We are honored to introduce Dr Katherine (Katie) Mack as our 2017 Women in Physics Lecturer and we are looking forward to her tour of Australia. But what are her inspirations and why does she do physics? She kindly answered a few questions for us:
Q: What or who inspired you to become a physicist?
I’ve had role models over the years, but mostly I wanted to become a physicist because I’ve always wanted to know how things work. And physics is the way to understand how things work at the most fundamental level, and to answer the very biggest questions.
Q: Who would you say your favorite Physicist is?
That’s a super awkward question! These people are my colleagues and friends! Or do you mean one from history? Emmy Noether was more of a mathematician than a physicist, but she revolutionized theoretical physics anyway.
Q: What do you think has been the most exciting discovery of the last 10 years?
LIGO’s detection of gravitational waves, definitely. I don’t know of any other discovery that has been so important both for confirming an important part of a theory (which is something the Higgs boson discovery also did) but that also opens up an entirely new world of discovery space. With gravitational wave detectors, we can study black holes and the fundamental nature of gravity and space time, and we can observe distant objects in the Universe that we had not other way to see. It’s just an unbelievably exciting tool to have at our disposal.
Q: According to statistics, we don’t have many women in academia.What do you think the reason and challenges are? And have you ever had one of these moments in your career that you wanted to leave academia? Any challenges in early career job? What is your advice?
This is way too big a topic for a short answer, or even a long discussion. There are a lot of pressures and systemic issues that push women out of science, and physics in particular. Some of them relate to bias, discrimination, and workplace culture, some relate to the general pressures and stereotypes that women face in society in general, and some are related to systems in place in academia that create challenges that affect women more than men, on average. There’s no one answer to the question – I think we need to work on all of it. I’m not sure I’ve ever really wanted to leave academia, but I’ve often wondered if I would be able to stay. When you’re a postdoc, if you want to stay in academia and become a faculty member, you can spend many years applying for a small number of faculty jobs and not getting anywhere. Statistically, it’s just a fact that most people who apply will not find a position, and the stage where the bottleneck is worst is the postdoc to faculty transition. That said, a physics degree is fantastically versatile, so even if you don’t stay in academia, your chance of getting into some really rewarding and exciting career is really high. I like being in academia, and I think it suits me, but it’s not going to be the best choice for everyone, and I think that’s fine. I don’t have any advice about academia that can really be generalized to everyone. I think it’s really important to figure out what really matters to you in your career – what you find rewarding and why – and to take that into account when you’re choosing a career path. Being passionate about a kind of basic research that only happens in academia, and enjoying the lifestyle that comes with academia, are good reasons to pursue an academic career, but it’s always a good idea to seriously explore other options too. You never know where your career might take you, or what you might find joy in. Being able to make a career out of what you love doing is an amazing privilege that not everyone is lucky enough to have – just keep an open mind about the possibility that you might love doing more than one thing.
Q: In your research you take on the 'big challenges' in physics - how do you approach such large and difficult questions?
My work relates to really big questions but almost everyone in physics specializes on a small part of a bigger effort. It’s a very collaborative field. I’m happy to be working on something that could play a part in answering some of the really big questions, and to be working with other talented people to reach those goals.
Q: Where do you think the Universe is going?
It’s not really going anywhere – it’s just expanding and evolving.
Q: As a successful woman, what do you think is the most important thing to keep in mind going toward your goals?
I try to keep in mind that being worried about the possibility of not being good enough isn’t really a good reason not to try something challenging. It’s rare for anyone to be a really good judge of their own abilities. Our brains just aren’t really built for that kind of objective assessment of ourselves. Might as well try and see how it goes.
Q: Based on your experiences do you have any advice for aspiring young scientists especially women?
Never worry that something being hard means you’re not cut out for it. There’s not really any such thing as being cut out for it or not. As for the “especially women” part – I guess I’d say it’s important to realize that you’re likely to be underestimated, and it’s sometimes helpful to try to externalize it when that happens. You’re subject to the same kinds of biases everyone else is, so keep an eye out and fight against the urge to underestimate yourself.
Q: What is the best book you recommend young female scientist to read?
I don’t really have any recommendations, because almost everything I read is fiction. I’m thinking about writing a book, though – you should read that one!