Interview: Leila Mirzagholi
Leila is a PhD student at the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics in Garching/Munich. During her Ph.D. she is looking at the effects of massive neutrinos on structure formation and their clustering in the vicinity of Earth, these results are very important for future experiments aiming at detecting the cosmic neutrino background predicted by the big bang model.
1. What inspired you to pursue a career in physics?
I was always really into math and science, especially cosmology, astrophysics and biology. I read a lot, specially science fiction. My parents also encouraged me by feeding me science anyway they could. They were always buying books and magazines for me about science and the lives of scientists. We had regular visits to the science museum in Tehran and Tehran’s observatory. And they arranged for me to participate in any science-related event we knew about. I remember at some point I watched a movie called “Contact”. I must have been around ten or eleven years old. The story was about a female scientist who found extraterrestrial intelligence with a radio telescope and received a crypted message which contained the instructions to build a device in order to make first contact. I was completely hooked on that movie. I was so excited that I was, like, I am going be an astrophysicist.
2. Who are your role models?
I can’t say I had one particular role model but any now and then, when I am in a difficult situation, I like to remind myself or read about how all other people who I admire handled similar situations, or what they went through. So over the years I have cherry-picked different aspects of different people's lives as aspirations. As an example I can mention Emmy Noether, the brilliant German mathematician. I got to read a book about her life and work at some point, and her life was particularly helpful for working in a male-dominated environment. Back in her days it was even harder for women to be university professors than it is now. For example, she was not even getting paid for the work she was doing at the university just because of her gender! And yet she became one of the most influential mathematicians of modern times. Role models aside, there are also many people outside of science that I deeply admire. For example, literature is big part of my life and there are several writers that I go to for inspiration about life and, also, work. I would like to mention, in particular, Gholam Hossein Saedi, the Iranian writer, whose stories have delighted and consoled me many times over the years.
3. How did you get to where you are in your career path?
Ok, this is a complicated one. I did always know that I wanted to study astrophysics, but getting there was not straightforward! Towards the end of my high school years, where my focus was on mathematics and physics, I chose pure mathematics as my major for bachelors (probably I was reading too much Emmy Noether). After I finished my bachelors degree in pure mathematics at Tehran University, I moved to Utrecht, in the Netherlands, to participate in a one year master program in the mathematical research institute. This was a super intensive master class in a special topic (moduli spaces) and it was difficult. Still, after all these years of studying math, I had my eye on physics. I was taking part in classes and attending seminars and reading on my own and discussing with the students and physicists in both Tehran and Utrecht. Finally after I finished the master class, I turned to theoretical physics and came to Munich to do the two year “elite" master program in theoretical and mathematical physics at LMU. My master's thesis was about a particular model of modified gravity and then I moved to the Max Planck institute for astrophysics for my PhD.
4. What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
I find the current project I am doing quiet interesting. It is needed for direct detection. in summary, I am looking at the effects of massive neutrinos in cosmology, particularly how these particles cluster in the vicinity of Earth, this is a mandatory piece of information for future experiments aiming at detecting the cosmic neutrino background which is predicted by the Big Bang model.
5. What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself / your work?
I think I was kinda proud of myself when I finished the intensive master class in Utrecht University, there were some times that I was doubting I could finish but at the end I did finish with good results.
6. What is a “day in the life” of Leila like?
I usually get up not very early (one of the pros of working in academia cause I am definitely not a morning person!). On the way to work I usually check the latest publications and read the news or listen to podcasts. When I get to my office, I start off by doing something easy to get into the flow and pick up where I left the day before. There are usually talks or seminars during the day and we spent some part of the day discussing our work and other cool topics with other colleagues and my friends. At the end of the day, depending on how tired I am, I do some sports or some reading.
7. What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?
On the research side I have not decided yet. I will continue to do the things I find important and interesting and we will see what happens. But apart from that I recently have become quite interested in science communication and reaching out to public and coming up with ways to make cutting-edge research more easily accessible for everyone.
8. What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?
As I mentioned before I like reading a lot, and now with my recent interest in science communication I am taking part in activities more oriented towards outreach, such as preparing talks and projects for MPA's open day and girls day etc.
9. What advice do you have for other women interested in physics?
I would tell them what I tell myself. Be more confident, and take every opportunity and dive into it. It is certainly true that this field is still male-dominated, but there are improvements here and there and the community is realizing the problems (slowly!) and there are some efforts in trying to fix it. What really helps is to be less afraid of seeming stupid, and being more confident. You shouldn’t be afraid of being visible.
10. What should be done to increase the number of women in physics?
There are multiples things one can do. On the individual level, women can try to be more confident, assertive, and more caring and supportive of one another. On the institutional level, one can rethink hiring policies and impose equal treatment policies to kill the existing biases, and create more women friendly policies. On the level of education, we can encourage teachers and parents to make them aware of the existing biases and gender stereotypes in order to prevent the drop out on the early stages like school or even before that.
Foto-Rechte: (1) Leila Mirzagholi, (2) Leila Mirzagholi