10 Questions with Vanessa Graber
Vanessa from Germany is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the McGill Space Institute in Montreal, Canada.
Her research centers on improving our understanding of the fundamental properties of neutron stars. These stellar remnants exhibit extreme conditions that cannot be recreated on Earth, making them excellent cosmic laboratories for the analysis of dense matter. She specifically focusses on the interface between astrophysics and condensed matter physics by studying implications of superfluid and superconducting components on the stars’ rotation and magnetism.
Vanessa will participate in the 69th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting.
Enjoy the interview with Vanessa and get inspired:
- What inspired you to pursue a career in science?
I have always loved puzzles – language puzzles, logic puzzles, math puzzles and jigsaw puzzles; you name it. I could not get enough of them, even as a child. I remember having this book with logic puzzles for kids, and each night, I would have my mum ask me several of the questions before I went to sleep. One could say I was a little obsessed, and this obsession never really went away. A few years later, in secondary school, I had several great teachers that helped me realise that maths and physics are essentially the same thing – a huge collection of puzzles that needed solving. That’s when I developed the idea that I wanted to become a theoretical physicist — not because I knew anything about the subject itself, but because I thought I would enjoy the way of thinking. Luckily it turned out that I really did.
- Who are your role models?
I have never had a specific role model that inspired me to become a scientist, but I have met a lot of great people (inside as well as outside of academia) over the years whose stories have encouraged me to continue along this path. As a neutron star astrophysicist, I would not be here without the dedication and perseverance of Prof. Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who discovered the first pulsating radio signals from a neutron star, while she was a graduate student. As one of the few female scientists in the field, she has had a crucial role in breaking down barriers for those groups historically underrepresented in physics and astronomy, and I truly admire her for that. I am also thankful to all those that have shared their stories with me about their efforts to succeed in an environment that often discourages them and tells them they cannot be successful. I have learnt so much from these honest, often eye-opening, conversations and I am very grateful for that.
- How did you get to where you are in your career path?
After growing up in the south of Germany and deciding to try and see if I would actually enjoy studying physics, I enrolled in a physics programme at the Eberhard Karls University, Tübingen. The first few years of the degree focussed on learning the basics of modern physics and the sheer amount of information that we had to work through was overwhelming at times. However, with each little bit of physics that I understood and the smallest connections I made (and we are talking about very tiny pieces of a big puzzle, here), I got more and more fascinated by the subject itself. By the end of my bachelor’s degree, I knew that I wanted to continue in a theoretical discipline, but had no idea which one that would be. My university offered three master programmes, and I ended up choosing Astronomy and Astrophysics (in hindsight mainly because it sounded more interesting than the other options). By then, I had a basic understanding of theoretical physics but knew hardly anything about specialised topics, so I did not know what to expect. The courses covered many interesting areas, but during one of the classes, I heard about neutron stars, objects that are about the size of a city but weigh as much as the Sun, for the first time. Up to that point, most of the subjects had been taught almost in isolation — you focus on one thing and then move onto the next one — but when we started talking about neutron stars, it seemed like all these fields were finally coming together. I was fascinated and decided to write my master thesis on the topic of theoretical neutron star astrophysics.
After completing my degree, I wanted to continue in the same field and applied for several PhD programmes in Europe that would allow me to do so, while also applying for separate postgraduate scholarships. After several months of waiting and rejections, I learnt that I had not only been accepted into my first-choice PhD programme at the University of Southampton in the UK but had also been awarded a full doctoral studentship by the Evangelisches Studienwerk Villigst, one of the few funding bodies in Germany that support postgraduate studies abroad. Moving to another country without knowing anyone and navigating this new life was exciting and challenging at the same time. The first six months away from friends and family were particularly tough but I was lucky enough to be part of an amazing group of PhD students that helped me overcome the initial obstacles as well as joining me in the roller coaster ride that is a PhD. I doubt that I would have successfully completed my PhD without them. I am also grateful to my PhD advisor, Prof. Nils Andersson, who not only guided me scientifically but also taught me a lot about the academic profession itself. I have benefitted a lot from this (sometimes brutally) honest insight and am appreciating this knowledge more and more. Having realised over the course of my PhD that I wanted to continue along an academic career path, I applied for several postdoc positions worldwide (personally the most dreadful part of being a scientist) during the last year of my degree and was offered a position as a McGill Space Institute (MSI) Fellow at the newly created Space Institute at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. Moving to another country seemed less difficult the second time, but was again made so much easier by many people on both continents that shared their experiences and advice. I have now been at the MSI for almost three years and being a postdoc at this interdisciplinary institute has been an amazing experience. I have not only learned so many new things about astrophysics and astronomy but also a lot about how to run successful research groups from my current advisors, Profs. Andrew Cumming and Vicky Kaspi, and I hope that I will be able to take this knowledge with me into the future.
- What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
The main reason I love working on neutron stars is that this field is incredibly interdisciplinary. Scientists from many different areas of physics come together to study these extraordinary objects. The coolest project I am working on focuses on one such interdisciplinary avenue: I am examining how terrestrial low-temperature condensates such as superfluid helium or ultra-cold quantum gases can serve as analogues of neutron stars and be used to mimic their behaviour in laboratory experiments. This work is not aimed at building realistic scale models (which is impossible because neutron stars are such extreme objects), but rather taking advantage of recent progress in low-temperature physics to test specific characteristics that are expected to affect these stars. Following this path involves collaborations with condensed matter physicists, and it has been great to not only explore a different branch of physics but also see scientists from both fields getting excited about the connections.
