#STEMSPOTLIGHT: MEET SARAH

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 RugheimerSelf-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. ūüôā 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!! 

photo provided by Sarah


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.
 

L’OREAL DAY 3/4 RECAP!

Days 3 and 4 were super packed in the Weibel Lab! Katie organzied many interesting sessions, so read below for an inside look!

DAY 3

Wednesday began with a literature review meeting. In the Weibel lab, scientists are selected to present a research paper that has either provided foundation for research that is currently being conducted in the lab or a groundbreaking paper. You can read this week’s paper here! After our meeting, we began an introduction to microfluidics with Matt. Microfluidics is the control of small volumes of fluid to be applied in a practical manner. DNA chips, inkjet printheads, and other micro-chip technological devices are developed using microfluidics! Imaged below is a photo of a device we tested out with food coloring!

After we wrapped up microfluidics with Matt and had lunch, we met up with Linda. During our time with Linda, we selected individual bacterial colonies to culture overnight! We also prepared samples using our own saliva to determine the efficacy of standard mouthwash! 

Controlled Volume of Mouthwash

Samples before incubation

After a long day of science we stopped at Babcock Dairy, a famous dairy shop in Wisconsin! Jamese, Linda, Zoe, Katie, and I shared a brownie boat; a Babcock Dairy Special! 
  
DAY 4

Day 4 began with a group lab meeting! Katie H. presented her research regarding the destruction of the bacterial membrane. After the group discussion, we met with Bradley, who helped us with biofilms earlier in the week. We used confocal microscopy to visualize E. Coli and pseudomonas.  We also quantified the cell flourescence!

   
 After our flourescent quantification,we toured the NMR-FAM. The National Magnetic Resonance Facility at Madison uses biomolecular NMR spectroscopy to advance research in structural biology, small molecules, high-throughput methods, and protein production. Jamese and I are identifying different compounds using magnetic resonance in the image below.

  
After the tour and info session, we followed up with Linda and transferred our colony cultures to Petri dishes for further testing.  Transfer pictured below: 

   


Day 4 culminated with a trip to the Wisconsin Union Terrace where we enjoyed food, music, and a beautiful view.  

 
Outfit Details:

Top- Abercrombie & Fitch

Skirt- Hollister 

Thank you L’Oreal for supporting girls in STEM! I am having an incredible time here in Madison. STAY TUNED FOR DAY 5!!!

 

L’Oreal Science Workshop in Wisconsin!¬†

Hey everyone! I am currently studying new techniques in the Weibel Lab located in Madison, Wisconsin! After meeting Dr. Katie Brenner at the L’Oreal For Women in Science Ceremony enabled by Teen Vogue ( 1st blog post on scistrut!), I followed up with her via email to arrange a potential internship or research project in her lab at UW-Madison! Katie was recognized for her innovative work to detect neonatal infections early! A video of her work can be found here: L’Oreal For Women in Science Fellows. Katie’s research inspired me to explore biochemistry and encouraged me to major in biochemistry in the future. After months of email correspondence and extremely generous support from L’Oreal, we developed an outreach science workshop in Katie’s lab! So here is my Day 1/ Day 2 Recap:

DAY 1

Katie organized a meeting with Dr. Doug Weibel, the principal investigator of the Weibel Lab. Dr. Weibel was super friendly and shared his STEM background. Next, Jamese ( fellow teen scientist) and I were introduced to biofilms! A biofilm is any group of microorganisms where cells stick to each other on a surface! Biofilms are everywhere! This introduction and inoculation demo lead perfectly into our specimen collection, which was broadcasted on the L’Oreal USA Periscope! Our goal was to collect samples from different locations near water or actual water samples and visualize antibiotic resistance within these biofilms! Thank you to everyone who tuned into this special broadcast, we will be posting another livestream later this week!    

DAY 2

Day 2 consisted mainly of exciting chemical reactions. We synthesized aspirin and connected what I learned in AP Chemistry this year to reactions in the lab!  

Photo By UW Biochemistry 

After a delicious lunch, we headed over to a scientific glassblowing demonstration with Tracy. Tracy explained to us his role in the development of innovative research at UW-Madison. His ability to translate ideas into glass apparatuses for the lab is super cool!  

  After our day of science was complete, we enjoyed a theatre production of Pride and Prejudice!  

  
Photo: ( left to right) Autumn, Katie, Jamese 

 Outfit Details:

Dress- H&M

Mini Bucket Bag- Rebecca Minkoff

Shoes- Target ( not visible) 

THANK YOU SO MUCH L’OREAL FOR FUNDING  THIS AMAZING EXPERIENCE