Victoria Antoci is a senior researcher at DTU Space, the National Space Institute.

Congratulations on receiving a PRODEX Grant for your STEP-STONE project! 

Thank you very much! I am very happy to have received this grant!

Please tell us about your research and why is it important.

I am a stellar astrophysicist and I am researching the structure and evolution of stars and their planetary systems by studying physical phenomena operating in and around stars. In order to do so  I require long, uninterrupted photometric and spectroscopic observations in a broad wavelength range of high-accuracy and data that are not contaminated by our atmosphere. This can only be done from space! Therefore, I am an active part of several space missionsrelated to my research activities, e.g., the NASA Kepler and TESS satellites, and including the STEP (STars and ExoPlanets) mission. STEP is a space mission in planning, and will measure transiting exoplanets and their variable host stars for long periods of time.

The aim of my PRODEX project is to build an astrophysical simulator – STEP-STONE (STEP – Simulator Towards Oscillations aNd Exoplanets) – that will assist the future Danish space mission STEP. Specifically, STEP-STONE will generate realistic multi-wavelengths light curves of transiting exoplanets around variable stars that will include the limitations and noise sources dictated by the instrument.

Studying stars and exoplanetary systems is important as these help us understand the origin and evolution of our own Sun and the planets within the Solar system, including Earth.

What are your plans and what are the possibilities that this grant opens for you?

This grant is important, as STEP-STONE is essential for the preparation of the STEP mission and can be used for any other satellite mission with similar science cases. In addition, it allows me to be working within my research field and be part of the science team building up a space mission.

I hope that STEP will become reality, as it will be answering questions related to exoplanets and stars – a field that is important to a large scientific community but also has a large impact on society, including attracting young (female) talents into STEM fields.

Where have you studied and which positions have you held before your current one?

I obtained my masters and PhD in astronomy at the University of Vienna and then I was a data analyst for the Canadian MOST satellite at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

Before moving to DTU Space in March 2020, I was a postdoc and then assistant professor at Aarhus University, at the Stellar Astrophysics Centre.

How did you choose the field of physics you are now specialized in?

I became very interested in the field of asteroseismology (the study of stellar oscillations), while taking a course about variable stars as a young student. I did my master thesis on this topic, but although I loved astronomy and wanted it to become my profession, I did not think I could manage to stay in academia and nearly left. While considering a PhD in industry, I was lucky and was offered a PhD position in astronomy, which I accepted. During that time, I started working on both space and ground-based data which was very exciting! I was lucky to do my PhD while Kepler data started to pour in and the quality and amount were incredible.

Later, in Aarhus I became the project scientist and project manager of Delphini-1, Aarhus University’s 1st satellite. Although only a very small 1U-cube (10cm x10cm x10cm) student satellite and proof of concept mission, I learned about the ‘non-scientific’ aspects connected to a space mission: together with the team we built and tested the satellite; I was involved in the procedures connected to the launch to space; I set up the mission control room and organised the operations of the satellite.

My research background combined with the acquired skills during the Delphini-1 project brought me where I am today. Together with my little team, we are working on designing a small spectrograph for a small satellite that can observe stars and their exoplanets. In addition, I was part of the STEP Science team from the very beginning.

What motivated you to study physics?

This is a rather cheesy story: when I was a little girl (5-6 years old) my sister and I had glowing stickers in form of stars to put on the ceiling of our room. I watched them every night for many years and imagined how I would fly in space and visit other stars and planets. Later, I started to read about astronomy, and by the age of 14, I was sure that I wanted to study astronomy and astrophysics.

Nevertheless, just before my final high school exam, I started doubting whether I should go for it, as many told me that astronomy holds no future prospects. This is when I watched the movie Contact, where Jodi Foster portrayed Dr. Eleanor Arroway, a radio astronomer, and I knew that I had to go for my dream to study astronomy. I guess this is a perfect story emphasizing how important role models are, in real life and media!

Did you have a role model or mentor? If so, what inspiration did you get from them?

I cannot think of only one specific person as such. I got inspired by several colleagues and friends along the way and certainly also by my PhD supervisor, Prof. Gerald Handler, who believed that I could get a PhD. This was important, as I was on the verge of quitting astronomy because of my rather negative experiences with my master thesis supervisor.

What advice would you give to young people (in particular women and minorities) who would like to pursue a career in science?

If you are having a hard time, don’t give up but find allies! Talk to others and try to find the reason for the problems. It may be something that can be changed, allowing you to continue following your dreams! Before giving up STEM, consider if changing university might be a good idea! It is not easy; I am not going to lie but science is awesome – and you can do it!