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Reaching for the Stars

Dec/18/2022 / by Pratika Yashaswi

 

sanjana curtisAstrophysicist and role model, Sanjana Curtis studies how cosmic collisions produce the elements that make us who we are

It’s amazing and poetic when you think about how all the elements in our world come from stars. These elements also make up life on earth — and as astrophysicist Dr. Sanjana Curtis would put it to a young child, your body is made out of stars.

When Curtis was growing up in Bihar, India, the only career options she had heard of were in medicine, engineering or the civil services. Until she began applying for doctoral studies in physics, she had never known a single physicist. But her heart was always in science and she followed it all the way to the University of Chicago, where she is now a postdoctoral researcher.

Over email, Curtis tells us about her journey to becoming a nuclear astrophysicist, her abiding love for science and what it means to be a queer person in STEM.

 

Tell us about yourself and the formative experiences that led you to nuclear astrophysics?

My path to becoming an astrophysicist has been rather non-traditional and meandering. I grew up in Bihar, India. For as long as I can remember, I have been curious about how things work on the most fundamental level. So I was always drawn to math and physics.

However, becoming a physicist is not a real career option where I come from. The only careers I was aware of growing up were civil servant, a medical doctor, or engineer! I chose engineering since it was the closest thing to physics. I got an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering in Bangalore.

During my undergraduate studies, I realized that not being able to explore the fundamental questions I was interested in was negatively impacting my interest in my work and career.

Put simply, I needed to study physics to be happy. Of course, making a career change was not easy, especially since I did not know a single physicist. But in the end, I was admitted into a few physics Ph.D. programs, and I picked NC State. I chose astrophysics as my specialty only after finishing graduate classes and attending various astrophysics seminars, which I found very exciting and compelling. I certainly did not know I was going to be a physicist growing up. It’s just the path that following my curiosity led me down over the course of my career.

 

What’s it like being a queer woman of color in science?

It is somewhat challenging, given STEM is still largely comprised of straight white men, at least in the U.S. In fact, I had very little support or encouragement as an undergraduate woman in STEM in India, even while studying engineering in a fairly gender-balanced class! There it was assumed that women are not truly interested in having a career in science, only in getting a respectable degree before marriage.

But I have been very lucky to have excellent mentors and colleagues during and after graduate school, who have supported me every step of my career.

Still, there are a fair number of negative experiences you have just because of your identity, ranging from people dismissing your expertise to outright sexual harassment. But I am determined to not let these things push me out of science. It is also very heartening to hear from women, especially women from India, that they feel inspired to pursue their interests when they see me pursuing mine.

 

What are some things people tend not to understand about your identity and how it informs your work?

I came to enjoy science in a very natural way, despite a lack of role models and obvious career paths. So all the claims people make about whether women truly belong in science, whether we have “what it takes” etc have no real effect on me, I “belonged” in science long before anyone approved or disapproved of it.

However, becoming a part of formal academia in the way I am now took a long time and a lot of boldness, adaptability and creativity. And I think I carry those qualities into my work, where I choose to be adventurous and not scared of the unknown, which is a fun way to do science and one could argue, essential for making real progress.

At the same time, I know what a privilege it is to be doing what I am doing, studying nature and learning new things. My life could have easily looked dramatically different with just one stroke of bad luck. So I carry that sense of gratitude into my work as well. If things go wrong sometimes, well, that’s just a part of the process.

Tell us about the non-scientist part of yourself. What are your other interests?

Oh, I have so many interests: reading, dancing, painting, running and hiking. I’ve also been trying to get better at cooking and roller-skating.

Hiking used to be my go-to activity but it is tough to find time, now that I live in Chicago. I am taking advantage of the city’s art and culture scene, going to museums and the theater.

 

What would be your advice to parents of young girls interested in science, specifically, astrophysics?

I would say give them all the resources they need and don’t let society discourage them. Try to get them talking to real scientists or into an actual lab (if you have that kind of access) as early as possible. Just encouraging them to think scientifically about everyday things is a great way to cultivate an interest in science.

The stereotypes of scientists in books and movies are not real. Scientists are people just like any other; we have just chosen to study what interests us. You don’t need to fit any boxes to be a scientist. All you need is an interest in science, and you can still be your own unique person.

 

Is there anything I’ve not asked about but you’d like to mention?

Thanks for a great interview. I will add that I do a lot of science communication work, so people can find me talking about science online if they wish! And with respect to career advice, I wanted to mention that getting a Ph.D. is a serious decision. It requires immersing yourself in problems that can be quite esoteric for years on end, not to mention navigating the academic system, which is not perfect.

At the end of the day, remember that you should be happy doing your science. It’s really important to be in a healthy work environment, much more than one that offers prestige or fame. That is what will result in you doing the best science you can do, too.