Monday, June 17, 2024

In Conversation With Dr.Emily Rickman

Science Operations Scientist for the European Space Agency, Postdoctoral Researcher at Geneva Observatory, Founder & Curator of the @LGBTQIAinAstro Twitter account

Dr. Emily Rickman is a Science Operations Scientist for the European Space Agency (ESA) at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), which is a NASA-funded institute that leads the operation of the Hubble Space Telescope and the James Webb Space telescope. Emily’s research primarily focuses on discovering exoplanets, which are planets around other stars, using a technique called direct imaging that requires the use of extremely large telescopes, much like the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). Emily is also the author and co-author of several publications at NASA’s ADS and ResearchGate.

Emily holds a Ph.D. in Astronomy and Astrophysics from the University of Geneva, Switzerland. In addition, she also graduated with a first class Masters degree with honors in Physics and Astrophysics from the University of Sheffield.

From experiencing self-doubt to being a role model to the youth, Emily’s journey can inspire many of us who want to pursue our passion but are unsure about it. To learn how passionate and driven she was toward her goal to pursue science right from a young age is beyond inspiring.

Join us in learning more about Emily’s life journey, the challenges she faces along the way, how she overcomes her hardships, and the daily choices that led to where and what she is today!

What were your childhood dreams, and what did you want to become as a grown-up back then?

I have always had a fascination with how things in the world work. I was and am still obsessed with roller coasters. When I was young, I would go to theme parks with my family and would be curious to understand how the rides accelerate or go around in loops. It sparked an interest in the field of Physics, how forces work and interact, and how all these essential components that come together in our everyday lives work. All this made me interested in Science, Math, and the realm of things. I really enjoyed school and learning new things, even if the concepts were not always easy to understand. Learning how the world works, putting everything in a logical order, and solving problems intrigues me. Since I was very young, it also helped me to identify what to pursue. I dreamed of being a roller coaster engineer at some point. In essence, I wanted to do something along the lines of engineering or science. As I grew up, I started to get more involved in astronomy. I remember when I was a teenager, I bought a small telescope, and my dad and I used to take it to spots where we could look at things that we could not see through our naked eye. I’m grateful that I grew up in a way where my parents interacted with me a lot about these types of things.

For example, we would go to science museums. I grew up in the UK, and most of my family is from London, so we’d go to the Science Museum in London. During our vacation, we’d go to Goonhilly Earth Station, located in the southwest of England in Cornwall, one of the most important radio communication stations used to broadcast signals into space at one point. Although it’s now used for research, at the time, you could visit to see exhibits about how we interact with space. I got very excited about all these different components, which made me curious to know how big the universe is and at what point it ends. So, before I went to university, I decided to study Astrophysics and figure out some of these questions.

During her Masters, Emily also spent a year studying Kepler K2 data to find hot Jupiters and Neptunes around young stars at the Australian National University. She is keen on diversity and inclusion in STEM and founded the Twitter account @LGBTQIAinAstro.

How lovely! So, is it safe to say that you were lucky to have found what you want to do quite early in your life?

Yeah, I was pretty grateful for that, and I appreciate that not everyone has that journey. Some people figure that out later, or maybe they try a career path, and then they learn that it’s not for them or that they enjoy something else. But I was fortunate to have an idea of what I wanted to do. Although it wasn’t completely set in stone in the early years, by the end of high school, I had figured out what I wanted to study at university. I had a pretty good idea that I was very interested in Physics, specifically Astrophysics, and I have pursued it ever since then. So, I was very lucky in that way, yes.

That’s great. But to say that your journey to be where you are today was challenging must be quite an understatement. What has been your biggest challenge, and how did you overcome that?

This can be a really difficult question to answer because often, what happens is that there are lots of small challenges that stack up, and then they create this one giant wall that makes it difficult to climb over. So, I don’t know if I had one standout challenge, but there was always a constant thought that people would question my ability to study Physics, or if it was the best career choice for me. So, if I talked about that time frame when I was deciding what I wanted to study, I did get comments from people that were like, well, you’re a girl, why would you study Physics at university?

