Katherine J. Mack
Theoretical astrophysics researcher
Institute of Astronomy / Kavli Institute for Cosmology, University of Cambridge
What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
I’ve wanted to be a scientist for as long as I can remember. I have always been very analytical and interested in science and math. As a kid, I was always taking things apart and trying to figure out how everything worked. After going through all the electronics in our house, I got more ambitious and discovered cosmology. I decided I wanted to answer the biggest questions there are.
What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
They’re all cool projects! I guess I’m a traitor to cosmology if I say this, but one of the coolest things I’ve ever been involved in was actually a particle physics experiment called K2K. It was a long-baseline neutrino-oscillation experiment, in which an accelerator facility in Japan called KEK sent a beam of neutrinos to the Super-Kamiokande neutrino detector, to see if any of the neutrinos would disappear en route (by changing into less-detectable kinds of neutrinos).
The project I did at KEK involved building things with power tools, which is always fun, but when I visited Super-Kamiokande I got to actually go inside the detector, which was absolutely amazing. Usually you can’t go inside because it has to stay very clean, but they were doing an upgrade of the whole detector at that time. It’s a 40-meter tall cylinder filled with ultra-pure water, with light-detectors called photomultiplier tubes lining the inside surface. To replace old tubes, we put on clean-suits and went around the detector in a little inflatable boat. (Search the web for pictures of Super-Kamiokande and you’ll see what this looks like.) It was pretty incredible.
Role models and heroes:
Currently I guess I’d say Neil deGrasse Tyson, because he has an amazing ability to get people excited about astrophysics. When I was young, my hero was Stephen Hawking — I think I wrote in my college application essays that I wanted his job. These days, I see him around pretty regularly at talks and conferences. I still don’t have his job, but it’s kind of amazing to be working in the same university and roughly the same field.
I didn’t have a lot of female role models when I was young, and I didn’t really feel I needed them. But I was probably quite influenced by my mother — she was working on her PhD in nursing when I was growing up, and she did original research as part of that. She got me interested in science fiction and took me to planetarium shows, star parties, and public lectures on physics and cosmology, and she was always encouraging of my interest in becoming a cosmologist. I also remember being a big fan of Kate Hutton, a Caltech seismologist who would show up on TV for interviews every time there was an earthquake. I think I liked her because she seemed a bit tomboyish like me and was always clearly the smartest person in the room.
It was nice to see a female scientist on TV who was (at least locally) well known and obviously greatly respected.
Why do you loving working in STEM?
As I mentioned above, the big questions are what really fascinate me. Things like, how did the universe begin, and how will it end? How did galaxies form? What determines the laws of physics as we experience them? I don’t expect to find the answers to any of those questions directly, but I love that they’re all deeply relevant to my work, and that I get to think about things that are really right on the edge of human knowledge. I also love that I get to choose my own projects and set my own scientific goals. I’ve been very fortunate in that, actually, since I’ve been able to obtain independent research fellowships — I don’t really have a direct supervisor who tells me what to work on. (A lot of astrophysicists are tied by their funding to a particular project or person.) There are downsides to that, of course — I have to be very self-motivated and I have to try to make sure I’m keeping up with things that will make an impact in my field — but it’s great to have so much intellectual freedom. If something sounds particularly interesting or challenging to me, I can just go and investigate it, and figuring it out becomes my job.
Being a theorist, specifically, also has its perks, in that my work isn’t tied to a particular location or piece of equipment. I travel a lot, visiting collaborators and going to conferences, and I can work anywhere. I think I do some of my best work in coffeehouses. My job can also be surprisingly social sometimes. As a theorist, a lot of what I do involves coming up with new ideas and thinking about things creatively, as well as swapping expertise with people in related fields. So going to conferences and to other institutions and talking with people is an essential part of my job, and I find that kind of real-time idea-sharing incredibly stimulating.
Advice for future STEMinists?
Learn as much math as you can. Math is awesome, and the more you practice with it the better and faster you get. It’s just like learning a language, in that sense. Having easy fluency with mathematical concepts will help a lot in your education and your work, in whatever area of STEM you choose to go into.
Also: Don’t get discouraged if you have to work really hard. Don’t think that your chosen subject should necessarily be something that comes easily to you. It always takes hard work to become an expert and to learn a new skill — if you love this kind of thinking, the hard work will become a pleasure, and that moment of truly understanding something fundamental about how the universe works makes it all worthwhile. Challenge yourself. Don’t be afraid to try things just because you’re not sure you can do them.
And if you want to go into research, start now. There are lots of established programs that you can apply to for early research experience, but you can also take a more informal approach. I got my first research opportunity — the one that eventually ended up sending me to Japan — just by going up to a physics professor and asking him if he could use a research assistant. I was a young high school student at the time, and I hadn’t even taken a physics course yet, but I was enthusiastic, and that was the only really important thing. If you’re not at university yet, find out what the faculty at your local university are working on and see if any of them could use a volunteer.
I’m not talking about a full-time job — usually you can manage to do a couple hours here and there after school. If you are in college, you should be able to find opportunities through your university. But don’t be afraid to approach people and say you find their work fascinating and you’d like to learn from them. As a researcher myself, I know that I love talking to young people who show an interest in my subject. Most academics are just happy someone cares about what they do, and they’ll be glad to talk with you about how you might be able to get involved.
Favorite website or app:
I’ve gotten all obsessed with Twitter these days. I follow a bunch of scientists and science journalists, and it’s kind of overwhelming how many fascinating things are going on in research at any given time. It’s like opening up a door through which you can watch science as it’s happening all over the world. And if people are talking about something particularly interesting, you can tweet to them and they’ll (often) answer your questions! It’s mind-boggling. And also highly — dangerously — addictive. Use with caution.