Dr. Katie Mack is Assistant Professor of Physics at North Carolina State University and member of the Leadership in Public Science Cluster there. In addition, Katie is an avid science communicator and author of the recently released book The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking). Her writing has also been published in popular publications including Scientific American, Slate, Sky & Telescope, Time.com, and Cosmos Magazine. Katie received her undergraduate degree in physics from the California Institute of Technology (CalTech) and her PhD in astrophysics from Princeton University. Afterwards, she accepted a Science and Technology Facilities Council postdoctoral research fellowship at the University of Cambridge and Kavli Institute for Cosmology. Next, Katie was awarded a Discovery Early Career Research Award Fellowship to conduct research at the University of Melbourne. Katie accepted her current position at North Carolina State University in 2018. In our interview, Katie shares more about her life and work.
People Behind the Science Podcast Show Notes
Life Outside of Science (2:26)
When Katie isn’t doing research or science communication, she enjoys traveling and exploring new places, playing basketball, rock climbing, trail running, reading science fiction books, and watching science fiction shows and films.
The Scientific Side (3:37)
As a cosmologist, Katie studies the universe as a whole over the full scale of time, including how the universe evolved, what it is made out of, and how it works. She is interested in understanding how new theories about the universe could be tested with new experiments or observations. Her lab does a lot of calculations and computer modeling to determine how new observations may be able to tell us more about the universe.
A Dose of Motivation (4:45)
“Never give up on a dream just because of the time it will take to accomplish it. The time will pass anyway.” by Earl Nightingale
What Got You Hooked on Science? (9:39)
Katie spent her childhood taking apart electronics and tinkering at home. She loved reading about black holes, the big bang, and time travel in science magazines, and she was inspired by Stephen Hawking’s book A Brief History of Time. Her mother used to listen to Richard Feynman lectures in the car and would take Katie to attend local scientific lectures that were open to the public. As Katie’s interests in cosmology developed, she decided to major in physics in college. Along her career path, Katie also developed a keen interest in science communication. She got involved in science writing in college and soon after began discussing science on social media. Katie’s current faculty position allows her to combine her passions for research, teaching, and public engagement.
The Low Points: Failures and Challenges (20:41)
Rejection and failure are common in science. Katie has had many experiences where her grants were rejected, she didn’t get positions she applied for, presentations went poorly, or her ideas or calculations didn’t work out. For example, towards the end of her time as a postdoc, Katie applied for about 70 different jobs in a variety of different places. Getting a tenure track faculty job is really difficult, and Katie knew she wanted a position where public engagement would be recognized as a valuable addition to her research. It takes a lot of resilience to keep picking yourself up after each rejection or failure and to realize that these events aren’t the end of your career.
A Shining Success! (23:37)
It means a lot to Katie every time one of her papers is accepted or a presentation goes well. However, at the moment, one of the most exciting successes she is celebrating is the recent release of her first book. She put so much work into writing, editing, and promoting the book, and it has been thrilling and rewarding to see that people from all over the world have been reading it and leaving positive reviews. Another exciting recent success was being invited to give a colloquium at a workshop at the Aspen Center for Physics last summer. This invitation was an honor because the Center draws a diverse group of physicists together from a variety of research areas. Katie presented an overview of the different ways of looking for dark matter in the universe, and her talk was very well-received by the audience. This was a validating experience and reinforced that Katie’s work was valuable and useful for her peers.
Book Recommendations (26:02)
Network Effect by Martha Wells and The Relentless Moon by Mary Robinette Kowal
Most Treasured Travel (27:32)
Katie had an opportunity to spend about a month in Rwanda to teach a course on astrophysics at the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences. The course was an intense graduate class on physical cosmology that included 30 hours of instruction over three weeks. It was a lot of work, but it was amazing to meet students from different backgrounds from across the continent. While she was in Rwanda, Katie also participated in a guided trek through the mountains to see gorillas at one of the national parks there. It was remarkable to be able to observe wild gorillas in their natural habitat.
Quirky Traditions and Funny Memories (31:23)
While Katie was working at the University of Melbourne, several students completed their PhDs, and it was cool to see how the PhD process works in different countries. The students each had to write their dissertation, make all the requested revisions, and turn in the final version at the Registrar’s office. When the final version is turned in, the Registrar’s office gives the student a balloon on a stick to celebrate the occasion. It was really charming to see students returning to the department with their balloons and beaming with joy at having finished their degrees.
Advice For Us All (35:42)
Make sure your time doesn’t get too fragmented. If you are going a lot of different directions and working on a lot of different things, you won’t be able to find the time to really think about a project or problem and see it through to completion. You’ll be interrupted and distracted, and it will be a lot more difficult to make progress.
Katie is a theoretical astrophysicist in the field of cosmology, the study of the universe from beginning to end. Throughout her career, Katie has investigated dark matter, the early universe, galaxy formation, black holes, cosmic strings, the ultimate fate of the cosmos, and distant cosmic explosions known as fast radio bursts. She specializes in the connections between astrophysics and particle physics. Precision measurements of the cosmos on the largest scales can reveal the nature of elementary particles and the structure of fundamental physical laws. Katie examines how the particle physics of dark matter can influence the evolution of stars and galaxies and, thus, what we might see in new observations. In addition to her academic research, she is a dedicated science communicator.