Sofie Marie Koksbang is a postdoctoral researcher at CP3 Origins, University of Southern Denmark (SDU).
Congratulations on being awarded Kirstine Meyers Mindelegat!
Please tell us about your research and why is it important.
My research field is inhomogeneous cosmology, which is a small branch of theoretical cosmology, placed in the periphery of “standard” cosmology. The onset in standard cosmology is a set of solutions to Einstein’s field equations that do not take structures into account. Structures and their effects on e.g., the expansion of space and on observations is afterwards added into the equations using a variety of approximation schemes and (often implicit and untested) assumptions. The aim in inhomogeneous cosmology is to conduct more thorough studies of how structures (inhomogeneity) and possible anisotropy affect our interpretation of observations and what relation this may have to our understanding of the content of the Universe – especially dark energy which according to the standard model of cosmology makes up roughly 70% of the present-time energy budget of the Universe but which we do not know what is. This line of study is important because we know that there are effects of structures which are currently not taken into account in standard cosmology that can in principle be the entire cause for the apparent need for dark energy. But there’s a long way from knowing that something in principle can explain dark energy, to knowing that it in fact does explain dark energy. The bottom line is: If we are to interpret especially upcoming highly precise and abundant cosmological data reliably, we need to pinpoint exactly how structures affect observations.
What are your plans and what are the possibilities that this grant opens for you?
I have been privileged in doing independent research since I started my PhD studies and afterwards through personal grants for 2 post.doc. positions. I am now working towards obtaining a faculty position and starting my own research group and I hope that this award can help me achieve this by showing e.g. board members of foundations awarding grants that my department believes in me and values my work – both my research, teaching and my outreach activities.
Where have you studied and which positions have you held before your current one?
I did both my bachelor’s, master’s and PhD studies at Aarhus University. After that, I spent 2 years at Helsinki University/Helsinki Institute of Physics. Family obligations forced me to return to Denmark afterwards but I was lucky to receive a reintegration fellowship from the Carlsberg Foundation which I used to join CP3-Origins (center for cosmology and particle physics phenomenology) at the University of Southern Denmark. This is the place I have always wanted to join eventually. I am from Odense and very passionate about building up the physics study in Odense. We have several great research groups involving physics at SDU: Cp3-Origins of course, but also e.g. PhyLife and NQQ. Yet, the physics departments in Copenhagen and Aarhus have much larger student intakes than us and those institutes are also older than ours. This means that I have a great opportunity to help form the future of our physics department including, but not limited to, our courses. I don’t think I would have had that opportunity to the same degree if I had joined a more “established” department.
What motivated you to study physics and how did you choose the field of physics you are now specialized in?
I studied medicine after high school but almost immediately it became clear to me that it was not the right place for me. My mother has later told me that while I was enrolled as a medicine student my father grumpily complained to her that “that girl should not be studying medicine – she is a researcher!”. He was right, but I didn’t know it at that time and I might not have had the courage to drop out of the oh-so-safe medicine studies if I hadn’t by chance signed up for a lecture series at Folkeuniversitetet Aarhus entitled “The greatest questions of life”. One of the lectures was by Steen Hannestad who talked about cosmology. During that talk I learned that there’s a hell of a lot of stuff we don’t know. I had somehow gotten the impression in (high) school that we know “everything” – there are no deep, fundamental mysteries left (if only I had been born 100 year ago, when quantum mechanics and general relativity were in the making…). But during that talk, Steen taught me that we don’t know how neutrinos get their mass, we don’t know what 95% of the content of the universe is, and how gravity works is still a bit of a mystery but has a lot to do with general relativity (which I had always been fascinated by, without really knowing much about what it is). I was blown away by this information and by the end of the talk I felt like I had to study physics. So I dropped out of my medicine studies and started studying physics the following semester, set to do my bachelor’s project in cosmology. During my studies, my aspirations grew and by the time I did my bachelor’s project (with Steen as my supervisor) I was also certain that I wanted to go for a PhD and was very lucky that Steen supported this and became my PhD supervisor.
Did you have a role model or mentor? If so, what inspiration did you get from them?
As my reply to the earlier question shows, I clearly have met people who have had great impact on my life. But no, I don’t think I can say that I feel like I’ve ever had a mentor or have any role models. Instead, I have been privileged to do a lot of independent research and find my own way as a scientist – a task that has been tough but also very giving in terms of both personal and professional development. It also has great impact on me when I once in a while meet people who show exceptional kindness without any prior social obligation. Physics environments are sometimes considered somewhat emotionally tough or cold and I certainly see why but at the same time, we are people and probably mostly kind people. For instance, not so long ago I wrote to a person I only know very peripherally to ask about her experience regarding a specific grant application. She really had no reason to reply to that and could easily have ignored my request. Instead, not only did she reply, she gave me an abundant amount of very useful information that I hadn’t even asked for but which was very valuable for me. I find that kind of kindness very inspiring. As my sister’s car ornament says: Kind people are the best kind of people.
What advice would you give to young people (in particular women and minorities) who would like to pursue a career in science?
Well, the obvious reply is to say go for it and don’t let anyone hold you back or convince you that you’re not good enough. And although all that is true and good advice, I think one piece of truth that is often not said out loud but very much worth remembering is this: It’s not about being the best of the best. It’s about being the luckiest of the best. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t work hard: You have to work hard to be among the best and if you sometimes feel like it’s too hard and doubt your abilities, remind yourself that it’s not that it’s hard, it’s that you have to work hard. But you still have to be lucky to make it. You can be better than everyone else and still, you might not make it to a faculty position. I have a colleague who every time I apply for a grant wishes me good luck with the lottery. Once you’re among the best, whether or not you get a grant is a question of luck – luck that you happen to like doing research within a field with naturally high citation rates, luck that your proposal catches the interest of a board member, luck that you are at the right university at the right time where they are looking to hire etc. etc. etc.. It’s tough and can feel unfair but that’s how it is. It took me many years to accept this but once I did, I could stop focusing on the unfairness of the situation and instead make sure to get the most out of it while I can. Make sure to enjoy your PhD studies and if you get a post.doc. etc., make sure you enjoy that as well. And make sure you get as much out of it as you can. I was very disappointed after I finished my PhD studies and I eventually realized that one thing I was disappointed about was that I had not done any outreach. I had subconsciously put that into the basket of things that will have to wait until I get a faculty position. But what if that position doesn’t come? Today, I actively seek out outreach activities and I’ve been very lucky to participate in a variety of different activities and I try to say yes to everything I’m invited to participate in. It might just be the last invitation I get.