, when you're trying to solve a problem that no one has solved before your brilliant idea might not work, or you might encounter several unforeseen obstacles along the way. However, when your idea finally works and you are able to learn something new about the universe or solve a previously unsolved problem it's truly incredible. There's something really inspiring about doing something that has never been done before.
BEST ADVICE FOR NEXT GENERATION?
Come and keep going.
There are a lot of really amazing and wonderful women in STEM that have been through this and are waiting for you with open arms. Many of us (myself included) had really wonderful female role models along our career and strive to pay it forward to the next generation. We will be here for you, and do everything we can to help you along the way.
That being said I think it's pretty common for minorities in the sciences to feel like they don't belong or to think that they aren't good enough. There are countless studies that show such correlations. I want you to know that it is normal to doubt yourself or to worry that you might not be good enough, everyone has those feelings at one point or another. Physics is hard and pretty much everyone has to work hard at it. Your doubts don't
mean that you can't do this though, chances are that you are doing just fine but are surrounded by people that act overly confident and pretend that it's easy for them. Don't let your doubts take over, keep going, trust your mentors when they tell you you're doing ok, and learn about imposter syndrome.
INSPO / FUN FACT
“Science makes people reach selflessly for truth and objectivity; it teaches people to accept reality, with wonder and admiration, not to mention the deep awe and joy that the natural order of things brings to the true scientist.” - Lise Meitner