Raquel H. Ribeiro
Postdoctoral researcher in theoretical cosmology. University of Cambridge, MAS, PhD.
Case Western Reserve University, USA
What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
Ever since I can remember I have been been asking questions. Why, why, and why… I would spend hours and hours looking at the night sky when I was a kid, bewildered by that huge amount of space out there. That fascination with the universe soon came across Carl Sagan’s TV series “Cosmos”. My career path was sealed.
From then on, I wanted to study as much maths and physics as I could. I wanted to know how it all worked: how stars were born, why were they irradiating, why were they twinkling in the sky. But most of all how did it all come from. Somehow the ability of asking questions was always there with me, and it fueled my desire to understand more. It wouldn’t matter much which subject we were talking about: biology or chemistry, maths, or any other. But it was with physics mostly that I felt at home.
It never mattered to me if people were not expecting me to pursue a career in physics. All I wanted was to understand. And now that I’m a real cosmologist focusing on the early universe, all I can say is that I still like to ask questions. That is my way of life.
What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
I would lie if I said I had a favourite project. A project in physics usually arises when someone asks a question about a specific phenomenon we don’t quite understand. If we end up with a neat answer, we write a paper about it as a means to tell our story to other people.
But if I have to pick up one which makes the whole perspective about cosmology as dramatic as it can be, I will pick up my most recent one. By looking at clusters of galaxies and studying its statistics, one might be able to trace some features back into the primordial ages, when the universe was born. In some way, studying clusters is our back door to the early universe.
That means a whole 13.8 billion years of winding the tape backwards in time. It’s the best time machine one can hope for, and the good thing about it is that it is already there, offered by the universe, and we don’t need to build it. Simple and beautiful.
Role models and heroes:
This is a hard one and I’m not sure I have a good answer for it. What I can say is that I did admire Carl Sagan. His own fascination by the cosmos was certainly contagious. He had a very peculiar way of talking about it, as if every step was filled with that passion for discovery. Also, you could see how much imagination and creativity plays such an important role in a physicist’s life.
By drawing comparisons between completely different events in science, sometimes we are able to learn a lot from one phenomenon, which might enable us to learn more from another. For example, there are mathematical techniques which you can use in a variety of phenomena, in different branches of physics. What Carl Sagan fought me was to keep an open eye for these similarities, as they can help us when we less expected them to.
Also, I hope I have inherited the passion for my job from my Mother. She did set an incredible example to me as far as her dedication towards work goes. I know that is already half-way to fulfilment.
Why do you loving working in STEM?
The ability to keep asking questions as if you were still a child is definitely one of the best things of being a scientist. It’s your work, so it’s the perfect argument to keep wanting to learn more. But really, most of all, it does not feel like work. How can work be so much fun…? When you find yourself in the middle of a breakthrough the rush of adrenaline through your body tells you that is why you asked the question in the first place. Then you jump and ask another one. And you keep going…!
A very nice advantage of our work is that we do get the chance to travel around the world and learn from the best in our field. Scientists are very spread out across the globe, and from time to time they organise conferences from very afar places such as California, USA and Seoul, South Korea, where everyone gets together. We might all come from completely different backgrounds, but in the end we are still trying to understand how the universe works.
Advice for future STEMinists?
Above all, trust in yourself. You don’t need to be super smart to be a scientist. All you need is to let that need to ask questions empower you, and all of the sudden you will find yourself with a career in science. Then be stubborn. Being a stubborn scientist is good.
Favorite website or app:
I am an avid reader of Maria Popova’s website called ‘brain pickings’. It’s a nice mixture of science and culture ingredients, which lets you wander through very different themes. But be warned: very soon you will be completely addicted like me…!