Sarah Pearson is a a NASA Hubble Fellow at New York University and will start a new position as Assistant Professor at the Niels Bohr Institute, University of Copenhagen, in December 2023.
Congratulations on receiving a Villum Young Investigator Grant from the Velux Foundations and a Marie Curie Fellowship from the European Commission!
Please tell us about your research and why it is important.
I study dark matter using astronomical objects called stellar streams. We know from numerous astronomical observations that there is more than five times as much dark matter than normal matter in the Universe. By normal matter, I mean atoms, electrons, muons and other particles described by the standard model of particle physics. Based on how galaxies move around each other, how gas and stars move in galaxies, and how mass is clustered in the early universe, we know that the matter in the universe is dominated by dark matter. But despite numerous efforts, we still don’t know what dark matter is. I want to change that with my research program.
What are your plans and what are the possibilities that this grant opens for you?
This grant allows me to build my own group for the first time. While I’ve worked with students and other postdocs throughout my career on various topics, I’m really excited to lead a group towards one unified science goal: mapping dark matter with stellar streams in other galaxies than the Milky Way. Stellar streams form when stars tidally strip from a small galaxy or a cluster of stars orbiting a larger galaxy, and streams are useful tools to decipher the distribution of dark matter and, maybe even, the nature of the dark matter particle (its mass and how it interacts).
Where have you studied and which positions have you held before your current one?
I did my undergraduate studies in physics at the University of Copenhagen from 2009 – 2012 during which I spent a summer at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and another summer at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology (MIT) doing research on exploding stars.
After I obtained my bachelor’s degree, I moved to New York, where I did my master’s and PhD degrees in astronomy at Columbia University. I applied to postdoc positions in both the US and Europe, and decided to stay in New York, when I was offered the Flatiron Research Postdoctoral Fellowship in 2018. Since 2020, I’ve been a NASA Hubble Fellow at New York University, which was a dream of mine ever since my very first research experience in Santa Cruz.
I look forward to returning to Danish astronomy after 10 years abroad. My plan was always to gain expertise in a topic of astrophysics, which wasn’t already represented in Denmark. I’m very proud and grateful that my plan succeeded.
What was your motivation to pursue a career in physics and how did you choose the field you are now specializing in?
I was always fascinated by how nature works and found comfort in knowing that there were laws and structure to it all – that there was something bigger than us, humans. I found it fascinating that humanity can figure out such grand things about the world around us, when we work together. I recall doing a project in elementary school on Copernicus and Galileo. I was particularly struck by their experimental approach to testing nature, and how they both shook the world view at their time.
In terms of choosing a field, I wanted to specialize in a topic that wasn’t covered in Danish astronomy. But more so than a scientific topic, I actually picked my research direction based on personal fit with advisers over topic. I followed my gut feeling of who I liked talking to, who I felt comfortable asking questions, and also talked to their former students to get more insight. With a few exceptions, throughout my career I’ve only worked with people I communicate well with, and who I feel at ease around. This makes science and everyday life so much more fun. In addition to building a network of mentors and peer mentors, I think this is one of the key elements to being happy in academia.
Have you had role models or mentors? If so, what inspiration did you get from them?
Yes! Prof. Anja C. Andersen (University of Copenhagen) was a big role model for me. My mom took me to see one of her Rosenkjærpris lectures in 2006, and around that same, time Anja happened to be visiting my high school (her former high school) to give a lecture. I remember talking to Anja afterwards, asking how to become an astronomer like her. I was already very fascinated by the Universe, and Anja’s positive and enthusiastic responses further encouraged me to pursue this dream.
Mentors that have really made a difference throughout my undergraduate studies are Jens Hjorth (U. of Copenhagen), Enrico Ramirez-Ruiz (UC Santa Cruz), Laura Lopez (Ohio State U.), and Daniel Castro (Harvard U.). Since undergrad, my PhD advisers stand out as excellent mentors: Kathryn Johnston (Columbia U.), Mary Putman (Columbia U.), Gurtina Besla (U. of Arizona), and also my postdoc mentor Melissa Ness (Columbia U.). They’ve helped me mature academically, taught me so much of what I know about stellar streams, galaxies, and dark matter, they’ve taught me how to be a scientist, how to write, and also how to navigate academia.
While each of these people have inspired me or helped me in different ways, I think having mentors who can guide you, and who believe in your ability to succeed, is crucial in order to be happy and to be successful in academia.
I find peer-mentoring just as important, since you can share and discuss day-to-day struggles, experiences, and motivational strategies on a different, maybe more low-key, and honest level. During undergrad, Malene Vested stands out as my peer mentor. We did all our homework sets together, and had so much fun in the process. We often combined homework sessions with cooking, going to a fun show afterwards, or having endless chats about our hopes and aspirations. During graduate school Susan Clark (Stanford) and I had a similar peer-mentoring relationship, and we even ended up writing a paper together as postdocs.
What advice would you give to young people (in particular women and minorities) who would like to pursue a career in science?
I’m glad you asked, because I have a lot of advice!
- For undergraduate students: Find a cohort of other students that you enjoy doing homework sets with or people that you enjoy discussing the course material with. It can be an isolating experience if you try to learn everything on your own, and your memory of certain topics often improves if you have to explain them to a peer. Also, don’t be discouraged if you don’t feel as confident or verbal about your physics abilities as some of your peers. I’ve found, through experience, that this projection of ability often does not directly correlate with actual ability.
- On a similar note, avoid comparisons as much as possible. While papers/publications are important don’t get discouraged by your one peer who already has x amount of first author publications. There are other skills that are important too, and, in reality, you probably wouldn’t want to swap lives with this person. There is a reason for your choices. Even if there’s someone who does have a much stronger profile than you, they can only take one job, and worrying about them won’t improve your own chances. While some luck plays into which projects pan out, try to remain focused on living up to your own expectations of yourself and only compare your progress to your previous self. You’ve probably already achieved things that you could only dream about a few years ago.
- Enjoy the process. Instead of focusing on the next paper submission or grant, try to find little joys and successes every day. It could be “I finally made that plot that I’ve been meaning to make”, “I helped a student who was stuck on their project”, “I started the homework set I was dreading”, “I asked my peer for help with something I was stuck on”, “I had a really fun meeting”, “I finally read this paper that I’ve been postponing to read”, or as little as “I finally sent that email I was avoiding”. It can be so many different things, but to retain our sanity and happiness in academia, I think it’s important to not only focus on “the next big thing”. It’s quite natural that we (academics) fall into this pattern, given the lack of permanent jobs and competition for funding. But I’ve seen so many colleagues fall into the pattern of saying things like “When I get that job…”, “As soon as I publish this first author paper…”, “Once I’ve received my first big grant…”, “When only I get a professor job…”, “As soon as I get tenure…” – ……I’ll be happy. I think it’s unfortunate to postpone our happiness in this way. As cliche as it might sound, it’s more important to find joy in the now, all the while working towards bigger goals.
- I also strongly encourage taking real breaks (put on a vacation email notice), and to have a work life balance by setting firm boundaries around your work hours. There have been numerous studies showing that people do better work and are more creative if they are happy.
- Lastly, I’d like to remind everyone that your skills are valuable. Academia can sometimes make us feel like we are barely hanging on by our fingernails. That we could be replaced in any second. That we have to fight to stay. That’s not a great feeling. Know, however, that your skills and competencies are highly valuable. All the friends that I know, who have moved on to other professions outside of academia, live happy and fulfilled lives with stimulating careers. Remembering this fact can help improve our sense of self worth and allow us to have more fun with our science.
You can connect with Sarah here: