Monday, 27 January 2014

The Real Deal: Dr. Katie Mack, Cosmologist

Today we have the immense honour of meeting a cosmologist who is currently working in Melbourne, Australia. She quite literally spends her time thinking and talking about how the universe works in all its glory. What's more amazing is that she knew she wanted to be a cosmologist from the age of just 10! 

Her busy lifestyle and ability to work anywhere make her quite hard to pin down, so we're very pleased to have managed to nab her attention for a few minutes. Ladies and gentleman, we're very pleased to introduce Dr. Katie Mack.

(You can catch up with Katie on twitter @astrokatie or via her blog)

What do you do and give 3 words that describe how you got there?

I’m a theoretical astrophysicist – specifically a cosmologist. I study the early universe, the evolution of the Universe, and generally all the weird stuff like dark matter and exotic physics. My work is theoretical in the sense that I do calculations instead of dealing directly with observations or data, but I don’t usually come up with new theories, really. My focus is on connecting existing theories of the cosmos and the early universe to ongoing or future cosmological observations. It means I have to have a good understanding of both the observational and theoretical side of cosmology, and it means I get to be really creative. Coming up with new ideas for testing theories – trying to think about the Universe in a new way – is one of the best things about my job.

Three words: passion, perseverance, focus.

What career did you think you would have when you were younger?

I think there was a brief time when I was very young when I thought about maybe doing electrical engineering (I enjoyed taking electronic things apart and putting them back together) but by the time I was about 10 years old I knew for sure that I wanted to be a cosmologist.

What is it that makes you want to come to work each day?

There are two really great things about my job that make me excited to come to work. One is being able to discover new things about the Universe that no one has discovered before. It is an immense thrill to be able to (as a theorist) use just math and inference from observational data to learn something new about, say, the way galaxies form and evolve, or the physical conditions in the very early universe. The other thing is talking about physics with my colleagues and discovering new things that way (or helping them discover new things). I love that chatting about the Universe is just part of my everyday job. Having a productive conversation about a physics problem always puts me on a bit of a high. Right now I’m in a department where there are a lot of people working on things that are related to what I do, and so having conversations like that is often a simple matter of walking down the hall. It’s great.

What is the one thing you'd love to achieve in your research?

I suppose the dream is to discover something Really Important, and make a big impact on future research and the direction of cosmology for years to come. Second choice would be just to do good work and make a positive contribution to the field I work in by producing research results that people find helpful and insightful and which they can draw upon to advance the field in the future. I’d also like to have an impact as a communicator, both inside and outside academia, because I think good communication can help researchers to find the necessary perspective and connections to make progress, and can also improve access to the field for future researchers.

What is the best/worst thing about your job?

The best thing is being able to spend my time talking and thinking about and discovering the Universe. The worst thing is that this stage of academia (the postdoc stage) can be very uprooting. The way the academic career is structured in my field, it’s often necessary to move to different institutions and in many cases different countries to work on short-term (few year) contracts before moving on to a permanent job. Competition for permanent jobs is fierce, so there’s no guarantee you’ll ever get one, even if you’re very very good. The uncertainty and the unsettledness can be quite hard.

What do you enjoy other than science?

My biggest passion aside from science is writing (and communication in general). I particularly love using writing to share science and academic culture with people who might not otherwise have much access to it. I have a blog where I write about cosmology occasionally, and I also do some science writing for other blogs or publications on a freelance basis. Lately I’ve been doing some other kinds of outreach/communication, such as a YouTube series and various public events. It’s great to be able to share my passion with the public whenever possible.

I also play a lot of sports (pretty much any sport, whenever the opportunity arises) and I go out dancing whenever I can convince people to join me.

What would be your ideal holiday?

Um. I don’t know. I travel constantly (for work) and rarely take holidays. The best holiday I’ve had in recent years was a 10-day road trip across New Zealand. So, probably something like that. It’s really rare for me to be able to take a reasonable amount of time away from work. Science continues; there are always things that need doing. Balance is a difficult thing. So is taking breaks.

Who or what is your greatest inspiration (science or otherwise?)

My grandfather was always an inspiration to me. I wrote an article about him and his influence on me for a blog a while back. When I was a kid, I was inspired by Stephen Hawking (mainly in the sense that I wanted to be doing his job). These days I’m particularly inspired by Neil deGrasse Tyson, who is an incredible science communicator and who very effectively expresses and inspires passion for astronomy.

If you could give your younger self any advice, what would it be?

I’d advise myself to study more math – earlier, and more diligently. More math is always better in physics, and practice is what makes you good at it.

Anything else you'd like to add?

One of the best ways to connect with working scientists is by getting on Twitter. I’ve been using Twitter for a couple of years to talk with other scientists and to chat generally with people about science and science culture. (I tweet as @AstroKatie.) There’s a great community of scientists and science communicators, and being part of it (or even just following people in it) gives you some great insight into what doing science as a career is really like.

1 comment:

  1. The advice to study more math is really good. I'm an undergrad majoring in physics, and I would definitely give my younger self that same advice. I took as little math as I could in high school and in my first college career, and now as a 32 year old I have had to struggle to catch up on math. It's been good and fun, and my grades are impeccable, but I can't help but wonder why I didn't pursue it when I was younger.

    This was a great interview. Thank you for sharing!