Star power

“Zombie star” researcher Victoria Kaspi finds motivation in the mysteries of the universe

“I know I was meant to do science and if you feel that way, too, then just plow through the cultural biases and express your creativity and scientific ambition”

Winner of the Gerhard Herzberg Canada Gold Medal, Vicki Kaspi. (Laurie Devine)

While everyone tends to bemoan the gender imbalance prevalent in STEM fields and the disturbing dearth of female scientists, every once in a while women in these fields manage to be so exceptional, they make it impossible for the world to ignore them.

Victoria Kaspi, 48, an astrophysicist, professor, and Director of the McGill Space Institute at McGill University, in Montreal, Canada, is this year’s winner of the Gerhard Herzberg Canada Gold Medal. The extremely prestigious prize, which comes with a $1 million research grant, has been awarded annually since 1991 to recognize “sustained excellence and overall influence” of research conducted in Canada.

One of the world’s leading experts in neutron stars, Dr. Kaspi is not only the first woman to receive the award in its 25-year-history, but has also tied as one of its youngest recipients.

Women in the World met with Dr. Kaspi at her office at the McGill Space Institute, a beautiful and intimate old two-story building buzzing with activity and graduate students. Unassuming, generous with her time, open and passionate about her work, she had no qualms about sharing her unabashed love for all things Star Trek. A picture of her with William Shatner (a.k.a. Captain Kirk) sat prominently on her desk. “Meeting him was definitely one thing off my bucket list,” she said laughing.

Women in the World: How did you feel when you heard you had won this award?

Dr. Victoria Kaspi: Disbelief. I wasn’t sure I fit the profile of people who had won in the past. I’m still quite young in comparison to other recipients. It’s such an honor and such a privilege to be able to use this money to further science projects I believe in, and hire additional post-docs and students to work on them. I love my work, so this was just icing on the cake for me.

WITW: Did you always know you wanted to become a scientist?

VK: I always liked math, games, puzzles, and problems that needed to be solved. I suppose that science was a very natural progression and one that made the most sense to me.

WITW: As a woman were you ever discouraged from pursuing science?

VK: No, not necessarily. It was a field that I was neither encouraged nor discouraged from pursuing. In all honesty, I think the only career advice I ever received was from a relative who told me to take a typing class, so I would have something to fall back on if … you know that old-school mentality … if I didn’t find a husband or ended up not completing a degree.

Funnily enough, that advice actually benefited me because when I took my first computer science course and started coding in Fortran I was the fastest typist in the class.

Vicki Kaspi. (Laurie Devine/ NSERC)

Vicki Kaspi aims to foster independence and confidence in her students. (Laurie Devine/ NSERC)

WITW: Your main focus and work are neutron stars. In fact, you’re one of the world’s leading experts on pulsars. Can you explain what exactly you do, in layman’s terms?

VK: Neutron stars are a rare form of stars. They are essentially the collapsed remnants of a star after it has run out of nuclear fuel holding it together. That collapse that takes place will either create a black hole or a neutron star. That’s why they’re also called “zombie stars,” although I don’t consider them dead.

Neutron stars are observable. They have magnetic fields, beams of light coming out like a cosmic lighthouse. We see a flash of light each time they rotate. Rapidly rotating, highly magnetized neutron stars are called pulsars.

Most people’s idea of astronomy consists of the images we would see of people in the early 1900s, on top of a mountain looking through giant telescopes, but my work is much more different than that. We use global radio and X-ray telescopes to collect light and study pulsars, like the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico, or the CHIME, a brand new, not-yet-functional radio telescope located in British Columbia, Canada that will be bigger than six NHL hockey rinks and measure over half the sky each day as the Earth turns, once it’s operational.

WITW: You completed your PhD at Princeton University under the mentorship of Nobel Prize-winning scientist Joseph Taylor. What was it like working with him?

VK: Dr. Taylor was a great mentor, in ways that I am only beginning to understand now. He would leave work at 5 p.m. every day. He had a strong moral compass and an amazing work/life balance. He was a man of integrity who understood that family was important. He was also extremely supportive as a teacher and trusted me with huge projects, fostering my independence and confidence. I try to do the same with my students now.

WITW: There is still an overwhelming gender imbalance in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematic) fields and academia in general. Do you feel it’s tougher for a woman to excel in these fields?

VK: There’s no question that cultural and societal biases are strong in discouraging women from entering the sciences, and I’m not convinced the efforts to encourage women to enter them are strong enough to counteract the negative messages.
There has been tremendous progress in attracting more women to Biology and Chemistry, but in Physics, Math, Engineering, there’s still a lot of work to be done. Only a small fraction of McGill faculty members in Physics are women, so yes… some days I feel a little discouraged.

There have also been some high-profile sexual harassment cases in astronomy and that can certainly discourage women. If you’re in a field where you’re already questioning why you’re there and then experience or even hear of something negative, you might conclude that you simply don’t belong.

WITW: You’re married to a cardiologist and are the mother of three school-aged children. I hate to ask the dreaded “work/balance” question successful women always get asked, but how in the world do you manage to do it all?

VK: I probably don’t sleep as much as I should. I give up things like book clubs and I rarely know what the latest buzz around the water cooler is. I don’t think I’m the poster child for work/life balance, but I make sure to do what I want to do and what I consider important. I’ve still compromised along the way somewhat. I used to want six children when I was younger, but I quickly realized that wasn’t happening.

WITW: What do you do when you want to unwind?

VK: I like to exercise and I enjoy watching the Habs (Montreal Canadiens hockey team) play, although, lately they’ve been quite painful to watch.

WITW: What advice would you give women interested in STEM fields?

VK: If you love science, and you want to work in these fields, then just do it. I know I was meant to do science and if you feel that way too, then just plow through the cultural biases and express your creativity and scientific ambition.

There are so many amazing projects to work on, so many problems to solve, that it would be a total shame not to be involved in solving them because of limiting perceptions and biases. The world needs more people trained to think like physicists, more people thinking outside of the box. There are so many practical applications to the quantitative and critical thinking skills we develop here that have the potential to improve the world. Medical and finance applications, writing software, developing computer codes, etc.

At the end of the day, I do what I do because I think it’s really cool. I’m inspired on a daily basis by my attempts to understand our universe beyond our little planet and trying to figure out what it all means.

Toula Drimonis is a Montreal-based journalist and broadcaster, writing on women’s issues and feminism.

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