Dr. Chiara Mingarelli is an Italo-Canadian astrophysicist at the California Institute of Technology. There, she and her colleagues look for ripples of space-time from merging supermassive black holes.
OM: Can you describe an average day at work?
Dr M: An average day at work consists of a lot of thinking! I wake up, check my emails to see if anything needs my immediate attention (this is sometimes the case since I live in a different time zone than some of my colleagues), walk to work and get a coffee. I then review the new scientific articles which have just appeared on the arXiv (pronounced archive, a place where many scientists put preprints of their work) and see if anyone in my field has posted anything new. More coffee. I then turn my attention to projects I’m working on, which often involves looking up journal articles, applying what I’ve learned to my own work, coming up with new equations and solving them, and finally writing computer code to check my answers (I use python). And then more coffee.
In a way, my job requires me to make myself smarter each day. Not a bad way to live, if you ask me
OM: Have you always wanted to be an astrophysicist ?
Dr M: I sometimes wavered with wanting to be an astronaut, but yes, I did always want to be an astrophysicist. I grew up in Rockland, a small town outside of Ottawa (Canada) where, when the weather permitted, I could see what I thought was an infinite number of stars. I was always amazed that they were so far away, and that our sun was a star, just a really close one!
When I heard about black holes – dark stars which were only dark because not even light could escape their gravitational pull – I was hooked. I asked my parents if there was such a thing as an astronomer who studied black holes, like an astro-physicist or something, and they were very happy to tell me that yes indeed, there was such a thing! From then on, I never wanted to be anything else.
OM: What was the hardest part about becoming an astrophysicist?
Dr M: The most difficult aspect for me was keeping the sense of awe alive. Although I desperately wanted to study astrophysics, my local University did not offer this as degree option, and so I took a double major in math and physics instead, hoping that this would adequately prepare me for my future studies. There are many fields of physics and mathematics which did not capture my imagination, and this was discouraging. I thought that I had to be good at everything if I was going to be good at anything. Not giving up and continuing my studies, despite the workload, stress, anxiety and pressure I put on myself, was extremely difficult. Having a dream, no matter how impossible it seemed at the time, was crucial in making it through the day-to-day hardships.
OM: And what’s the best part of the job?
Dr M: One of the best parts of my job is sharing the sense of awe and wonder that I feel for the Universe. I love teaching people about black holes and curved space-time, giving public talks and lectures, and seeing the twinkle I have in my eye reflected back at me when I talk about science.
The other amazing part about my job is discovery. When I come up with a new result, I feel an enormous sense of pride: I’ve just written down the solution to a problem that nobody else has ever seen. I have this secret knowledge about the Universe that right now, nobody else knows. The fact that I can contribute to the knowledge-base of humanity is an incredible feeling.
OM: Do you feel you’re treated differently in your industry because you’re a woman?
Dr M: I don’t think that anyone deliberately treats me differently, but it does happen.
In my experience, females are more often interrupted during their talks, and have to work harder to be taken seriously.
Socializing can at times be difficult, when you are the only woman in an enormous heard of men, but one learns to adapt.
OM: What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve ever been given? And what other advice would you give to anyone looking to become an astrophysicist ? What qualifications and experience do you need?
Dr M: “Do it your own way” is the best advice I’ve been given: don’t let others dictate “norms” to you. I know that this is excellent advice, but it is also difficult to follow. Young researchers are expected to be extremely productive workaholics. Relaxing can be tough, since it usually comes with a sense of guilt.
My advice would be to hold on to your original inspiration as tight as you can, and follow your dream. To be a scientific researcher usually requires a PhD, which amounts to about 10 years of University, so hang in there and try to enjoy the journey!
OM: What’s the biggest mistake you’ve ever made in the workplace or in your career?
Dr M: I struggle with being patient with my research. When it’s in its final phase, I sometimes rush to the finish line when I should take a step back and be critical of my work.
OM: What does success mean to you?
Dr M: Being happy.
OM: What’s your feminist wish for the future?
Dr M: Equality. I want all children to know that they can be whatever they want to be. Anything.
It is ok for boys to want to be nurses and it is ok for girls to dream of being astronauts.
My wish for the future is for people to think it’s normal that I’m astrophysicist, because at least half of all scientists are women.
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