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Meet Prof. Sara Beck

From a young star-gazing and nature enthusiast to a renowned astrophysicist; Prof. Sara Beck shares with us the most exciting revelations in her career as a researcher and her favorite aspect of teaching. Read more to learn about the path to a career in astrophysics, and what Sara would advise to young women starting their career in STEM.

Tell us about your journey to astrophysics and to where you are now?

There are two things to know about how I started off:

The first thing is that I was a child when the Americans were at the height of the space program. I was 13 when Apollo-8 went around the moon and sent us the picture of the Earth, and so I must have been 14 and a half when we landed on the moon. This made a huge impression on me. I liked the sciences as a kid, and I thought I would be doing something related to the sciences in my life. I seriously thought, not as a fantasy, that I would maybe work in a space station, or maybe they would even have a lab on the moon, by the time I was growing up. That’s what a person would think in those days. It’s a bit of a shame actually that this didn’t happen yet, but maybe it is for your generation to do.

The other thing is that I was always very much a nature person. I liked the outdoors, I wanted to be outside with birds, animals, and trees. When I was growing up I also met the stars; I grew up in a part of the United States that was, at that time, not so crowded, not so much light (now it is very crowded of-course) and in the summer, at night, we would just a blanket on the ground, layback, look-up and see the milky-way. To this day, when people ask me how do I get my children to be interested in astronomy, I say “Have you seen the stars? go to Mitzpe-Ramon sometime in the winter and show your kids what the stars look like. You don’t see them from Tel-Aviv.

So, this is how I started out. As for how I got to where I am – I had teachers who said “do math and do physics, because whatever you do in life math and physics are going to be important”. I was very lucky that in both college and post-graduate degrees I had teachers who were extremely good, who really guided me in the right way. I’ve been very lucky with that.

Today, I am a tenured professor at a very good institution. Tel-Aviv University has a fine physics department, very respectable. I am doing active research; I have active projects; I have collaborators all over the world. I’ve lived to see incredible advances and revolutions in astrophysics. When I started, astrophysics astronomy was confined to just the optical light, the light you see with your eyes. I got into infra-red in 1977, and recently I saw myself described in some pamphlet that somebody had as someone who had been the infra-red since it began, as that was almost when it began. We now have infra-red, radio, ultra-violet, X-ray, gamma-ray – the whole electromagnetic spectrum. I’ve also lived to see gravitational-wave astronomy becoming an every-day thing, we have gravity-wave sources. This is the most amazing revolution; in the last 40 years, I think we’ve seen more development in astronomy than in the 1000 years before that. So, it has been a hell of a time to be an astronomer!

What is your research about?

My research is about the formation of stars and star clusters. When we started, we were really groping in the dark; we would see big clouds in space of clouds and dust, with no visible light and we would say there is something going down, as there is a lot of energy coming out and we would wonder what is happening. Over the course of years, it became established, a lot of people are working on this, that inside those clouds when they collapse start forming planet systems. Now, with the new observations from observatories like ALMA we can look at these planet systems and see many details, we can even do the weather report as there is a huge increase in detail. We have really come a long way there. In fact, the field of star formation is beginning to blend into how you form solar systems, and the origins of life even.

What was the path to get to where you are now?

I got a BSc. degree in physics from Princeton University, I was working with the late David Wilkinson, a lovely man. He was the head of a large project, a satellite the mapped the history of the universe. He would have gotten a Nobel Prize, but unfortunately, he passed away before they awarded the Nobel Prizes, and it went to his two other colleagues who worked on the satellite, but they all agreed that he would have gotten it if he lived.

I went to Berkeley for my graduate studies, where I worked with Charlie Towns, my rabbi if you would like, who was a Nobel Prize laureate and an inspiration in every respect. He lived to be almost a hundred. He was always active and brilliant and was a great inspiration.

I was a student during a period when the science projects were not so big as they are today. There were science teams, but they weren’t as big as they are today. I was working with two-three other students, together as a team on a project within the whole framework. We had a lot of independence, a lot of freedom and adventures, we could try a lot of things. I hope that students today do that too. I try to encourage students to keep some fraction of their time and energy to do something that is a little bit “crazy”, and that they would like to do.

