UVic Women in Science presents an interview series highlighting women in the scientific community on Vancouver Island. Chelsea Spengler is a sixth year PhD candidate in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at UVic. Her work focuses on observational extragalactic astronomy of galaxies outside of the Milky Way based on observations and models.
What is your field of study and what stage of your education/career are you at? I am a 6th year Ph.D. student in astronomy, specifically observational extragalactic astronomy.
When did you first become excited about science? That’s kind of hard to pinpoint, but I think I was always pretty excited about science. As a kid, I watched a lot of Bill Nye the Science Guy and Popular Mechanics for Kids so I always thought science was cool. When I was 9 years old, on our annual family vacation to a national park, we did a night sky tour with a park ranger and that started my interest in astronomy. My parents bought me an introductory astronomy book from the park visitor center, and since then I’ve been hooked.
How did you get to the position you are in today? I arrived at UVic after my first round of grad school applications (all to schools in the US, where I’m from) didn’t work out. Fortunately, my undergrad supervisor has many collaborators at UVic and recommended applying, because the astronomy program is quite good. I applied, was accepted, and entered as a pool student. As a pool student, I didn’t have to choose an advisor until a few months into my studies. When deciding on an advisor, my current advisor and the suggested project stood out immediately as something that really interested me, so it was not a difficult choice.
Was it a straightforward career trajectory? I think my career trajectory was pretty straightforward, as I never really wavered from my choice to do astronomy. Even though I experience a small hiccup (getting rejected from the first round of grad schools), which was discouraging, ultimately I’m very happy with how everything played out. My immediate current aspiration is to find a postdoctoral position. One of my more long-term goals is to make a decision whether I want to continue on a pure academia/research track, attempting to secure one of the highly competitive faculty or tenure positions or to transition into industry (or something else). At this point though, I think I want to do research for as long as is feasible.
Describe your research focus. As an observational extragalactic astronomer, I look at galaxies outside of our own Milky Way with visible as well as ultraviolet and infrared light. To do this, I use the Hubble Space Telescope as well as ground-based observatories to acquire images. I compare measurements from these observations to predictions from our models of various processes involved in galaxy formation and evolution, in order to learn more about how galaxies grow. Specifically, I want to figure what happens in the centers of galaxies: some galaxies have supermassive black holes, some have a nuclear star cluster instead, and some have both. Where do these things come from, and how do they form?
What do you enjoy about this field/your work? My simplest enjoyment is that I get to look at beautiful pictures of galaxies every day. Studying nuclear star clusters is an up and coming field because these are objects we’ve only recently been able to observe due to technological advancements. So it’s very exciting to be working on this right now when there are so many questions we’ll be able to answer soon.
What have been the obstacles for you during your education/career? Do you believe any one these were specific to being a female? YES. In my first year of my undergrad, as I was still adjusting to college life, I was stalked and harassed by a man from my physics class for three months. The attitudes of some other students, and even staff at the women’s center and student affairs office, made me feel like I was blowing this out of proportion. Even after I finally worked up the courage to report him, it took multiple complaints from other female students (and a stern letter from my dad) before he was quietly removed from the university. The whole experience made it difficult to focus on my education, and I wasn’t very healthy during those few months. I’ve been very fortunate in my education and career to have lots of support with challenging coursework, writing proposals or applications, or being stumped by a research question.
What do you think about mentorship? Have you had any strong mentors during your career? And do you think it’s an important component of professional development? I think mentorship is something that never seems to be clearly defined but I think it is very important. You don’t get any training or advice on what defines a mentor and what is a good system. In my opinion, your mentor should be somebody who is not your supervisor or advisor (somebody who doesn’t have direct authority over you). I don’t think I have one mentor, I have a handful of people be my mentors for different aspects due to different natures of relationships.
How do you balance your hectic work/school schedule with your life? What are your interests outside of school? I was much better at this earlier in grad school! You have to schedule things in, which might take some of the fun out of it, but otherwise, it is so easy to just say that you’ll spend an extra hour in the lab. I like to balance my school schedule with scheduled group activities because I can’t bail on them — I do a lot of curling, and summer is filled with group hiking and backpacking trips. When I have time to myself, I like to read a fun book, do archery, or go for a walk with my camera because these fully occupy my brain and force me to stop thinking about work. Sometimes if I wake up feeling far too overworked, I might just declare the day a mental break day and play hooky and hang out on the beach.
Imposter syndrome (phenomenon) is quite prevalent in female scientists. Is this something you’ve observed during your career? Do you experience it? I can’t think of a time when I’m not experiencing it, especially now that I’m finishing up my Ph.D. and I’ve faced many rejections from job applications. It can really mess with your mind, especially when you hear about the successes and accomplishments of others (even more so if they are male). I have chatted with some well-established female faculty who still deal with this.
What do you think we can do to counter it? Personally, I don’t necessarily know how to deal with it. I think it helps to hear other people who have been successful talk so openly about how they feel. If we can discuss imposter syndrome comfortably and present it as a common occurrence (because it is), perhaps it will be easier for people to seek support without feeling like it’s a sign of weakness. This definitely requires having a comfortable environment, as I don’t think this issue is the sort of thing that comes up day to day in the department. You have to remember that your impression of how you are doing is likely not remotely accurate, and you might have to slightly tune out your internal narrator.
What has been your greatest accomplishment in your education/career? This is kind of a little silly one, but I met a highly regarded astronomer outside my main area of research. When I introduced myself, he said my name sounded familiar. That was really exciting for me because he had heard of my work (or he had managed to remember my talk from a conference 6 months prior!). Another accomplishment I recently achieved was being invited to present at a conference.
What are you still hoping to accomplish? Right now I’m working on an updated, more detailed map of the complex substructure in the Virgo Cluster of galaxies, our closest collection of thousands of galaxies. It would be pretty cool to redefine these structures that have been established for the past couple of decades. I also want to get observations from the James Webb Space Telescope once it launches! Longer term, I’d like to land my dream position – working at one of the international observatories, continuing my own research while helping to run and operate world-class telescopes.
How do you contribute to supporting female scientists that are following the same path as you? One of the main things I really enjoy is hosting observatory tours. One of the other grad students runs a girl guides troop, so she brings her troop to the observatory and I answer their astronomy questions, show them our massive telescope, and if the sky is clear we actually get to observe! Since we’re both scientists, we try to be role models to motivate and empower all these 8-10-year-old girls. We also have annual department meet-ups for women in the department where the faculty and students come together to talk about what it’s like being a woman in physics and astronomy, as well as to seek advice.
What programs/events would you see as being most useful for women in science here at UVic? One that already sort of exists is the Re-launch you (UVic WiS) did where female professionals can present and be very open about their careers. If it is more widespread, I think that is really useful. We have a new, informal grad student mentorship program in my department. It pairs a new student with a more established student who is a few years ahead in their studies, and it aims to help new students navigate through their studies as well as help them gain connections in the department.
What advice would you give to students and young females interested in science? I would say you’ve got to go for it. If you think you’re not smart enough, or if others imply you’re not smart enough, try anyway – because it is not about smarts. It is about being determined to keep going. The hard part is trying to not listen to that voice in your head that doesn’t think you’re good enough, because it is wrong. And no matter what, you have to evaluate how much you want it. Ideally, you need to have enough passion that you’re willing to work overtime and maybe sacrifice a little social life to do your work BUT you need to restrain yourself from going too far with that so you can get rest, be a human, and continue doing good work.