It’s not every day that you get to speak with one of the country’s leading astrophysicists on everything from space debris, to national security, to how our combat veterans can best transition from active duty back into civilian life.
This is exactly what I was lucky enough to do recently, as I spoke with Yale astrophysicist Professor Marla Geha. Along with being a fellow judge on Rubicon’s Clear Constellation™ competition, Professor Geha is helping to drive so many incredible things for our veterans around the country, and within the Yale ecosystem. Using the world’s largest telescopes to study the universe’s smallest galaxies, her research hopes to help answer how galaxies form and better understand what the universe is made of.
Please find an abridged transcript of my discussion with Professor Geha below:
Nate Morris: Professor, I want to welcome you to Rubicon and thank you for being here with me this morning. So, the first question I have for you is where did you grow up, and what first compelled you to go into astrophysics?
Professor Marla Geha: I had always wanted to do astronomy and astrophysics. For me, a core memory was seeing the first space shuttle launch on television. I wanted to be an astronaut, then in high school or so I realized that maybe being an astronaut wasn’t realistic. At the same time, I realized that as an astronomer I could use telescopes around the world and study the universe from the ground. I loved physics and math in high school and had some really great teachers which was a big part of that.
I continued studying physics in college, went to graduate school for astronomy and have been doing that ever since. I feel lucky that I’m able to do something that both pays the bills and is also really fun and enjoyable.
NM: That’s fantastic. So, you are dialing in today from Yale University, tell us about that academic ecosystem, tell us some of the things that you’re engaging with now at Yale and what this means for the category of astrophysics.
MG: I kind of have three jobs at Yale: research, service, and teaching. I have a very active research program: I’m interested in understanding how galaxies form and how in particular our Milky Way, the Galaxy that we live in, forms. Much of my work is using data from telescopes—in fact, in my day-to-day I am writing computer programs in Python to analyze this data. The service part of my job includes serving on committees in my department and the larger University to keep things running.
And of course, I’m also teaching. In the class that I’m teaching right now, I have about 15 spectacular Yale undergraduate students who are all learning scientific programming. I also teach as part of the Warrior-Scholar Project. Every part of my job feeds into the other. I love doing my research but it wouldn’t be quite as fulfilling if I didn’t have my students. I love teaching, but I need research to motivate myself and my students. So, it’s a really good job.
NM: Tell us about the Warrior-Scholar Project. What is it all about, and what do we need to know about it?
MG: The Warrior-Scholar Project is a non-profit organization that runs one-week boot camps for enlisted veterans. The idea is to translate all of the skills and knowledge learned in the military into an academic setting. Many veterans don’t realize that so many of the skills learned in the military are also critical for success as an undergraduate student.
The Warrior-Scholar project was started at Yale in 2012 by a few Yale undergrads. I first found out about the Project in 2013, and it really resonated with me. Many student veterans didn’t think that they belonged to Academia; that it somehow isn’t for them. As a woman in science, we talk a lot about imposter syndrome—this idea that I’m not quite good enough to belong—and that’s something I know how to tackle. I know how to overcome imposter syndrome, and so I cold emailed the guys that were running Warrior-Scholar Project and I said “Do you need somebody?” and they welcomed me along.
The second year we ran a “Science in Academia” hour, and what hooked me wasn’t actually the teaching part, it was the conversation afterward. I was talking to one of the students, and he looked at me and paused, and he said “I’ve never met anyone who liked math before.” I was just totally stunned. He had just transitioned out of the Air Force after having done six deployments in Afghanistan. On his last tour he ended up bringing a calculus book with him and reading it whenever he had a moment of quiet. After Warrior-Scholar he applied to Rutgers, graduated with a math degree, and he is now working with Warrior-Scholar running their science weeks. So many students that come through Warrior-Scholar have a similar story.
NM: You mentioned imposter syndrome. Tell us about your own experience with imposter syndrome, and if you could follow up with how you deal with it, and what your advice is for overcoming it?
