Christina Cohen

California Institute of Technology
 

Some say that it was predestined that I would be a scientist since my mother is a high-energy physicist and my father is a mathematician; in fact my mother declared it would be so by the time I was 2 years old. By 7 th grade, however, I had a very different opinion and was determined to be neither a physicist nor a mathematician. This vague plan was quickly abandoned in high school where it became clear that math and science were easy for me, while liberal arts were a struggle. Biology and chemistry were ruled out due to the vast memorization required. In contrast, physics was logical, understandable and directly applicable to the world around me and seemed the easiest, most interesting path to follow in college.

While visiting a number of colleges, my parents and I were shown a video tape of research work done by Dr. Arnoldy at the University of New Hampshire on the aurora borealis. I was mesmerized by the dancing lights and jazzed by the idea of building rockets. At that point I decided to attend UNH and become a space physicist.

After graduating from UNH I went to University of Maryland in College Park which has a strong space physics program. There I joined a research group and went on to study the solar wind with an instrument on the Ulysses spacecraft. After getting my MS and PhD degrees there, I moved here, southern California, to work at the Space Radiation Laboratory at Caltech where I study energetic particles from the Sun and around Jupiter.

While there is time spent on designing, building, and testing instruments in space physics, I would say most of us spend the majority of our time in front of a computer analyzing data returned from those instruments. Working with the data often seems like solving a large puzzle to me. Through patterns I see in the data, ideas I kick around with colleagues, and computer models I develop/use, I try to understand how the Sun accelerates ions to very high energies and what happens during that process. Understanding this is not only interesting in its own right, but it also has benefits to society in that these energetic ions can cause problems in scientific and communication instruments on spacecraft as well as pose a radiation hazard for astronauts.

There are many things, other than the intellectual challenge, about my job as a scientist that I treasure. I get to travel all over the world and meet many interesting scientists that are excited to tell me about their work and discuss mine. My job is very flexible in that I can work all kinds of hours, at the office or home, which allows me to be present for the myriad of activities my 2 girls participate in, not to mention staying home with them when they are sick. The small group of people I work with are smart, funny, and enjoyable.

Although I grew up hearing how difficult it was for my mother to be a female physicist, I never found it particularly hard. Yes, females are the minority, but there seems to be quite a few doing great stuff, particularly in space physics, and more often than not they are encouraging and supportive towards other female scientists. I think attitudes have changed significantly from my mother's era and I hope that they are even better when my girls are old enough to consider science as a career choice. My advice to them and other girls is to not limit your options, try different things, and find something that you really enjoy doing. Don't worry about what others expect or demand that you be or not be and listen to your heart.

 

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