Interview with KIF Prize Winner Sarah Pearson in New York City

By: Majken Christensen, KIF board member

It is a Monday afternoon in late April and I am meeting with KIF Prize winner and astrophysicist Sarah Pearson at Columbia University in New York, where Sarah is finishing her PhD thesis. Columbia is an impressive university and today Sarah and I are meeting in front of the in front of Low Library portrayed in the photo. I am a bit early, and I use the extra time to get an impression of the area. Enormous buildings surround me and I get a sense of the American university culture, which I have seen many times on television. There is a long road in the center of the area, which is full of students protesting against some political decisions on campus. They walk in long lines and carry signs that clearly support their voice.

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Columbia University, April 2018. Private photo.

Sarah shows up and I immediately get a sense of her energy. She is happy and seems busy, but very kind and accommodating. She tells me that she just realized that she has 4 weeks left before she has to hand in her PhD thesis. Not realized in the sense that she did not know until now, but realized in the sense that it is starting to feel real. She tells me that she needs to write her introduction in order to complete her thesis, and that she has been postponing this part of the work until today. Sarah has quite a few publications on her record, so the content for her thesis is voluminous.

Outreach is a priority

We agree to go to Max Cafe, which is in Harlem. On our way to the café we pass through Columbia’s campus site and Sarah shows me some of the buildings from the outside. We pass the large library, which is a beautiful building in the center of the campus and reach the area behind it. “This is the physics and astronomy building”, she says and points to the massive building in front of us. I estimate that it is twice as big as the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen, where both Sarah and I did our undergraduate studies in astrophysics. Sarah points to the left “This is where I recently did an interview with Morten Kjærgaard. He is a physicist at MIT and I invited him to Columbia to discuss quantum computing for a Space with Sarah episode (which is a YouTube show Sarah started in 2017). I am not sure when it will come out,” she says with a smile and continues “My PhD studies have been keeping me busy, so there has been limited time to produce new videos.” Yet somehow she has the time and resources to create content and this is a general impression that I get of her: she works hard and is determined. We leave campus and arrive at the cafe.

Max Cafe is nice and warm. It had started to rain outside, so moving our conversation to a warm and comfy place is nice. We sit down in a sofa, where some people are already sitting. This place is for people, who like intimacy and the atmosphere are a contrast to the fast pace and high pulse that that is often associated with New York City.

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Max Cafe, Harlem, New York City. Private photo.

We start talking about Sarah’s YouTube channel, Space With Sarah, which took off a year ago. It is a series of videos, where Sarah explains some basic concepts about astronomy. The videos became widely popular, especially in her home country, Denmark. The quality of the videos is very high and during her KIF Prize talk in 2017, Sarah explained that her producer is a professional video editor. In fact, there is a whole team that helps with the videos and she explains that it took almost a full year from she started writing the manuscripts until the first video was published on YouTube.

Science for the broad audience

Since the release of the first video, Sarah has been participating in various YouTube videos, on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, so you do not have to search long to find information about her channel. I am therefore more curious about her scientific background and the path she has taken thus far.

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Majken (left) and Sarah at Max cafe, April 2018. Private photo.

Why did you start Space With Sarah?

“My love for teaching. Throughout grad school, doing outreach events and teaching classes have made me more excited about my subject matter and have helped me seeing the “bigger picture”. As you do your PhD, you become more and more specialized, and it’s useful to take a broader look at the field. Making science more accessible is one of my goals, too. Everyone should be able to learn about how nature works and how our world is tied together. As a scientist I find it extremely important to share our expertise and the knowledge we gain with a broader audience.“

What is your ambition with your outreach?

“I have four main goals for the Space with Sarah outreach program:

1) To share knowledge on our Universe with a broad audience.

2) To make science more accessible to the public (explain how we know what we know).

3) To inspire young, new scientists and break the stereotype of “who is a scientist”

4) To increase the visibility of women in science and of female scientists who communicate on YouTube.”

You have a robust background in astrophysics with numerous publications and teaching duties. Tell us about your research during your PhD thesis?

“My research focuses on galaxies and dark matter. Galaxies are enormous collections of billions of stars, some like our own Sun, connected in a web of gas and dark matter that spans over our entire Universe. When attempting to study these galaxies a problem presents itself: the timescales available for human exploration is puny when compared to the timescales involved in galactic growth and evolution. In my thesis I exploited the fact that as galaxies grow they accrete smaller systems. This process does not happen instantaneously, but tidal forces from the host galaxy tear the smaller galaxies apart into distinct structures persisting for billions of years. I use these structures to unravel the galaxies’ pasts and to study how dark matter is distributed around them.”

Why did you choose to work with dwarf galaxies and stellar streams?