A good boss, professor, or mentor would support you when you come to them with a crazy idea that doesn’t cost too much time and money. A good boss would say: “go for it!”.

What are your favorite things about your job?

Well, I’ll divide my answer in two:

For teaching, is when you can tell that a student has gotten interested. So much of the time I can see students just wanting to pass the exam, but then sometimes you’d have that moment that a student would stop for a second and say: Hey! wait a minute, that’s cool.

As for research, I am an observer, I get the data, I reduce the data, so instead of looking like computer discs, it begins to look like pictures of things. At first, it looks like a mess, I start playing around with it, and then it begins to make sense. You start to see what’s going on, there are actually structures, you see what’s happening and the way the whole thing is built. When it begins to come together and make that picture and you begin to feel “OK, now I see what’s happening”, that’s a wonderful feeling!

Prof. Beck and her team at the Gemini telescope in Hawaii, setting up the equipment.

What has been the most rewarding moment in your career so far?

I have to say that one of my most rewarding achievements is teaching Ana Heller, because she goes on to teach high-school students to put experiments on satellites. They say that teaching is important, but teaching a teacher is leveraging that.

There are another couple of students that I had, I will not mention their name to not embarrass them, who went on to be very valuable people; they did things, manage things, they helped people, people you need in the system. So I am very proud of that.

In terms of my own science, there have been several of them, but I remember one in particular; as a graduate student at Berkeley, on my third or second day, a dear friend of mine had built a new IR instrument. It was a crazy far-out instrument, we didn’t know if it’s going to work, people were betting on it, and we took it out to a telescope nearby to try it. It took hours to set it up, it was such a pain in the neck. We didn’t think we would see anything, we tried to look at something, and all of a sudden, we’ve seen a signal so strong that we had to turn down the electronics before they blow up. People had seriously told me that we won’t see anything here, certainly not with this machine as this machine was crazy! Then we turned it on and it was just WOW! It was really a revelation! Something I remember after 40 years.

Can you tell us more about that revelation? What was that signal?

It was back in the days before infra-red had become such an important branch in astronomy, and we were looking at a part of the infra-red spectrum where the standard classical astronomy said there cannot possibly be anything out there, we cannot possibly see anything bright. We suspected, for astronomical reasons, that there was a very powerful infra-red emission source hidden in this cloud, we looked at it and it was a hundred times brighter than we expected.

Another moment that I remember was when I had massive data on very young star clusters in other galaxies mostly, and there were some aspects of it the consistently didn’t make sense. We expected to see a certain behavior, a wavelength in radio. All of them were misbehaving the same way; too bright in one wavelength and too faint in another. I thought that I reduced the data wrong, but then I suddenly realized that I had seen the same kind of behavior in another place, and maybe the reason I had seen it there also applied to these star clusters. Eventually, it did turn out to be that way and was a really big breakthrough. That was a really wonderful moment!

A friend of mine used to say:

“If you know exactly what you’re doing, it is not research”

And there is something to that, you have to be open-minded because the universe is going to surprise you!

Who were your role models when you were growing up? Or throughout your career?

Charlie Towns was the man who invented the laser. I can’t say that he was a “role model” because he was such a great figure, you don’t model yourself after someone like him. I certainly wanted to be as close to that as I could.

One of the senior graduate students that I’ve worked with was my inspiration for never getting down. He is now a professor at the University of Texas. I tend to be very “up” and “down”, and he was always just “leveled”; not too “down” and not too “up”, just keep on going. In any field, you can’t get too discouraged, you’re going to have a set-back and if you take it too much to heart it’s going to be very bad for you.

As for women role models that I had growing up, when I was in middle-school I had read everything about Marie Curie. At that time, she may have been the only great woman scientist we knew of. She was great, and I thought she had a very romantic story too. When I went to Paris, I visited the place where she had worked and discovered that it was radioactive and got closed off.

You have mentioned before that you were also very inspired by the Apollo program; can you tell us about that?

I was very inspired by that chance of going into space, of being a part of this movement of people into space. Although, I never wanted to be an astronaut for the simple reason that I could not stand to sit in a tiny little space like that for such a long time. I think that it is wonderful that space is now more accessible to the people. It’s not just the governments, the armies, and air-forces. Elon Musk may be crazy, or may not be crazy, but he is doing stuff, and getting people into space. I think that’s wonderful!

