I met Sarah at the L’Oreal For Women in Science Ceremony where she was honored for her incredible contributions in STEM. Dr. Sarah Ballard is a Torres fellow in exoplanetary astrophysics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology! In addition to her research, Sarah co-founded a podcast series with fellow astrophysicist and best friend, Sarah Rugheimer“Self-care with Drs.Sarah” to address issues faced by women in STEM careers and foster self-confidence. Sarah discovered four exoplanets turning 30, however, becoming an astrophysicist was not Sarah’s career goal from the start. Check out Sarah’s interview to learn how she developed her passion for astronomy and her advice for girls in STEM!
At the L’Oreal For Women in Science ceremony, we discussed how your science requirement at UC Berkeley led to your current career. What was that experience like?
I signed up to take astronomy in my freshman year at Berkeley because of the physical science breadth requirement! I thought at the time that it was a useless requirement for me, since I planned to major in Gender Studies or Peace and Conflict studies. The class was on the early side, 9 AM, so I would stumble sleepily out of the dorms and go. My interest starting building slowly, almost imperceptibly. I started never missing section (where a TA reviewed the weekly material) or office hours. And then one morning, something very unusual happened. It was a lecture Iike any other, and the professor was showing PowerPoint slides. He pointed at one slide and asked the class, “what do you think this is a picture of?” I’ll describe the image as I saw it then, without the years of astronomy training I’ve had since that morning. It looked like two cotton balls. One was bigger than the other one. In my mind, I guessed to myself “maybe it’s a star?” The professor said, “these are two elliptical galaxies. The smaller one is in orbit around the bigger one.” I realized two things at the same time, and I felt an electric thrill up my spine, and the little hairs on the back of my neck stood up. The first was that I was looking at this galaxy, comprising 100s of billions of stars, but even the *closest distance* between two neighboring stars was unfathomably, inhumanly big. Even the tiniest scale outstripped my imagination. And secondly, the same physical laws apply on the the largest possible scales. The same gravity that makes the moon orbit the Earth and the Earth orbit the Sun causes galaxies to orbit one another.
But just like most women who pursue advanced degrees in STEM, I didn’t end up changing my major to astronomy because I necessarily thought I was good at it, or because I thought I could make a contribution (in contrast, these are reasons young men tend to self-report about why they pursued science). I did it, like most women, because people who mattered to me encouraged me to. I met with the professor, I met with the TA, and I met with an undergraduate advisor for the college. All three unequivocally supported my idea to change my major to astrophysics. My TA said, “you’re my best student.” But I agonized over the decision, because I was so uncertain about whether I’d be able to pass the tough physics and math courses, etc etc. In the counselor’s office, I was actually tearful because I was so agitated and confused. She asked me, “what does it *feel like* to do astronomy, Sarah?” I described printing out star charts to find planets outside my dorm, and looking forward to doing my homework. She said, “that’s what it’s supposed to feel like!” I’ll never forget those words. As I often say, there but for the grace of those three people go I! If I hadn’t received encouragement at that critical juncture, my professional life might have turned out extremely differently.
How do you decompress after a long day at the lab?
Depends on my mood! If I’m feeling really disconnected from my more empathic, heartfelt side, I’ll spend some time singing and playing the guitar. If I feel really burned out, I’ll watch comedies on TV, or read Tumblr. If I feel lonely, I’ll take a book (I love to read fiction. No space stuff outside of wor) and go to a cafe, or hang out with a friend, paint our nails or whatnot. If I feel sad, I’ll make sure to make time to do at least half an hour of yoga (I like Yoga with Adriene’s YouTube channel) or listen to a comedy podcast (my favorite is Call Chelsea Peretti!).
Describe your personal style in three words.
“Hip therapist aesthetic”, lol. I like very tailored, curated looks that also broadcast something empathic and approachable. Bronze hoop earring, some nicely fitting black capris, and an asymmetric sweater with koi swimming on it, for example. That’s what I wore when I celebrated my birthday party this year.
What advice do you have for girls pursuing STEM careers?
My advice is derived from what I know is more impactful (in peer-reviewed research) related to the retention of people in scientific trajectories, and also based on my own experience. First, find a mentor, or at least identify someone you can look at and think “I want to be like her.” Not only professionally, but personally too. Representation really matters. Second, value the things that you love about yourself *outside* of science, like your sense of humor, relationships with friends or family, etc. Research shows that, for women, reflecting on the things that matter to you creates a kind of buffer against the harmful cultural noise of negative stereotypes. Your funny, silly self is not different from your hard-working, scientifically accomplished self. It’s the same person, and the pieces work best when they work together. Third, trust your instincts. That’s not only STEM career advice, but advice about how to live a rich life. I think women, particularly women in historically (white) male spaces, feel invisible pressure to discount how they really feel about a situation, in favor of how they think they “should” feel. If you’re having a feeling about something, it’s for a reason. Feelings encode important information about a situation and your own state, and no good scientist disregards good data. 🙂 You’re the one who knows what’s best for you.
What’s your go-to makeup look?
I like a subtle, natural look that makes me look glowy and awake (even if I haven’t had my coffee yet). Typically that means a nude/rose lipstick (I like Bobbi Brown’s Raisin), a nicely blended eyeshadow look with very subtle gradations across the lid (I love Shu Uemura’s eyeshadow palette, which a fellow women physicist recommended to me), and mascara. And a little bit of highlighter on my cheekbones, like the ones by Becca that they sell at Sephora. I could go on, because I love talking about makeup, but I’ll pump the brakes there.
Do you have an ultimate career goal or major question you would like to answer within astrophysics?
Yes, I’d like to know whether anything about the dynamical history of a system of planets encodes anything about the individual atmospheres of their planets, or their habitability. Nature hides so many interesting links between things, and I suspect (but I don’t know yet!) that there will be a pattern of some kind between how systems of planets are sculpted and evolve, how suitable they are for life, and the types of molecules and hazes we will find in their atmospheres. That’s probably something I think we’ll know the answer to, at least in some form, in around 10 or 15 years. Come ask me then what the answer is!!
Thanks for reading! Want to be featured in scistrut’s STEM spotlight series or know someone who would? Comment on this post, tweet me @autumngreco_ or send me a message on Instagram.