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STEMinist Profile: Raquel H. Ribeiro, Postdoctoral researcher in theoretical cosmology

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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…!

Twitter: @RaquelHRibeiro

Site: http://www.damtp.cam.ac.uk/user/r.ribeiro/home.html

Profiles

STEMinist Profile: Patricia Verrier, Postdoctoral Research Associate, Mathematics

Patricia Verrier

Postdoctoral Research Associate

Department of Mathematics, University of Portsmouth



What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
I think it was the subject itself! I’ve always wanted to do something that involved maths, for as long as I can remember (except for a few weeks at primary school, when apparently I wanted to be an ice skater). I was also very keen to work in a field that involved planets and space exploration, although this may be attributable to a misspent youth reading too much science fiction!

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
The project I’m currently working wins this one. I’m helping design orbits for solar sail space missions. Solar sails are a type of spacecraft that use radiation pressure as a means of moving around the Solar System (or beyond). They’ve been around as an idea in science fiction for ages, but are now starting to become a feasible technology. The maths involved is really interesting and the project is aiming to find practical applications in space exploration too, so it’s just a brilliant topic to work on.

Role models/heroes:
Currently the whole of Team GB, especially the women’s rowing squad!

Why do you love working in STEM?
There are a lot of reasons! But getting to do maths all day and getting to work on cool projects are two of the main ones. Being able to do something both challenging and enjoyable as a job is just fantastic.

Advice for future STEMinists?
Don’t give up, no matter how frustrating things get!

Favorite website/app:
I think it has to be www.xkcd.com.

Twitter: @dynamicist

Profiles

STEMinist Profile: Inga Parker La Puma, Postdoc, Forest Landscape Ecology

Inga Parker La Puma

Postdoc, Forest Landscape Ecology

University of Wisconsin, Madison



What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
I became a scientist via my environmentalist leanings. As an undergrad in Geography I worked at an outdoor education center where I led nature walks and taught cooperative education outdoors. I gained a deeper appreciation for the tenuous state of the environment while there and was driven to learn more about how the landscape was changing. I have been able to use my spatial analysis and fieldwork skills to share that information with others in ways that are useful to managers and to larger climate challenges.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
I would say the project I worked on for my Master’s was in the “coolest” location: the North Slope of Alaska. I spent 3 summers from May through October at Toolik field station studying how soil warming and lengthening the summer season affects the carbon flux and reflectance of tundra plants. It was a close scientific community in a wild place with caribou loping past my field site and several bears encountered on hikes in the Brooks Range.

Role models/heroes:
One of my role models is Monica Turner. She is a prolific landscape ecologist who has contributed SO much to the field.

Why do you love working in STEM?
I feel that I’m actually working towards a purpose, which is the understanding of the natural world and how we rely on ecosystem services of all kinds; including carbon sequestration.

Advice for future STEMinists?
Don’t get discouraged by all the dudes. They aren’t smarter than you and they have plenty of life events that affect their productivity just as you do. The exception of course is having kids. It is easier now to have a family after you get tenure (hopefully that will be more flexible in the future), so if you think you are interested in an academic STEM career, don’t dilly dally too long in your 20s! Get advice and GO FOR IT so you are at that stage at the right time in your life!

Favorite website/app:
Twitter is my favorite lately; it is really helping me keep up with the latest research in my field. Evernote may be my next new favorite research tool!

Twitter: @IngaPLaPuma

Profiles

STEMinist Profile: Maria McKavanagh, Research Associate, Wireless Sensor Networks

Maria McKavanagh

Post Graduate Research Associate, Wireless Sensor Networks

The University of Manchester, UK



What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
I have always loved mathematics and physics from a very young age. I liked how logical they were and how I could always see why I was right or wrong. My brother, who is now a software architect, gave me a book called “Java in 24 hours” when I was 12. This was my first taste of computer programming and I loved it!

When I went to grammar school there were many “Insight into Engineering” days and I went to all of them. My love for problem solving just grew and grew and so a degree in Electronic Systems Engineering was an obvious choice.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
My coolest project would have to be the one I worked on in the third year of my degree. It was a colour reader for blind and visually impaired people. I have always wanted to help people, and teachers at school suggested I become a doctor, however the sight of blood makes me faint so it didn’t seem like the career choice for me!

The outcome of this project was something that had the potential to seriously improve the quality of some people’s lives and I thrived on that. The realisation that being an engineer still allowed me to help people reaffirmed that it was the career for me.