- What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself / your work?
Communicating science and engaging the general public is one of our important responsibilities as scientists and showing that science can be fun and relatable is something that I greatly enjoy. I have given many outreach talks and public lectures over the years, but last year I was invited to participate in a Science Story Slam hosted by Broad Science and Confabulation, two Montreal organisations trying to making science more accessible through story storytelling. By now, I am used to standing in front of an audience and talking about science, but this experience was totally different because it was personal (and people had actually paid to see five other scientists and me). I cannot remember the last time I was this nervous, but I managed to stand on the stage and tell a story about myself. The audience was amazing, and the feedback from the people afterwards was incredible. This experience made me very proud of what I do, and I will definitely not forget about it any time soon.
- What is a “day in the life” of Vanessa like?
Taking either public transport or walking to work, I usually arrive at the office between 8:30 am and 9:00 am. The first thing I do is check my emails and Slack messages, typically while drinking a cup of tea (living in the UK for four years has definitely left a permanent mark there), and then dealing with the urgent ones. The institute is usually very quiet in the morning, so I like to get as much work as possible done before lunch. This can involve several different tasks depending on the projects I am working on and the stages that these are at, but my research generally required writing code, old-school pen-and-paper calculations, writing manuscripts, generating figures, preparing lectures and (if it is a Thursday) reading new science papers on the preprint server arXiv (https://arxiv.org/). My afternoons are usually filled with seminars and colloquia, group meetings, discussions with my colleagues and the students I am supervising as well as calls with my international collaborators. Every day at 3:00 pm, we have a coffee/tea/cookie break at the MSI, to which I always try to go. It is a great way to have an informal chat with other people at the institute (especially those that are working in a different field) and learn about their progress. I leave work between 5:30 pm and 6:00 pm, again walking home or taking the bus or metro. Once I get home, I usually spend an hour or so cooking dinner and lunch for the next day as well as going to the gym, reading novels, watching Netflix or solving crosswords with my partner (who luckily loves them as much as I do). If I have any urgent tasks to finish, I might do a bit of work in the evenings, but I am generally trying to avoid that.
- What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?
There are a number of important open questions concerning the interior of neutron star astrophysics, but one of the aspects that are very poorly understood and I am really interested in is the magnetic properties of these compact objects. Magnetic fields generally introduce an additional level of complexity into astrophysical systems, but for the neutron star interior things are even more complicated because of the presence of macroscopic quantum systems. I want to apply my current scientific skills as well as developing new techniques to not only learn how to develop realistic models of the neutron stars’ magnetism but also find ways these theoretical frameworks can be tested by observations. By following this path, I hope to not only expand our current understanding of these exciting objects but also teach the next generation of young scientists about the beauty of puzzle solving in theoretical physics.
- What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?
Apart from enjoying spending time outside by running and hiking, I love cooking and baking, especially if I can do it for my friends and family and we all sit around a big table and eat together. I can spend hours learning about new ingredients, going through new recipes and trying out new things. For me, this is the perfect hobby to balance my work as a theoretical astrophysicist, which involves a lot of thinking and can sometimes be very abstract. I also think that food is a great way to connect with other people and one of the great ‘side-effects’ of being a scientist has been the continuous discovery of new dishes and an increasing repertoire of favourites.
- What advice do you have for other women interested in science?
Coming from a background that is generally underrepresented in physics means that it will be much more difficult to find people with whom you can identify. However, in my experience, there are a lot more people out there that are ready to support and help you than it might initially seem. I think it is important to keep your eyes and ears open for those allies. There are great networks and mentors available, and you should definitely take advantage of them; you do not have to do this alone.
- In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in physics?
I am not going to attempt to predict the next big breakthrough in physics but will say that it is an amazing time to be an astrophysicist/astronomer. This field has seen a number of extraordinary discoveries in the last few years, such as the first detection of gravitational waves and the first image of a black hole shadow, with hopefully more to come. I am particularly looking forward to the next generation of gravitational wave detectors, which will be more sensitive than the interferometers currently running and could potentially detect continuous gravitational wave signals from neutron stars. These are much weaker than the waves detected so far, which were generated by cataclysmic merger events, but would directly impact on the research questions in which I am interested.
What should be done to increase the number of female scientists and female professors?
The academic system has many faults and progress in correcting these seems to be painfully slow. First of all, I do not believe that girls or anyone else from a group that is historically underrepresented in science are less interested in or less suited to becoming scientists. Instead, they are driven away from research and out of academia at every single step along the way, facing many more obstacles than their male counterparts. I think one of the most important aspects in changing the lack of diversity in academia is to show that being a scientist is actually a feasible career option for women and other minorities. An obvious way to do that is to support those that are already ‘in the system’. While universities and research institutes seem to have realised that diversity is an important prerequisite to conduct successful research, simply hiring those candidates but changing nothing else is not going to solve the problems we currently have. Institutions need to establish a proper support network that not only includes aspects like career break opportunities, parental leave or child care options but also safe protocols for reporting harassment or misconduct, just to name a few. Asking these types of difficult questions, and finding solutions, is a necessary first step for the scientific community to become more diverse and inclusive.
Photo Credits: (1) Vanessa Graber, (2) Vanessa Graber, (3) Vanessa Graber