Chairwoman of KIF, Maren Malling, interviewed Sandra about her plans for the grant:
Congratulations on receiving the grant!
You have been living and working here in Denmark for more than four years now, currently as an Assistant Professor at DARK Cosmology Centre at the University of Copenhagen. We would love to hear about your education and career path before coming to Denmark.
Q: At what age did your interest in science start, and what made you decide to study physics?
I became interested in physics, and in particular in astrophysics, when I was about 5 years old. I had a conversation with my mother during which I found out that being an astrophysicist was a profession, I had no idea that it was possible! After that I started reading books about astronomy and becoming interested in every aspect of it. I remember realizing how big the Universe was and how those extremely large scales are so difficult to comprehend. It is fascinating to just look at the sky and think about the sheer size of it. As I learned more about astronomy and physics in school and attended summer meetings for amateur astronomers my interest in astrophysics just continued to grow.
Q: Where have you studied, and which positions have you held before this one?
I grew up in Portugal and studied physics at the University of Lisbon. I then moved to the United Kingdom to do a PhD in astronomy at the University of Cambridge. After that I worked as a post-doctoral researcher at SISSA, an international institute in Italy. Four and a half years ago I moved to Denmark, to the University of Copenhagen, first as a post-doctoral researcher and as of September as an assistant professor at DARK.
Q: What are your research interests and what you are currently working on?
I am interested in galaxies and supermassive black holes. These are black holes with more than 1 million times the mass of the Sun that live in the centre of galaxies. My goal is to use observations and models to understand how these black holes grow to be so massive and how they affect their host galaxies. I am particularly interested in understanding the extreme physics at work in the vicinity of black holes. When supermassive black holes feed from the gas around them, the process of gas infalling towards the black hole can emit large amounts of energy, sometimes enough to outshine their host galaxy. Currently I am working on ‘changing-look’ black holes, these are black holes that vary their ‘feeding habits’ very rapidly, in a matter of years or decades but we still do not understand why.
Q: Tell us more about the grant and what your research plans are for the next few years.
The Marie Sklodowska Curie Global Fellowship is an individual grant from the European Commission that funds a research project for a period of 3 years. Since this is a Global fellowship I will spend 2 years outside Europe. In my case I chose to carry out my project at the University of California Los Angeles in the USA. I will then return to Europe for a final year at DARK, at the University of Copenhagen. One of the major goals of the Marie Sklodowska Curie Fellowship programme is to provide training, exchange of knowledge between researchers and institutions and to develop the researcher’s career. My project will focus on how black holes can be fed from gas that comes from outside their host galaxy. For example, if two galaxies approach each other there could be gas transfer due to tidal interactions. My project will explore if this gas can reach the supermassive black hole and contribute to its growth. I will use observations from the best telescopes available and models to determine the physical processes that transport the gas and how they affect the evolution of the black hole and its host galaxy.
Q: Is there any advice you would give to young women (and students in general) who are dreaming about pursuing a career as a scientist?
First I would say: go for it! It is wonderful to be a scientist. My advice for any young women and students would be to keep their fascination and love of science alive by focusing on what they like best about science. Learn how to think and be skeptical and do not get discouraged by other people. There is space in science for a diversity of people, and you do not have to conform to stereotypes to be a scientist. Even more, your skills and ideas are unique and valuable to science. Find a role model, someone that you admire and learn from them. It could be a teacher, a colleague or a scientist, there are many great role models out there!
Q: You have been a member of Kvinder I Fysik (KIF) since shortly after you came to Denmark. How did you hear about KIF and what made you decide to become a member?
I heard about KIF from colleagues at DARK who were themselves members of KIF. I decided to become a member to support KIF’s mission of increasing the visibility of women in physics and promoting initiatives that improve gender equity. This has always been something that I am passionate about and I believe that it is important to highlight the work of the excellent female scientists and role models that we have. Since I arrived at DARK I have participated in several of the KIFs events. I always learn from the speakers and the discussions during these events and have also expanded my network of friends and fellow scientists.