And it was from very early on I felt that maybe I didn’t belong in this field or to be a scientist in the future. But growing up, I was quite fortunate that I had a lot of people around me, including my parents and teachers, who were very supportive. They’d help me realize that I am good at it and clearly enjoy doing these things. So, when it got to the point where I had to make that decision, I went for it.

There are other challenges as well, being the only girl or woman in the room. When you’re younger, you’re very mixed with people, and everyone does the same subjects and learns the same things. But when I was in my chosen classes at a more advanced level in high school, I was surprised to see no other girls in that class. For example, when I took engineering classes in high school, I was the only girl who did Math and Physics. That was a challenge in a way because nobody directly questioned me; why are you doing this? But it was more of a feeling when you look around the room, and you don’t see anyone that looks like you or maybe has your background, making you think perhaps you don’t belong.

Did it induce self-doubt within yourself, and do you experience it even today?

Absolutely. The common impostor syndrome kicked in at that point and made me question if I belonged and was good enough to be here. That is a complex feeling because it’s self-perpetuating; even if it’s not true, you think like that. I have worked for NASA and the European Space Agency, and sadly, I still feel that way. You can be like the most experienced, amazing, intelligent person and still feel that way. Of course, now that I am an adult, I understand what’s happening to me. But, when I was young and the only girl in my engineering classes and had some people questioning my choice to study Physics, I was at the peak of self-doubt.

It’s a bit surprising to hear that you experience this despite having contributed so much to your field. So, how do you think we can tackle this? What can we, men and women, do so this doesn’t occur to the youth entering these career paths?

One of the best things we can do is to speak to people around you at your career level or maybe slightly more senior than you, who can also talk openly about it. Because I think there have been studies showing that impostor syndrome doesn’t necessarily affect women more than men in high-profile careers. So, it isn’t necessarily a gender issue, but maybe how we address it could be a gendered issue.

I sit down and speak to my colleagues at a similar career level to my mentors, who are more senior than me. And when they say, well, I also have impostor syndrome, and I don’t feel like I belong here, it suddenly makes me feel so much better because we’re all feeling like that for different reasons and at different levels. I think it just comes with the territory of our job, as it’s pushing the limits of what we can do. So it can be challenging, as every day you have to question if you’re making the right decision, looking at the right things, and perceiving it correctly.

So, I think one of the best ways to address that is to speak to people around you, who are in a similar situation, and who may also be experiencing impostor syndrome. And I think if we’re open about that and have that conversation, it can definitely help you make you feel better. It makes me feel better, not because someone else is suffering. But because, at the end of that conversation, we positively affect one another as we share how the other person actually belongs, and that helps.

So having empathy for each other does help. I understand where you come from, and it can get tough to push boundaries almost every day at your job. For example, it can take years to have a breakthrough or make a small discovery. Does that lead to frustration? How do you keep going despite the feeling of being stuck? Can you share how you cope with such feelings at work?

These are all perfect words to describe how I can feel in a typical week. Of course, some days are easier than others, but things do take time. It takes time to look at the things in space, get that data, and analyze and interpret it accurately. Because sometimes, we don’t get the data successfully, and at times, the analysis of the data we receive leads to bizarre results that we are unsure how to interpret. Any of these steps can keep you stuck, and it can be frustrating.

Firstly, having the support of your colleagues around you, people you can interact with, collaborate with, bounce ideas off, and even think out loud about the problem you’re stuck with can be fruitful.

Also, it is crucial to have the right balance of how we figure out the projects, papers we write, the discoveries we need to follow up on, etc., based on the timeline allocated for the entire project.

Having a mentor with whom you check in regularly can also help. Maybe sit down once a week and discuss what you have done since the last time you met, what progress you have made, etc. Having someone to informally chat with and share about the work you’ve been doing and discuss that problem you’re stuck with can help bring new perspectives and potentially make you unstuck.

What are your current projects? Can you shed some light on that?

