bio pic Sarah Gibson

sunset divider

Sarah pic I was born in San Francisco, California, and lived in the San Francisco Bay Area until I was 21. Then I went to graduate school in Colorado, then to work in Maryland, and now I am working in Cambridge, England. I think I will continue going East until I eventually get back to California!

My mother and father are both college professors- my mother teaches philosophy, and my father math. Since astrophysics has elements of both subjects - you can't get much more philosophical than "how did the universe begin?" after all - I am sure that they influenced my choice of profession. Since I have red hair and fair skin, I expect that my first experience of the sun was a bad sunburn. Nevertheless I am a solar physicist, so I guess I don't hold a grudge. I was interested in astrophysics and cosmology from a fairly early age. I was particularly impressed with how big the universe is, and how much we have yet to learn about it. I was and am deeply curious about what (or who?) is out there. I did my undergraduate degree in Physics, but was always aiming to do Astrophysics. Once I had started grad school in Astrophysics, I discovered that I was most interested in our nearest star. This was largely because there are so many wonderful recent observations of the sun - I feel that we have enough information about it now to make significant progress in understanding it during my lifetime. And by understanding the sun in depth we have the crucial building block for understanding stars, galaxies, and indeed the universe.

I got my B.S. in Physics at Stanford University, and my Ph.D. in Astrophysics at the University of Colorado, Boulder. I am currently working in the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics at the University of Cambridge, England. I am here on an NSF-NATO postdoctoral fellowship - these are designed to further international collaboration. Meeting and working with people from around the world is an aspect of the job that I really enjoy. Mostly I work on the computer, writing and running programs, analyzing data (much of which is now available on the web), writing papers, and coordinating work with colleagues via e-mail. But I also spend some time reading papers and books, attending the occasional talk, and from time to time deriving equations for a new piece of analysis. Several times a year I travel somewhere for a conference, workshop, or collaborative visit. Last year I went to Washington DC to be involved in a NASA press conference, London, Paris, Guernsey, Florence, and Maryland for conferences or workshops, and Colorado and Maryland for collaborative visits. The travel is great, and the beautiful observations are inspiring. Most of all, though, it's the feeling that I am continuously learning. Education doesn't stop with the Ph.D.

I rely on my computer a lot and continuously use the web, both for accessing data and for organizing collaborations. However, for certain kinds of analysis such as working out mathematical formulae I still rely on the old fashioned tools of pencil and paper! I like problem-solving. Writing a computer program to address a particular scientific problem, I can clearly and logically demonstrate a solution to the problem. True, such a solution may involve a lot of simplifications and assumptions (nature is generally messier than any model we can come up with). Nonetheless, I get a great feeling of accomplishment once I have figured out a puzzle that I have set myself, no matter what it is. As a scientist I am paid to work on puzzles.

The only thing I dislike about being a scientist is that there is little job security - it is difficult to get a permanent position and short-term positions often mean that you have to move every two or three years. While I have mostly enjoyed moving around so far, I am about to have my first child, and wouldn't mind knowing where I will be and what I will be doing for the next few years. [Sarah gave birth to a beautiful baby boy on May 18 2000!!!]

I took as much math and science as was offered in high school, and was active in my school's astronomy and computer clubs. In college I did my degree in physics, but took as many astronomy classes as I could. My first encounter with solar physics was as an undergraduate at Stanford, when I worked and actually lived in a solar observatory for nearly a year! My roommate and I called ourselves the "High Priestesses of the Temple of the Sun" - it was fun, and I learned a good deal about observing. Then in graduate school, I considered various options for a thesis, but eventually found an advisor and a project I wanted to work on in solar physics. I had troubles my first couple of years at Stanford with my physics and math classes - mostly because I was having lots of fun with social activities and taking a lot of "fuzzy" classes such as philosophy, drama, and fiction writing. My last two years, though, I concentrated more on the science, and put in plenty of hard work. Both experiences were important to my eventually being a scientist, I think: the breadth of experience and "people skills" I developed in the first couple of years have been useful for working with people and keeping my imagination active, and the knuckling down at the end brought me the joy of learning the physics properly, when before I had felt like I was just getting by.

In graduate school, there were definitely rough spells - particularly the comprehensive exam and writing up my thesis. I think that necessary personality characteristics of being a scientist include stubbornness and a certain bull-headed perseverance. You just keep bashing away at the brick wall until eventually it gives. In the United States of America, I have found very little sexism or negative attitude or even awkwardness towards women in solar physics. I think that there is probably still some awkwardness in the way women in science are treated in England, though. But by and large it is not bad at all. The toughest part is being in a minority - that is probably why there tend to be "clusters" of women in certain areas (both geographic and of specialization). My thesis advisor was a woman, for example. There is definitely a sisterhood in the solar physics community, I would say, and plenty of women willing to talk about gender-related issues. The fact that there are still considerably fewer women than men in the field should not discourage anyone: the very qualities that you need to be a scientist, regardless of your gender, will help you deal with being in a minority.

Besides my work, I sing in a choir, and have been involved in theatre in the past. I enjoy reading, crossword puzzles (especially the British, "cryptic" kind), going to plays and concerts, cooking (and eating), hiking, swimming, skiing, and traveling. My advice to young women interested in pursuing science: Trust me, the brick wall will give, eventually. And what's on the other side is worth it.

sunset divider

Introduction to the Scientists

sunset divider