MG: My advice for myself, for my students, and for the Warrior-Scholars is to find people who are similar to you so you can talk about things. Just realizing that someone else has the same feelings of doubt, or frustration, or elation, can help. Knowing that someone else is in the same boat makes you feel bold, like you can do anything. So, for our students, particularly for the Warrior-Scholars, having this cohort of 15 students in each of these boot camps, having those experiences and those shared emotions really makes you realize that everybody’s got the same feelings and that you can work through them together and do awesome stuff.
NM: Well, you are exceeding expectations daily on what’s possible, and really challenging the status quo. I know as a female that can’t be easy. One of the things we like to do at Rubicon is to use our platform to amplify different voices, different folks from different backgrounds and experiences. Tell us what it’s like as a female leader in this category?
MG: I’ve been at Yale now 12 years. I am old and seasoned and curmudgeonly, so I forget how tough it was at the very beginning, working long hours and sometimes overcompensating for sometimes not quite feeling like I belonged here. Knowing internally that you can believe in yourself and you can do it, and again finding friends to share those worries and share those concerns… it helps.
NM: Similar to you, when I was growing up the thing you wanted to do was be an astronaut. Now, if you make a lot of money you can be one. How do you think all of this is changing now that we have the private sector driving a lot of space exploration? How is that impacting your work, and how do you look at this whole category now as it’s changing related to the private sector?
MG: It’s so interesting, and it’s something that I’m still thinking about. When I was growing up, the idea that you could become an astronaut was this thing that you had to work so hard for and be chosen for. That’s changing and evolving and it’s kind of hard to think about.
One of the things that I think about a lot is our night sky. My work is partly based around satellites and partly based around ground-based telescopes. In both cases, I think about what the night sky looks like, and that’s changing really fast. Things like the Starlink satellites— satellite constellations. They are being launched to provide broadband internet, which itself is a cool thing, but we can now see these strings of satellites in the night sky no matter where you are. You can be far away from civilization and yet still see these satellite constellations go across the sky. Who gets to control what the night sky looks like? It’s changing fast. I want to make sure that we have the time and space to think about what we are doing in terms of changing the space ecosystem.
NM: I was listening to a news program recently that was talking about all the private companies that are now getting into space, which has really changed the game, but I think it’s also made space a very crowded place. Can you talk about the level of activity of things going into orbit compared to that of 20 years ago?
MG: The number of things being launched into space is increasing exponentially. It feels a little bit like the Wild West right now; there is not a ton of regulation. I fully support space exploration and all these interesting satellites that are being launched, but we must try to make sure that we do it in a thoughtful way, so that we don’t screw it up for future generations. And while we haven’t yet, that Wild West feeling makes it seem like maybe we’re headed in the wrong direction. In my view, we should pause or at least have real discussions to make sure that we’re doing it right.
NM: That’s great advice. That brings us to Clear Constellation. What is interesting to me is there is not a lot of information about space debris out there. Can you share with us how important it is that we as a society pay more attention to the waste up above our heads?
MG: In the last year, we’ve practically doubled the number of things that are in low Earth orbit (LEO), and it’s a little bit scary. A satellite that is no longer working, or something dropped by the International Space Station, stays in orbit as space garbage. But unlike our waste here on Earth, space garbage is moving really fast, at approximately 17,000 mph, and even something tiny like a wrench or piece of metal moving that fast can really impact anything else that’s in the same orbit. If we aren’t careful there will be so many of these sorts of things in orbit that we won’t be able to use those particular orbits. So, this is something that we need to think about very carefully, otherwise it’s going to get out of hand quickly.
NM: It seems to me that the future of our existence is around space and how we think about national security and communications. Where we go around the world is going to be impacted by what we’re doing in space.
MG: It’s true, and it’s already happening, we just don’t think about it. Many people use a form of GPS every morning, either to get to work, or to get their kids to school, or something similar. GPS is satellite-based. Your phone talks to three satellites at once which triangulates your position and tells you where you are. So, we already are deeply dependent on satellites without really thinking about it. Imagine trying to navigate your day without your cell phone. Satellites really are our whole lives at this point.