As you know, I work primarily on the research side in finding exoplanets using a technique called direct imaging by using giant telescopes, like the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) we recently launched. Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) is responsible for the mission operations, and we use infrared cameras to be able to do this and lots of post-processing techniques. So, there’s a lot of analytical work and coding, and all these components come together. I’m also on the Telescope Scientists team for the James Webb Space Telescope and part of the Science Readiness team for the NIRSpec instrument, which is on the James Webb Space Telescope. So, I also do some of the mission support work for JWST. So, that’s the gritty element of my projects.

Wow, it’s incredibly commendable that you’re doing all this work. Tell us how you felt when you saw the first image from the JWST.

Oh wow. I was super, super excited. Not many of us knew what the first images would be. So, when I first saw the picture, I was like, that’s incredible, that’s amazing!

I remember looking at the deep field images from Hubble Space Telescope when I was younger. One of my teachers showed it to me during class, and I was super inspired and thought it was incredible. I had that same giddy, happy feeling all over again. There are so many things in this universe that we have not even discovered yet. And we don’t know what we don’t know yet.

Yeah, it’s a game-changer. As you said, we don’t know what we don’t know yet, and the observations of the Webb could be massive. We have set foot in a new era of discovery and learning and perhaps unlearn some things we already know. For example, some experts now also speculate if the Big Bang really happen. James’s telescope can help us prove many theories, right or wrong.

Absolutely. Coincidentally today is a special day, and we just released the first direct image of an exoplanet with JWST. It’s what my team and I work on, and the press release from NASA is just out today. So, it’s kind of a big and inspiring day for us. Today, we’ll publish the paper with the first direct image of an exoplanet capturing worlds beyond our solar system. I’m part of the team that is part of the early release science program for high-contrast imaging of exoplanets. I have co-lead the paper coming out tomorrow, and I’m one of the principal authors on that paper where we’re looking at the Spectra of one of those planets from the same early release science program from JWST. So, it’s a very exciting place to be.

Congratulations on your discovery! So how many planets have you discovered so far? And how many of those are named after you?

Oh wow, I don’t know the exact number. Most of the time, we are a large number of people who analyze and interpret things which involves many teams and a lot of people, later leading to discovery. But some of them are discoveries where I am the first author. So, in terms of the ones that have me as the primary person who discovered them, it’s probably around 10. But the number of discoveries I am part of as a large team of people that have helped facilitate the discovery is perhaps closer to 100.

That’s great.

And every time we look at a planet, it’s not always about discoveries because JWST allows us to characterize the planets’ properties. For instance, if they have the right composition, a suitable atmosphere, etc. So although I’ve discovered or helped facilitate the discovery of many planets, it’s even more exciting to be involved in the follow-up characterization of those planets to understand the things that we’re looking at, like the mass, age, atmosphere, composition, etc.

For example, if there is another Earth-like planet?


When you discover a planet and look for life, you study its characteristics and whether the atmosphere suits life. So, how do you judge this? Because we humans need a specific environment to live and thrive. But there can be organisms or intelligent life that can survive without the conditions we have on Earth. Why do we confine ourselves to looking for Earth-like planets, meaning the conditions that suit human life?

That’s a fantastic question. One of the things that Astrobiologists believe is that one thing that is required for all forms of life, whether that be human-like or otherwise, is some form of water. So we look for water in planets within the habitable zone, which translates to a planet not too close to its host star, making it super hot, so all the water evaporates and exists in a gaseous state. But, at the same time, not so far away from the host star that it’s super cold, and it exists in an ice state that we can’t access this liquid water.

There are also biosignatures or biomarkers that we can look at. Astrobiologists believe there can only be the product of life and not a result of some geological activity. So, methane can be a good example of a biomarker because methane can be a product of life, but it can also be a product of geology. So when we find methane on a planet, we can’t be certain if it is from life on the planet or due to other activities. And so, we have to think about all the conditions of the planet we’re looking at, not just one component.