Role models/heroes:
I watched a TED talk a short time ago by Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook. It was called “Why we have too few women leaders.” I found it extremely inspiring. I would also have to say my mother. Despite never having worked as one, she is one of the best engineers I know. She can solve any problem and I’ve seen her fix everything from a shelf to an extractor fan. She is determined and will stop at nothing to solve a problem.

One day I witnessed her saw off a door frame to move a piano from one room to another, and have it glued back on and repainted before my father got home! When she decides she is going to do something, she will always find a way, no matter how long it takes to learn how to do it—I definitely have her to thank for where I am today.

Why do you love working in STEM?
Working in STEM makes me feel like I can change the world! That may sound silly, but in my research I may just discover something that no one else has before. Every single day is different which keeps me motivated. Working in a university means I cross paths with some of the best in the field of electrical engineering and I find them fascinating to talk to.

Advice for future STEMinists?
If you are considering a STEM career DO IT! It is challenging but there are big rewards. For those embarking on their career I would say work hard and have confidence in your ability. STEM is still male dominated which can sometimes be a bit intimidating, particularly early in your career, but women bring skills to STEM that men can’t.

We are lateral thinkers which means we can sometimes come up with very innovative solutions to problems. I have heard many men in the profession say that women bring a whole new aspect to their team and so industry is crying out for more of us to join.

Favorite website/app:
I love Appy-geek. It is an app for Android and iPhone which gives you all the latest technology news in one place. It has an alerts feature so when an article on something you are interested in becomes available you know about it straight away.

Twitter: @IgorinaJP

Profiles

STEMinist Profile: Dustyn Roberts, NSF Graduate Research Fellow

Dustyn Roberts

Dustyn Roberts

National Science Foundation
Graduate Research Fellow, Ph.D. Candidate

Polytechnic Institute of NYU


What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
My dad was an engineer and I was always good at math and science, so I chose a college with a strong engineering program. After a year or two I settled into mechanical and biomedical engineering and have really enjoyed it.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
I got to work on part of the Mars Curiosity rover that’s currently on its way to Mars.

Role models/heroes:
Yoky Matsuoka.

Why do you love working in STEM?
The more I learn the more I understand how the world works, and my STEM based education gives met the ability to ask interesting questions and be able to answer them, both through theory and experiments.

Advice for future STEMinists?
Stay curious. Years of calculus can dull the spark in some budding engineers, but keep at it. Also, don’t let the male/female gender ratio get you down. Most men I know have a great deal of respect for women in engineering because they know we had to sometimes go through more to get where we are.

Favorite website or app:
HootSuite for managing social media, Adafruit Industries Circuit Playground for tech.

Twitter: @dustynrobots
Website: www.makingthingsmove.com

Profiles

STEMinist Profile: Christina Fuentes, Postdoctoral Researcher in Cognitive Neuroscience

Christina Fuentes

Christina Fuentes

Postdoctoral Researcher in Cognitive Neuroscience

Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College London



What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
I was always interested in science, and as a teenager I became more interested in human behaviour. It wasn’t until my first semester at university, though, that I was introduced to the study of the biology behind psychology, cognitive neuroscience, and I was hooked. What could be more interesting than understanding why we think, feel, and behave as we do!

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
For my Ph.D. research I worked with children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorder. Working with them was at times challenging, but it was overall quite fun and always rewarding. Chatting with their families was also rewarding and enlightening; here is a group of people who are looking to science for answers not out of interest but out of need. I loved being able to answer some of their questions and was inspired by their will and insight. This experience has helped me remember that while there’s a lot to be learned through experiments, there’s also a lot to be learned from the people who live and work with patients every day, as well as the patients themselves!

Role models/heroes:
My Ph.D. adviser Amy Bastian taught me how to be a good researcher and a confident scientist. She’s now a close friend and I still look to her as a model of achieving a successful work-life balance. Additional inspiration came from members of the Association for Women in Science (AWIS). I was very involved with the group during my Ph.D. and this allowed me to meet a number of STEM women with a variety of careers outside of academia. Until then I had thought that the route to a professorship was my only option; these women opened my eyes to other exciting options that I had previously never considered.

Why do you love working in STEM?
I’m always learning new things! Working in STEM isn’t an outcome, it’s an ongoing learning experience. It’s all about asking “how?” and “why?”.

Advice for future STEMinists?
Work toward a field you’re interested in but keep your mind open to new directions. Also, don’t fall into a career path just because that’s what those before you have done. The best example of this is the traditional academic path of scientists into professorships, which I mentioned above. While this may be a great career for some, there are lots of great jobs out there for scientists; don’t limit yourself to the traditional!

Favorite website or app:
I couldn’t do without keeping in touch with friends and family via Facebook or keeping up with the latest news via Twitter.

Twitter: @CTFuentes