NAME: Katie Mack (or Dr Katherine Mack if you want to be formal)
JOB & INDUSTRY/WHAT DO U DO: Theoretical astrophysics research fellow
FAVOURITE BAND: Oh god this changes, like, daily. Right now I’m really digging OneRepublic and Hozier (if one dude counts as a band)
FAVOURITE SONG: 32 Flavors by Ani DiFranco. I listen to it when I feel like I’m being underestimated.
FAVOURITE FEMALE ARTIST + WHY: Ani DiFranco (see above). At some point when I was in college I decided there was no point in writing poetry anymore because everything that could be said had already been said, by Ani, better.
WHAT DO YOU DO?
"I try to solve the mysteries of the Universe. OK most of what I do is mess around with equations and computer code and try to figure out interesting things to study about stuff like dark matter, black holes, the Big Bang, galaxies, etc. So it’s not always DIRECTLY solving the mysteries of the Universe, and I don’t really do anything with actual observations or data, but I do try to figure out new creative ways to answer some really fundamental questions, and I love that part of my work a lot. I also spend a lot of time trying to share my knowledge with other people, either through teaching or talking about it to non-scientists, that kind of thing, mostly because the Universe is just too amazing not to talk about constantly."
IS THIS WHAT YOU ALWAYS DREAMED OF?
"Pretty much! I think I was probably about 10 years old when I decided I wanted to be a cosmologist (which is someone who, like me, studies the cosmos as a whole). It hasn’t been an easy road, but I truly love my work, and I’m deeply passionate about it, and so far it’s basically working out as a career, which is fantastic."
3 OF YOUR HARDEST MOMENTS?
"Not sure I can come up with three, but there’s one that definitely stands out. At one point in grad school, I was asked to give a presentation for my research group about my progress on my thesis. I didn’t really know what I was doing, and I underestimated how much I needed to study for it, and the presentation was an utter disaster. Really, really bad. My advisor e-mailed to let me know (in a kind way) that it wasn’t acceptable, and it was a real wake-up call for me. I’d never failed so hard before. So I spent the next several weeks working incredibly hard, getting help from some of my more knowledgeable peers, and making sure I really knew the material. When I re-did the presentation, it went pretty well, but it was really hard won. All the other “hardest moments” I can think of aren’t so much moments as just long slogs of really hard work. I went through a period in undergrad where I couldn’t figure out how to get my work done without pulling two all-nighters a week, for example."
WHERE DO YOU WANT TO GO NEXT?
"The next step of my career is already lined up — I’m moving to North Carolina State University to take up a tenure-track assistant professorship in the Physics Department in January. It’s an incredibly good job, and really perfect for the kind of work I want to do. It includes an explicit component of public engagement in addition to physics research and teaching, so I’ll get to keep doing all the talking-about-science stuff and I won’t have to give up my research work to do it. I’m super excited about it!"
FORKS IN THE ROAD, HOW DO YOU MANAGE THEM?
"I’m ridiculously indecisive. I fret for ages. I’m not sure I’m ever really 100% convinced I’ve made the right choice about anything."
DESCRIBE YOUR WORK ETHIC…
"I work hard and I work a lot, but in some ways I’m really lazy too. I find it really difficult to get myself to work on things that aren’t interesting to me. So it’s good that I’m in the kind of job where I can work on something really fascinating! But, yeah, productivity, avoiding procrastination, stuff like that — it’s an ongoing challenge. When I really need to work, though, I do, and I generally get stuff done."
DO YOU HAVE RITUALS?
"I probably should, but not really. One thing I do a lot is work late on Friday nights, which sounds sad but is actually kind of great. No one is around, so I get to turn up the music and set up my standing desk and dance while I work. I love it."
DO YOU HAVE A GIRL GANG? WHY DO YOU LOVE THEM?
"I’m not sure I have a girl gang but my mum and my sister and I are very close. They’re both amazing, intelligent, generous, compassionate people and they work way harder than I do. I’m frequently in awe of how much they accomplish."
WHAT MAKES A WOMAN ELECTRIC?
"I’m a sucker for women who know who they are and what they want. I like that kind of strength."
HAVE YOU COME UP AGAINST RESISTANT WITH WHAT YOU'RE DOING? HOW DO YOU MANAGE IT?
"The kind of resistance I come up against is usually kind of subtle. People don’t know how to deal with a woman who is a physicist, and there are so many little cues to let me know what I’m doing is really for someone else. Those kinds of things make me angry. I push back hard when I come up against stuff like that. Sometimes pushing back against it helps, and sometimes not, but it’s complete garbage and I won’t just let it pass."
WHAT MAKES YOU WANT TO GIVE UP? HOW DO YOU BOUNCE BACK?
"Academia involves a LOT of rejection. In my field, most of the time, people apply for dozens and dozens of jobs for every one acceptance. So you have to be able to deal with that, and it’s not easy. There’s also a lot of moving around that’s expected of people at this stage in the academic track, which involves leaving everyone you know and care about in order to start over your whole life somewhere else. That can be really hard. I don’t know that I bounce back so much as just persevere, out of stubbornness and passion. At the moment, it’s still worth it for me, so as long as they haven’t kicked me out, I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing."
WHAT WOMEN DO YOU LOOK UP TO?
"Can I count my mother and my sister again?"
DO YOU HAVE ANY LITTLE SECRETS TO FOLLOWING YOUR PASSION?
"I think that stuff about how you should sacrifice everything to follow your passion is super misguided. I think you should take care of yourself and live a life that’s good and satisfying as much as you possibly can. Don’t let people exploit you in the name of “your passion.” If you’re fortunate enough to have an opportunity to live exactly the life you want, absolutely you should go for it, but if you destroy yourself for a goal, there’s not going to be anything left of you to enjoy it. It’s OK to care about your own well-being."
"If there’s any secret to following your passion, though, I’d say, for me, it’s don’t underestimate yourself. Or rather, accept that your own estimation of your abilities is probably not very accurate, and if you have an opportunity for something great and you think you’re not capable of it, don’t trust that instinct. Go for it anyway. You might surprise yourself."
WHAT WERE YOU LIKE AS A KID? HAS ANYTHING CHANGED?
"I was way more shy! Other than that, probably not much has changed, really. I’m still a nerd, I still love playing basketball and dancing and doing science and I still have no idea how to dress like a grown-up."
WHAT WERE YOU LIKE AS A TEENAGER? WHAT MAJOR THINGS DID YOU COME TO REALISE AS YOU GREW UP?
"I wrote a lot of suuuuper angsty poetry. I was quiet and pretty sure that everything was extremely meaningful and significant and no one was paying anywhere near enough attention to the world around them. I think growing up taught me that a lot of people feel that way and everyone has an inner life and I’m probably not some kind of unusually insightful philosophical savant."
WHAT DO YOU LOVE ABOUT YOUR INDUSTRY?
"I love how much people share ideas freely. We go to conferences and give talks and visit each other’s departments and just talk about our work constantly, and the idea is that it’s just expected for everyone to share what they know in case it might be useful to someone else. I love that aspect a lot."
WHAT DO YOU WANT TO CHANGE ABOUT YOUR INDUSTRY?
"I want to make it more accessible and more equitable. The demographics are completely skewed and it can be really unwelcoming to people who don’t fit the “straight white male scientist” stereotype. People who are marginalized by society along pretty much any axis are underrepresented in physics, and there’s no reason it needs to be like that. I want to make physics open to everyone and I want anyone who has a fascination with the world around them to feel welcome in my field."