Therefore, we must also consider radiation impacts and if that molecule still exists, apart from the planet’s distance to the star in terms of temperature. So to certainly say that there is a sign of life, we must be sure to confirm that the molecules were formed by some form of life actively living and producing them. And that thing could be human-like or some tiny organisms very different from how we live and the conditions we require to survive.

But the problem is, we have to use what we know. The overall form of life that we know is here on Earth. And so we have to use that information. Astrobiologists have to use this information to find other potential forms of life. So there are certain conditions that we believe to be true universally, including factors like the presence of some carbon basis or liquid water. We don’t know if they’re universally true, but this is the hypothesis that we use. And it would be challenging to prove that we found signs of life if those signs are utterly different from us because then how would we prove it? So, it’s a challenging question to address, but it has many components.

So how do you take care of yourself and your well-being outside work? What are your stress busters, for example?

I think that’s an important question. Honestly, I’ve been pretty terrible at maintaining a good work-life balance in recent years. Let me put it out there; I don’t think you should sacrifice the things you enjoy, like your hobbies, activities, or your family commitments you may have outside work, to be a prominent scientist.

For me, I think science has taken over other interests a little bit because I think I love it so much. It’s not even like a job anymore; it’s almost like a hobby. Although it’s great that I have a career that makes me feel this way, it can also get difficult to establish a boundary between when to stop working and start relaxing.

At times in the evening, I’ll just be doing science because I enjoy doing it so much, instead of maybe reading a book or watching TV as others would do. Clearly, no one is making me work in the evening, but I just want to spend time on it because I enjoy doing it, and it’s fun.

Of course, there are things outside of work that I do enjoy. I especially love hiking with my dog, and I like running. I like yoga and playing the piano. I want to do something that allows using my brain or body in other ways and keeps me busy.

It’s essential to set boundaries from work to have time for other elements in your life. So, yes, I think we need to add flavor. But otherwise, if you enjoy your work so much that it is fun and doesn’t stress you, then it shouldn’t be a problem.

But, it does stress me mainly because of what I do; it uses a lot of brain power and is quite tiring. So, it’s crucial to make those boundaries because if you spend too much time just working on one thing, then you’re not going to become efficient and good at it. At some point, you have to walk away from what you’re doing. And that’s true in everything in our lives.

For example, if you spent 15 hours a day playing piano and not doing anything else, at some point, you would plateau and wouldn’t get better. It would just be tiring and become boring and monotonous. So it doesn’t matter what activity, at some point, you have to say, enough is enough; now I need to do something else to use my brain differently, to move my body and put myself in a different environment.

I do find a lot of my problem-solving happens when I’m passively thinking about something. For instance, instead of actively thinking about the problem the entire day, if I rest well and get wake up rejuvenated after a good night’s sleep, my brain has been passively working on it, and I have the solution to the problem that I was stuck in the morning.

Yes, taking breaks is so important to give our best, even at work. Studies suggest that our brains can fully focus not more than 90 minutes, after which we may not be as efficient. So, it needs a break to come back with complete focus.

Who or what has been the greatest inspiration in your life? Whom do you look up to?

It’s hard for me to pick just one person who inspired me because it changed with time as I got older. So, different people inspired me at various points in my life.

When I was younger, I had amazing, intelligent, and supportive Physics teachers who supported me the most at one point and boosted my confidence. These people are brilliant; they can stand by the blackboard and describe a problem in a few equations. I think that was so cool, and I wanted to be like them. So, I definitely looked up to my Physics teachers when I was younger.

And I remember having a conversation with one of my Physics teachers. I was like, you are so much more intelligent than me. I clearly remember he said, “No, I just have more knowledge than you because I have more experience. But when you were my age, you would be far above and beyond what I’m doing right now”.

I didn’t believe it then, but I remembered those words, and suddenly an element of self-belief triggered. We spoke about self-doubt earlier, but having someone show such support can go a long way.

