Ekaterina, Germany

10 Questions with Ekaterina Ilin

Ekaterina from Germany is a first year PhD student at the Leibniz Institute for Astrophysics in Potsdam, Germany.

In her research, she tries to understand how the magnetic fields of stars evolve over time, and how they influence their surroundings. Flares are energetic eruptions on stellar surfaces that can tell us a great deal about the star itself. They are not only fascinating phenomena, but also affect the habitability of planets that orbit a flaring star.

Ekaterina will participate in the 69th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting.

Enjoy the interview with Ekaterina and get inspired:

  1. What inspired you to pursue a career in science?

I was brought up in a family of scientists and engineers. My parents both studied physics. I was watching what it was like to be a scientist since I was a child, but not much else. So the choice to study physics was largely dominated by an availability bias and a positive emotional attachment to the subject. Throughout my studies, I cultivated the feeling that I wanted to try to answer the fundamental questions that there are. This naturally had me lean towards astronomy. There was no distinct moment of inspiration to my career choice.

  1. Who are your role models?

My fictive role model is a diffuse mix of Soviet science-fiction heroes with a speck of J. K. Rowling’s Hermione. Otherwise, I admire a number of more senior women in my field. Their integrity, open-mindedness, support for juniors, not to mention the great science they do. They really transform the way science is done in astronomy. If I can balance being humble and approachable while doing all the fancy science stuff, I am sure science will benefit from my participation, too.

  1. How did you get to where you are in your career path?

I did a bachelor in physics. For my master studies I moved to Potsdam not only because it was a good solution for my partner and me. I also had an eye on the Leibniz Institute already. Once I arrived I was fortunate to meet my first scientific mentor, Dr. Sarah J. Schmidt, who took up my supervision for the master thesis. She introduced me to many now colleagues across the globe, and finally also my PhD supervisor, Prof. Katja Poppenhaeger who happened to start a group right when I just finished my thesis at the institute. In fall 2018 I started my PhD studies. So far, I have been extremely well advised. I consider myself very lucky. The only obstacle I face is my own physical and mental capacity. Balancing health with the strong preference to excel in my profession is something I learn over and over again.

  1. What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?

Besides my PhD project that I just recently started, the coolest project I am still working on is an open source code base called AltaiPony. It finds and describes flares in light curves of stars in an automated and reproducible fashion. Maintaining an own software and have multiple users is both fun and a great chance to learn new skills.

  1. What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself / your work?

The moments of pride are always the moments when I know I helped someone come up with a new idea or helped them to think clearly when they were stuck with a tough questions.

  1. What is a “day in the life” of Ekaterina like?

A typical day starts between 5:30 and 6 am. Around 7 am I start to read and work on the brain-heavy tasks at my kitchen desk until around 10 or 11 am. After that, I bike about 30 min to the institute where I spend the rest of my day. I either continue the work I started in the morning, or I meet with my research group, my supervisors, or colleagues for science chats and seminars. Usually, I finish between 4 and 5 pm, then I bike to sports classes or home again. In the evening I wind down and reduce the stimuli. I often meditate and read.

  1. What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?

I do not aim at a particular long term goal. In best of all worlds the time I spend doing science every day is time I will not regret. I wish to always be at peace with letting go of astronomy the next day.

  1. What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?

I consider myself an effective altruist, which entails a lot of interest in moral philosophy, economics, psychology, and many other disciplines. I enjoy diving into other fields a lot, and effective altruism has a welcoming community that shares these values. So I like to spend time in this community and other networks of young people who are interested in interdisciplinary research. Whenever I can squeeze it in, I walk or run outside. This is great when you are travelling for work, too, no equipment required!

  1. What advice do you have for other women interested in science?

Find mentors who mean it. If someone gives you a task, and leaves you alone for weeks, run. Even if you are a post-doc, you should have access to supervision and advice. Do not put up with “Just come to me when you need help.” because you will be asking yourself when you actually “need” this help. You sometimes do, but most of the time you will need someone who would show you the tricks. There is no need to learn anything “the hard way”. Do not be fooled by those who brag about having gone through these “hard times”. This is pure signalling and is nothing to strive for.

  1. In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in physics?

No-one is a polymath these days, but if I was to bet money on the next breakthrough it would be neuroscience. I believe our understanding of the brain and the way we generate thoughts, emotions, memories, and how we learn has undergone some paradigm shifts in the past decades. I can well imagine a breakthrough that will put some major pieces of the puzzle together. I doubt it will be either physics or astrophysics.


What should be done to increase the number of female scientists and female professors?

There are several smaller steps that involve creating welcoming inclusive environments for all, like enforcing a code of conduct, pushing to get men and women to be equally represented at conferences, and implement frameworks for inclusive family time. But the most effective means in my opinion is feminist networks in science that span the entire career ladder from undergrad to full professorship.

Photo Credits: (1) Ekaterina Ilin, (2) Ekaterina Ilin

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