Alessandra Pacini

Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab

smiling woman with tattoosMy name is Ale, I am a Brazilian space physicist living in the US, studying the sky and focusing on spreading quality scientific information to underrepresented groups, motivating girls in STEM and promoting gender equality in the Space Physics area. I’m a Space Weather Physicist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab and a CEO of the InSpace LLC.

I am the youngest kid of a multi-cultural Brazilian family. When I was born, in the early-80’s, São Paulo (my home-town) was already one of the most populous cities in the world, full of industries and concrete. Observing the night sky during my childhood was challenging due to the cars' smoke and the city lights, but my father’s science books on our living room shelves were always reminding me to look up and enjoy the beauties of the sky. When I got to high school, I was lucky to have incredible physics and chemistry teachers who made me understand and embrace the fact that I loved science. My friends called me a nerd at that time (and until now) but I never took it as bullying, I felt it more like a compliment! How could I be offended to be known as a person who likes to understand nature?

Following my passion for science and inspired by Dr. Ellie Arroway (the scientist from Carl Sagan’s beautiful story “Contact”) I choose to study physics in college (I went to the Mackenzie University, in São Paulo). I found out there was a radio astronomy group in my university (called CRAAM) and I didn’t stop knocking on their door until they accepted me as an intern. As soon as my adviser showed me a movie of the Sun rotating and exploding, I fell in love… I decided to be a solar physicist and started studying the solar flares in X-ray and sub-mm waves.

The four years that I spent in college were not enough to answer the questions I had, so I spent seven more year at graduate school, ending up with a master's degree and two PhDs in Space Physics (one from a Brazilian Institute, INPE, and another from a Finnish one, University of Oulu). My research interests have broadened since then, and now include: cosmic rays, solar energetic particles, heliospheric modulation, cosmogenic isotopes and space weather.

As a scientist, my job is to help build knowledge about unknown physical phenomena and share it with society. It’s cool, isn’t it? In general, I work analyzing data on my computer, discussing my results with colleagues and sharing our findings by publishing scientific papers and presenting posters/seminars in conferences around the world (I met my American husband in a conference about Geophysics in Costa Rica). The data that I use comes from satellites or ground-based stations. Sometimes, I create my own database, installing some new antennas or collecting new samples, for example. My fieldwork enabled me to spend months at the Brazilian Antarctic Station, go camping at the Chilean Patagonia, and meet Santa Claus at his office over the Arctic Circle. Being a scientist can be a great adventure!

It is true that my path was not always super exciting… I had considered changing my career direction a few times due to the exhausting productivity marathon that we scientists have to run nowadays (which is especially hard when you are a mom)… But there is always a new project, an old mentor, a brilliant discovery that inspires me to get back on track. I don’t have the ambition to be a famous scientist or the pretension to win the Nobel Prize one day. I just want to keep investigating nature, contributing to the Space Physics area and educating new generations in STEM. I realized that, to be a good scientist, it is not necessary to be a genius, have a mustache and a crazy hairdo (if you have it, it is fine too). You only need to study hard, be curious, focused and well connected. You have to keep your mind open for new techniques, theories and questions. And, the most important thing: you have to persist searching for your answers…

This search always opens space for new and more exciting questions! Being a scientist means being an everlasting curious person, by definition. Even cooler than finding an answer for your scientific question is sharing your discoveries with people around you: general public, your peers, your students, your friends, your kiddos (I have two: Gabriel, a very energetic 5 year-old boy, and little Aurora, a chubby 6 month-old baby). Helping people to better understand Nature and seeing the wonder in my children’s eyes after understanding the world around them will always be my main motivation to be a scientist.

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