Interview with Katherine Freese

Katherine Freese is in Stockholm these days since she will be receiving a prestigious Honorary doctorate at Stockholm University on Friday, the 28th September. I met with her in one of the offices at the Oskar Klein Centre in front of cup of coffee to talk a bit with this energetic and fascinating scientist, and try to grab her secrets.

What was you reaction when you heard you will receive this title?
Oh I was very happy, I think it is really an honor to get this. First when Lars told me I was a candidate, and then when I got it, I was very excited. It is going to be great tomorrow. Although I am jetlegget I am not nervous at all, I am excited!

So let’s see if we can get to know a bit about your career then. Lets start from the beginning: how did you get the idea of studying physics and how you turned into a cosmologist?
My parents are both scientists. My father has been student of Heisenberg before turning into biology, and of course the role model I had in my family pushed me for a career in academics. But how did I get into physics, well, that was probably just by chance. I went to a summer school in relativity when I was 15 years old, and I though that was very interesting. But really, I though physics was a kind of broad field that could open many possibilities, and then I was good at it. I think this is the way many people choose what to study, by exclusion, if you are good at something and not every one else is, you have to go for it. I did not have passion for astronomy as a kid, not at all. Isn’t this how most people choose their field of work? I tried a number of different styles of physics (experimental high energy, solid state, etc) then I found my inspiration with cosmology. I was living in Japan for a while after I graduated from Princeton. I was only 20 e I was teaching English, and then I was hospitalized. I was so bored that I took a book called Spacetime Physics, by Taylor and Wheeler, and that really made an impression on me and really turned me on and made me wanting to keep on studying cosmology. And I also felt it was a challenge!

A challenge?
Yes, the challenge because it was difficult, and I knew it. And there were not many women doing it.

And indeed you are the second woman ever graduating at Princeton! How was it to live in a completely male dominated environment?
It was sort of tough. I remember all my male colleagues looking very self confident and I thought they acted more knowledgeable. In the second year I had a confidence crash. It took me sometime to figure that it was them who were really insecure, and that that was their way not to show how scared they really were. Of course it helped me to be good at what I was doing, but also I found people that believed in me. We were only 2 women and about 40 men in my year. I think none of those 40 men are where I am now.

What would you tell a young woman today that wants to pursue a career in science?
It is hard. I cannot lie on that. I think it is difficult to conciliate the family with a career. Probably the best way of doing it is to try to get to a position before having children. The system should change. It would help to allow women who have been out of the job for a few years to be able to come back. I think it is stupid. If they have been out for say 3-4 years, it would take only a few months to catch up with everything and be back on track. I do not understand why this cannot be done.

What kept you going then?
It has been the people around me, those who believed in me and pushed and inspired me. First of all my PhD supervisor, David Schramm, who was also the person that made me choose cosmology. I think it is really important to find people that can advise you and help you.

So do you think you are yourself a good role model to others? What do you do for other womens career?
Yes, I think I am. I have been helping my own postdocs, but also other female postdocs all over the world. I think it is important. I am supportive and I help them get a job for instance.

You have been working in different areas, on Dark Energy and gravity, and Inflation, and Dark Matter. Which part did you enjoy more doing? Do you have one particular moment you remember as special in some way?
I always liked a lot working on Dark Matter, also because I think it is what will be solved soon. I had very good time working together with Paolo Gondolo and Douglas Spolyar on the Dark Stars. I remember my son, he was just a little boy, looking at us while we were working, he would come to us and ask “can I play with you?” we were having such a good time he thought we were playing. I like working in teams. At some point I was so tired of Dark Matter, I was in Santa Cruz, nothing worked really and I trew everything in the carbage bin and said “I don’t want this anymore!” Then Paolo came to me with some new ideas. Yeah, I really think that working in teams is good. None of us would have been able to do it alone, it was the combination of everyone’s ideas and minds to make it.
Another good “scientific” moment it has been when I was at a conference, where everyone was talking about w, you know the parameter for the Dark Energy, and everyone was using the same parametrization. Then I had this idea, to modify the equations instead in order to fix the vacuum problem. I called it the Cardassian model.

I know you are now working on a different project, where you want to detect dark matter using some sort of interaction with DNA strings? Can you tell me a bit more about this?
Yes, this is something I am doing with other people, in particular my friend Andrzej Drukier who used to work in physics, and then went into biology, and now is back into physics. The idea is very simple. We take a foil of gold, and we hang some DNA strings from it. It is important that this is not radioactive, so we have someone make it artificially for us. Dark matter, or rather WIMPS particles, will hit the foil and detach nuclei, that will hit the DNA and break it. By collecting the broken DNA, and since we know the position each of them occupied, we can trace back how the WIMPS have been traveling. Thus we have directional information that we can use to see whether we can measure the diurnal modulation effect. We are 3 biologists and 3 physicists working on this, and we used the knowledges in both fields.

That is really a good example for us. As you know well the Oskar Klein Center involved people for different fields and sometimes we have hard time making people talk to each other, say Dark Matter people and Dark Energy people, which are still quite similar. I hope your experience can inspire them to be more open and collaborative.

Now this is my very last question. If you had not become the succesful scientist you are today, what would you be?
Ah ah, this is a difficult one. I think I wanted to be a writer, but they are not having an easy time either and at least we get paid for what we do. But, let’s see, maybe I would be a lawyer. Yes, I think that would have worked. Sometimes I think about it because there were these 2 women I remember them from school, and I think they made a good career. But then again, they had children only after they got a position. And I am sure lawyers work more rigid hours than scientists which perhaps is not helping having a family, they have office hours and come back home very late. Yes, now I know what I would tell a young woman who want to become a scientist. We have a lot more freedom, we can stay at home when the kids are sick, or to work on odd times, at night, or when the kids sleep. You do not have this freedom in many other jobs.

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