NM: They really are. I think everyone is wondering, how do you spend your day as an astrophysicist? From the time you wake until the time you retire and go to sleep, what does your day look like?
MG: The first thing I have to do upon waking up is get my kid up and get him to school. Then I split my hours between teaching and research. If I had a day to myself with not too many classes or meetings, I would mostly be on my computer programming in Python.
NM: I assume you get 7-8 hours of sleep a night? How much sleep does an astrophysicist need?
MG: I’m one of those people where if I don’t get my eight hours I’m a complete wreck; totally and completely useless. Today we have a grant deadline—the National Science Foundation once a year has a competition for research funding. Even though I was working most of the weekend to try and finish that grant, I just can’t sacrifice sleep, as I know it won’t help.
NM: One of the things that I believe has made Rubicon successful in the waste and recycling business is being able to use information that we have today and make predictions about where the economy is going to be or where the waste industry could go. What prediction do you have for us over the next 10 years; what should we be thinking about related to your field?
MG: I would love to be able to inspire the next generation to continue thinking about all the huge problems that we have currently facing us. Whether it’s waste, or climate change, or getting into space; just continuing to ask big questions and continuing to ask how we can solve them together. From inspiring the next 10-year-old kid to study physics and to learn more about rockets and launching stuff into space, to just asking how to continue the conversation with all of us so that we can keep talking to each other.
NM: We’re so grateful for all you’ve done for us in getting involved with Clear Constellation. What advice do you have to all of us here today about how we can all get involved in the competition? What can we be doing as a company to really move this discussion forward?
MG: I’m so excited, I think Clear Constellation is a really awesome step forward both for the ideas that will come out—I can’t wait to see what the teams come up with—but also for raising awareness. I think a key thing in the next five years is making sure that we start discussing what kind of regulation or limits or just suggestions we have for the space launches that are going to happen in the next five years. Little things, like tiny little tweaks on various different satellites that are being launched can actually make the difference between having a space junk problem and mitigating it. Putting rockets on every satellite that’s launched so that when it dies it can be moved into the proper orbit or de-orbited properly. Those tiny tweaks can actually be the difference between a disaster and something that’s not a problem. Now we have a chance to do it right, to make sure that we don’t have a space junk problem going forward. Having those conversations and making those smaller tweaks now will make life easier in the future.
NM: That’s great advice. We are so proud to collaborate with you to drive this discussion because I think it is one of the more important discussions that we’re having right now. I truly believe that this is an issue of national security as well. If we are compromised in space, we are going to have a hard time protecting our country. Switching gears for one final thought; if we know of a veteran that wants to be involved with the Warrior-Scholar Project, what’s the process for making that happen?
MG: Warrior-Scholar.org is the place to go. One of the good things that has come out of the pandemic is that Warrior-Scholar now offers virtual courses; students can get involved wherever they are, whether they’re still active duty, recently transitioned out of the military, or if they transitioned 10 or 20 years ago. The one-week Warrior-Scholar bootcamp is really impactful, and I can’t emphasize enough that if you know someone who may be interested in this, to send them to the website. There are plenty of seats available. Hundreds of veterans have gone through the program and so many say it was a positive, life-changing experience.
NM: That’s terrific. Last question, and this is not as formal, but do you have a favorite science fiction view of space? Is there anything that resembles what you are seeing in real life?
MG: I’m a huge fan of The Expanse, and it feels like a fairly realistic view of the universe. I also just saw Dune last week which was really awesome too. I’m a huge science nerd, and I love science fiction.
NM: That’s awesome, I’ll have to check them out. One final thought, can you give us one piece of advice that we should all think about on a daily basis?
MG: In order to do good work, you have to be happy. Figuring out what makes you happy is surprisingly difficult, but it’s so important.
Nate Morris is Founder and CEO of Rubicon. To stay ahead of Rubicon’s announcements of new partnerships and collaborations around the world, be sure to follow us on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter, or contact us today.