As I got older and went through university, I connected especially with other women in Physics. During my Ph.D. I had a great postdoc friend who was senior to my level. She was great at being honest and telling people about what we should care about. And she’s a brilliant and outstanding researcher and top of her field, doing some great stuff. She’s just wonderful now, a professor at The University of Warwick.

I had several mentors along the way. Even now, I have great mentors who sit down with me and suggest I apply for this new thing, that I should push my limits. They’re the people that inspire me because I want to be them in the future and, in the process, leave my footsteps for other people to follow.

You are a star, Emily! I’m sure people will follow in your footsteps.

I hope so. Even if there is one person who wants to be in any element of STEM, they feel like they can’t do it; I just want to be able to show people that they can.

Do you have any favorite authors, quotes, or movie characters that motivate you?

Growing up, I did recognize that I loved reading nonfiction, mainly including facts, figures, and philosophy. I remember my dad had this 2002 encyclopedia, and each night before I went to bed, we would read about different kinds of topics. That was a nice way to learn new things daily without being overwhelmed by information.

And I love reading like philosophy now, the connection between Physics and Philosophy, Meta-Physics and things like that. One of my favorite movies is Hidden Figures. It’s a story about three black women working at NASA — Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson – who were critical in helping launch one of the first astronauts to space.

The whole shift from being dismissed and told they didn’t belong to how they gained power and were taken seriously and the need to embrace diversity are so beautifully depicted in the movie.

And obviously, we still have a lot of battles to fight. But I love the story showing how valuable and important they were to those rocket launches, and these people deserve recognition and credit for the incredible things they did. I just loved that movie, and I want to be them.

You mention being taken seriously. A lot is going on to help navigate the situation of women in STEM. But women are still underrepresented in STEM careers. It’s also our responsibility to help the next generation of young girls not to face the struggles we face. And that could be more awareness, bringing more role models, and addressing the fear and myth that women cannot do STEM.

Statistics show that only 28% of young girls are organically opting for such careers, which is a substantial gap. So what do you think can we (not just women but also men) as a community do to address this?

I really like that you said what can both women and men do. Although we, as women in STEM, can act as role models in the best way we can. I think it’s not entirely our responsibility to do that.

It involves everyone and starts from early stages like elementary school, where both male and female teachers implement those early days of learning about engineering, maths, and science and all those beautiful things we both consciously and subconsciously do.

For example, we assign boys in the direction of problem-solving or building things, whereas we might push girls in caring responsibilities or looking out for one another. So we must make a conscious effort right from those younger years to ensure everyone is on a level playing field and gets access to those opportunities.

And it’s okay if some girls are not interested in STEM in the same way that some boys are not interested in STEM fields. Not everyone will have the same interests, and that’s great too. We need diversity, but we need to give everyone equal opportunities.

People like you and I can go to schools and universities and speak to younger individuals and share some of our work and what we do. So I think proper exposure to role models in the field changes people’s perception of what scientists look like and how scientists act. We need to remove that stereotype of that all-white male sitting in their office by themselves. That’s not what science is.

So there are different components to it – the way we teach children, the things we expose our kids to, and the role models we’re exposing.

So how do you reward yourself? Do you do it consciously, and what is your take on it?

I celebrate with my team to reward everyone for their work, especially when we get fantastic results, press releases, awards, new job opportunities, or funding. It’s a part of acknowledging that we have done a great job and just taking a step back to absorb the things we do. Otherwise, it can get so easy to get caught up in the subsequent work we need to do.

For instance, I went to work today, and we had this big press release at 10:00 AM. I interacted with people on social media, media, and in magazines, and it was super exciting that everyone was so curious about our work. So I just sat there for a bit and absorbed everything that happened. I find all that really rewarding because you’re providing that information to the public, who are excited about it. So taking some downtime to take those moments fully and pat yourselves on the back is essential.

So yes, we take time to reward ourselves as a team. And also make sure that we give compliments and congratulations to the people who deserve it. It can be so easy to forget to do that. And we have to make sure that we congratulate one another.

In terms of space and technology, what would our future look like in the next 50 years?