“Actually, the topics I ended up working on just happened to be the expertise of the professors I chose to work with initially. In undergrad I had worked on exploding stars, and I wanted to broaden my knowledge and work on something different. As I arrived at Columbia University, I chose to work with the professors I seemed to have the best ‘scientific chemistry’ with, and those topics ended up being related to galactic dynamics. I’ve always been fascinated by math and ‘math in space’, so dynamics is an ideal topic for me to focus on and I’ve highly enjoyed it.”

You have some impressive publications, especially the one from Nature Astronomy. Tell us how you did this? Do you have advice for any aspiring astronomers among our readers who want to pursue an academic career in astrophysics?

“My Nature Astronomy article was a direct consequence of a question I received while giving a talk in Santiago, Chile on my stellar stream work. I immediately had an idea for what might be the answer to the otherwise unknown question, and I went to my advisor and asked if I could spend a few weeks investigating the idea. My intuition turned out to be valid, and due to our excitement for the topic, the work very quickly turned into a publishable paper. My co-author, Adrian Price-Whelan, was the one to suggest we submitted to Nature Astronomy as the topic of the paper seemed timely and exciting. I was beyond excited when the Nature Astronomy editor was interested in our work.

It is somewhat difficult to give advise on how to publish papers, as the key is not to publish “more papers faster”. My latest research paper has taken 2,5 years from I started the project to I submitted the paper. Sometime research is tedious and takes time. One idea is to try and have other smaller side projects, such that once you get stuck, you can ‘procrastinate’ with other scientific ideas. I also try to keep a list of ‘easy tasks’ such as modifying plots etc. if I have days, where I am not feeling motivated to dig into my research very deeply. Outreach also serves to bring back my excitement for my work, so I sometimes chose to spend a day on outreach projects rather than science, which is exactly the case today, haha.

I have a lot of other advise I could give, but this might be getting a tad long. Another important one though is that once you have your data, or your simulations have been run: try thinking of any interesting plot you might be able to make. Get inspiration from literature (generally reading more papers is a great idea). Sometimes your research can change directions based on one single plot, and your advisor will most likely be impressed if you come up with plots/ideas independently.”

What are some of the differences, as an astrophysics grad student, between working in Denmark and USA?

“I haven’t been a PhD student in Denmark, but the main contrast seems to be that during my five years here at Columbia University (which included a PhD and a master’s degree) we did research from day 1, where in Europe the master’s does not always focus on publishable research. I’ve always thought that one had to work +80 hours a week to be successful/respected in a US grad school, but that has not been the case at all in my experience. For the most part I’ve had a good work/life balance during grad school.“

Will you return to Denmark at some point?

“My dream is to become a professor of astrophysics at the University of Copenhagen while being an active science communicator. So yes, I definitely hope to return.”

How important are role models in academia to you?

“Throughout graduate school, I’ve felt empowered and inspired when senior female professors assert themselves, ask great questions at talks and are highly respected by the peers. I think it is extremely important for any minority in a given field to have role models with whom they can identify. It makes us believe that we too, one day, can be as successful in this given area.“

You have 3 women physicists as supervisors. What does it mean for your work on short and long term that your supervisors are women?

“I am not entirely sure. As I mentioned in my previous answer it has definitely helped me believe, that I too can achieve my goals and succeed in becoming a professor in astrophysics as they have become. Short term I think it has made me a more confident scientist seeing their success. Long-term it has helped me think more of what type of role-model I want to be to future students, men and women. I have the uttermost respect for all three of my advisors and see them as great inspirations.“

What do you think is the most important role of KIF – Kvinder I Fysik?

“Addressing the somewhat uncomfortable topic: that there *is* a problem with lack of women (and minorities) in physics, especially in retaining women in the field. This problem does not simply go away by “giving it more time”, which is evident from the slow evolution during the past decades. My outreach efforts mostly focus on making women in science more visible, hopefully inspiring young women to think that they too can become astrophysicists. But there is another very important issue: women are interested in science, and they do enter STEM fields, but as we (women) attempt to climb the ladder to become professors there seems to be severe problems leading us to systematically ‘vanish’ from the field. If you do indeed believe that women and men are just as capable of having creative, new scientific ideas, due to this problem, we lose the potential of several great minds and scientific discoveries.”

It was very interesting to meet with Sarah and hear about her scientific work for a few hours. After the interview we leave Max Café. It is raining and Sarah is heading to her favorite writing spot in Harlem. She is determined to start writing her thesis introduction today.

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Sarah (left) and Majken in front of Max Café, April 2018. Private photo.

Sarah has since this interview successfully defended her PhD and is now a doctor. You can follow her on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook to see how it went: @spacewsarah.

 

 

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