Sarah Gallagher is a Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Western University. We asked everything from why she chose her field of study to what’s on her playlist in hopes of giving you a better understanding of what goes on outside the lab for one of the best minds in Canadian research.
What inspired you to become a scientist?
When I was first studying physics as an undergrad, I had the good fortune to take a course that jumped right into relativity and quantum mechanics. I was inspired by how cool the real world is, and also how our common-sense perceptions about how the world is are often wrong. Once I took an astronomy class I was hooked. You are confronted with the big questions immediately when you study astronomy, and the extremes (of temperature, radiation fields, densities, distances) are in your face. You can’t study a supermassive black hole in a lab.
What do you like most about being a scientist?
I like the puzzle and adventure of being a scientist. Trying to figure out hard problems is never boring, and I enjoy being a part of a community that is working together to understand the universe. More specifically, I love observing – going to a telescope to collect data. Staying up all night on a quiet mountain with the dome shutter open to the sky – that is an adventure.
How will your research make a difference in our lives?
It’s hard to know – the biggest impacts often come surprising places. Software algorithms developed to make radio images for astronomy were used in medical imaging. Beyond the practical, it’s a human need to understand the nature of the universe. Ask any 3rd grader if black holes are worth studying.
What advice would you give young researchers?
As someone who mentors many students, I give advice all the time that depends on their circumstances. One thing I generally bring up is that almost everyone feels insecure and uncertain at some points – like a big fraud who is surrounded by much smarter people who are going to figure out at any moment that you don’t know what you’re doing. This is totally normal. Also, if we knew exactly what we were doing it wouldn’t be research – the whole point is to figure out new things.
What do you read?
I am a voracious and eclectic reader (Pride & Prejudice to the Hunger Games) – mostly fiction. The best fiction writing about science I’ve read recently is Red Plenty by Francis Spufford.
What’s on your playlist?
I recently discovered Rhiannon Giddens, and her new album has been on heavy rotation.
If you could do any profession other than your own what would it be?
When I was an undergrad I took almost as much art history as physics, and I always thought art restoration would have been fun, too.
What do you like to do for fun?
Almost any outdoor sport (except volleyball) – soccer and skiing are my favourites.
Want to learn even more about Prof. Gallagher? Check out her Orange Chair Interview.