Wow, that’s an overwhelming question. I like to think about this by looking back 50 years from where we are today and how far we’ve come in space science and space travel. We’ve gone from putting the first man on the moon to a place where space travel is soon going towards tourism. It’s amazing to see private companies come into the scene. The incredible number of satellites and telescopes in space and at the International Space Station, respectively, is remarkable. All this has happened in the past, like 50 years. So if I try to extrapolate that in the next 50 years, we will have bigger players from the private industry within the space industry, which will change rapidly. We already see that with the likes of SpaceX, for example.

I think those private companies with a lot of money are going to start making a big difference. Whether that difference is positive or negative, it will be interesting to see how it plays out. For example, SpaceX is collaborating with NASA by helping each other fund some of these crewed missions, which can have a positive impact. But I also am concerned that maybe if we end up in a situation where many private companies operate without policies, it could quickly become overwhelming and a bit monopolized. In the space industry, it can turn from a lot more of an exploration thing to more of a profiting element, and I’m a little bit concerned about that. But overall, it’s going to be a positive impact.

From the scientific point of view, we’re with some great ideas for the next few decades. Although we’ve just launched the Webb telescope, in 20 to 30 years from now, we might launch an even more powerful telescope than James Webb Space Telescope. And that will help us find even smaller planets than we currently look for. So, maybe we’ll have the same press release as we did today, but for earth-like planets and potentially find signs of life, which would be super exciting. It can be extremely exciting to see how the space industry and space agencies move over the next 50 years. We will also receive more funding from both private and government agencies. And overall, it will have a positive impact and push those boundaries of science. In my lifetime, maybe in the next 50 years, we shall find signs of life on another planet. That’s where I’d love to be 50 years from now.

Hopefully, we will. That’s indeed an exciting space to watch. What is your biggest dream or milestone in life? Or have you already ticked it off?

So I would love to be the Principal Investigator of a space mission. It would be awesome. I would love to do that. I keep thinking about what ideas, scientific concepts, or questions to answer that could help facilitate that. And I want to play a part in how we discover the planets that will be interesting and vital for us to look at. And how I can help facilitate and engage the scientific community, and how I can provide the facilities, resources, and access to those resources we need.

So, the dream is to stand at the launchpad of a mission I’m in charge of, and that’s about to go up, as it would be fascinating to see what data we’re potentially going to get from that mission. So, that would be the ultimate dream come true for me.

What success means to you? And what’s your message to our readers?

Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you don’t belong. It doesn’t matter who you are, what your background is, what gender you are, or what is your ethnicity or skin color. It doesn’t matter. If you are interested and passionate about something, just do it. Just go ahead. Don’t let anyone say you don’t belong here or don’t deserve it. If it’s something that you’re passionate about, then you belong in that place. That’s it.

And what is success?

Success to me is following something that you’re passionate about. So just find something you are passionate about and follow that, because that’s the thing that will get you the furthest in life, in your happiness, in your enjoyment, and in what you’re doing. You want to be able to get up in the morning and think like, wow, I get to go and do this thing today because that’s what I enjoy doing. We all enjoy different things. And that’s great. That’s what makes us human.

Following what you enjoy can expand into whatever you want it to be, and you’ll find a path that is so much better than forcing yourself to do it otherwise. About that’s the thing you’ll become really good at. And that’s the thing you’ll ultimately get paid for and enjoy doing in your day-to-day life. I just think that it’s really important to follow what you love and make yourself happy in that way.

Yeah, it makes sense. You can be naturally better at something you’re passionate about than something you’re not and be paid well for it.

Yes, like I said at the very beginning, and maybe bring it full circle. I was quite lucky that I figured it out from quite an early age. But, it’s also okay if you go and study something else, end up in a different career path, and further down the line figure out that you’re really interested in this other thing. What’s important is following that path, no matter what your age or your background.

It was a pleasure talking to you, Emily. Thanks so much for sharing your journey with AlignThoughts. We wish you the best in all your endeavors!

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