In moments of self-doubt or adversity, how do you build yourself back up?

When I was young, I was probably feeling less secure, I would get very very down and blame myself for anything that went wrong. You have to learn by going through it. It’s not about the one success or one failure, it’s about to keep ongoing.

I am an astrophysicist, I am not a heart surgeon, If I make a mistake in a calculation, no one has died. So, it is not so terrible, you make mistakes and keep on going. It’s hard to believe this when someone tells you, but you have to learn this with experience. The ones who end up being the most productive are those who keep on showing up every day. I was lucky to have good examples like that.

Another thing about being an observational astronomer is that back in my younger days when I was traveling to telescopes, as they were not computer controlled, we were at the mercy of the weather. Imagine you’d travel to a remote mountain top in South America, a difficult and not very pleasant trip. You’re sitting there on that mountain top with lots of scorpions around, not very great conditions, and it rains every night. This is data you need to get for your thesis, and now it’s going to take another six months, you have to develop patience.

The other thing I found out is that everybody has moments of self-doubt and everybody feels bad sometimes. If you’re doing research, you’re doing hard stuff. If you knew it already it wouldn’t be fun. I am saying this, especially to the young women, because I know that for some reason when I was going to college, I was going around with the idea that all the guys in the class must have known this already and only I didn’t. Which is insane obviously, but you feel that, at least I felt it. We all had the same exams, and then you realize that they don’t know any better than you do and that everyone is in the same position.

What advice can you give to women who are starting their career in Space?

Don’t be afraid of the hard stuff, challenge yourself as much as you can. This starts even before you start your career, in junior-high or high-school, if they are offering an advanced program, go into it, what do you got to lose? Challenge yourself. It’s an opportunity. Great opportunities are going to be wrapped up in something that’s going to be more difficult.

Of-course you have your own judgment and considerations, but don’t be afraid of challenges. I see so many bright female high-school students who give up thinking something is going to be too hard without even try it. You should try it, if you don’t like it, you can drop out of it, but go for the challenges.

How did your family help to shape your career path in STEM?

My family were not math and science types. One thing that I’ve noticed with women who go into the sciences, their parents were engineers or scientists too. That wasn’t my case, however, they were really into education, they supported my studies and were very encouraging about my abilities. Even though they could never understand my research, they were very proud of it. When my first paper was published in a scientific journal, my parents purchased a copy. They also went to popular astronomy lectures to understand what was going on. That was cool!

How do you think the space industry and academia have changed for women over the years? Has it become more inclusive? (worldwide, or Israel in particular)

I defiantly think that it is a better environment. I never felt that I was discriminated against by people I was working with, I was always a part of the team. But the general structure has become more accommodating. Even things like having child-care around in university campuses.

I’ll give you an example: If you had a husband-and-wife team, and they were both scientists, it was expected that the husband would have a job and the wife would just hang around almost as a guest. There was actually a woman who won the Nobel Prize at a time when she was not officially employed at the university. Her husband was at the university, she was an adjunct faculty member, because they just didn’t take her that seriously. These days, you have lots of married couples that are in the sciences, that when they apply for jobs, they arrange it in a way that they both get jobs. This is very important. It is defiantly much more accommodating.

Israel is a much better environment for working women because it is just more family-oriented. It is much more acceptable for men in Israel to take an hour off to see their kid’s party in his kindergarten. It’s not a question of a government policy so much, but it is much more a family-oriented society.

If you had one piece of advice for your 10-year-old self, what would it be?

I would tell myself, don’t be so up and down, try to find a level, keep on going, don’t be too sensitive. Maintain your own internal balance, know what you’re going to do and that you’re going to do it.

Would there be any decisions that you’d have made differently?

There was over a period of a couple of years when I let the research slide. It was after the birth of my last child and I was very involved with family things and teaching a lot. I feel like I kind of lost that edge at that time, I would go back and kick myself and say: No, don’t do that! Get back to high speed!

I would tell any young person: don’t waste time because you don’t have as much of it, as you think you do.

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Feb 07, 2021

Thank you so much for your words dear Sara, my master teacher. I salute you with all my respect and love.

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