Interview: Zahra Motahar
Zahra is a PhD student at the University of Oldenburg. She is a member of the Models of Gravity Research Training Group. In this Research Training Group they discuss various string theory motivated gravity models given by various generalized Einstein equations. First they derive and discuss solutions of these generalized Einstein equations, then they explore the resulting space-times through the motion of test objects, and finally they also apply the results to astrophysically and cosmologically given situations. Zarah is working on alternative theories of gravity in neutron stars. Neutron stars are one of the most fascinating objects in the universe created by the collapsed core of a giant star. They are incredibly dense and compact objects representing an ideal laboratory to test alternative theories of gravity.
1. What inspired you to pursue a career in physics?
Is there anything more beautiful than a sky full of stars? I got interested in Amateur Astronomy when I was just a high school student. I used to go to the desert for stargazing to enjoy the beauty of the night sky.
I watched awestruck as the sky darkened over and the moon swallowed the sun, leaving only a delicate and brilliant ring of white fire to brighten the day. It was 2006 and I had just witnessed my first solar eclipse as part of a trip by the Astronomical Society of Iran's Amateur Branch to Antalya, Turkey. What impressed me most on that day in Turkey was how the theoretical knowledge that I had learned during my undergraduate studies had increased my observational experience of the beauty of the event. This created a desire within me to continue to broaden my theoretical and observational knowledge of astronomy. As such, after my undergraduate studies I went on to pursue a M. Sc. with research focus on stellar astrophysics at University of Malaya and now, I am finishing my PhD on “Neutron Stars and Gravity” as a member of the Research Training Group “Models of Gravity” at the University of Oldenburg, Germany.
2. Who are your role models?
I had quite a few role models when I was a teenage girl. I liked watching TV series on Bu Ali Sina (or Avicenna) a Persian polymath who is one of the most significant physicians, astronomers, philosophers and writers of the Islamic Golden Age. I liked reading biographies as well. One of my favorite books was about Nobel Prize winners. I recall that I was so impressed by reading about Marie Curie and her family who turned the male-dominated world of science research on its head.
However, now I would like to talk about my PhD supervisor, Prof. Jutta Kunz. I have learned a lot from her, not only about physics but also about leading a group which includes people from culturally diverse backgrounds, and making a balance between the family and scientific career. Working with great people makes you great; you learn a lot and it also gives you the experience and confidence to move on with your own career.
3. How did you get to where you are in your career path?
My primary research interests lie in the field of Gravity and Astrophysics. As a bachelor student I carried out my first academic research on interplanetary plasma, a comparative study on “Solar wind interaction with Venus and Mars”. During my M. Sc. career I worked as a research assistant on a project “Evolution of low mass stars” focusing on stellar structure and evolution.
In order to improve my theoretical knowledge of physics, I audited a graduate cosmology and general relativity course. I extremely enjoyed the challenge of tackling the mathematical sections and felt that through this course a new window in understanding the Universe has been opened to me. Therefore, after my research work on stellar astrophysics during my masters, I explored a completely different topic by starting a collaboration on "Metric Affine Gravity". With a research background in Astrophysics and Gravity I continued my studies focusing on “Neutron Stars in Generalized Theories of Gravity” during my PhD.
4. What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
I like what I did during my career path. However, my PhD research on neutron stars became the coolest one specially after the detection of gravitational wave emitted by merging binary neutron stars. I am so happy working on this hot topic.
5. What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself / your work?
It is not easy to say. Finishing a project requires at least some months of hard working. I may spend days on rewriting several versions of a paper discussing the results. The moment when I submit the paper, specially receiving the acceptance from the journal, I have a great feeling of accomplishment.
6. What is a “day in the life” of Zahra like?
Oh, I am living very close by the university. I ride a bike to the Uni and start my work by reading new papers, challenging the problems and doing some numerical calculations with my computer programs. If I am by the end of a project, I would spend hours writing down the paper and illustrating the results. If there is a meeting, colloquium or a conference, my every day life would be different since I need to travel for that event. It is also possible to do teaching as a tutor during the semester time. After coming back home I usually spend a bit time on doing some sport activities and sometimes chatting with my family and friends.
7. What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?
I would love to stay in academia. I enjoy learning, investigating and teaching which define a career in academic area.
8. What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?
I am from Middle East living in Europe. I just want to travel as much as I can, explore the world, meet people and learn from my experiences. I have been in several countries from East Asia to the South Africa. Traveling allows you to see that the world is not always about you.
I have experience in different charity organizations lending a hand to those in need. Volunteering your time, money, or energy to help others does more for the happiness of the person helping rather than the person who receives the help. I like the most my volunteer activities teaching kids. I always try to take the chance motivating them to overcome the difficulties and challenges and constructing a better future with hope. Injecting “hope” is my main reason to work with kids!
9. What advice do you have for other women interested in physics?
If you see yourself as a scientist, don't worry and go ahead. Nothing can stop you if you believe in yourself. But keep in mind that the path is neither easy nor short. Never give up in case of facing bias, discrimination or any other obstacles and challenges in your life. You are always stronger than any difficulties on your way, if only trust yourself and go ahead.
10. What should be done to increase the number of women in physics?
Though we need to motivate girls at schools to love science and encourage them to choose STEM fields after school, this is not enough. We should keep them in their career path not letting them stop in the middle of the way. For instance, early academic careers are characterized by short term contracts. Dealing with lack of job security coinciding with starting families, make it for women more probable than men to end their career at this stage. We should investigate the barriers in front of the women and promoting them the practical solutions.
Foto-Rechte: (1) Zahra Motahar, (2) Zahra Motahar, (3) Zahra Motahar