Rising Faculty Star: Alison Farmer

February 1, 2005

"Rising Faculty Star" features e-mail interviews with up-and-coming young professors about their backgrounds, their work and their career arcs, among other things. Alison Farmer, a fifth-year graduate student in astrophysics at Caltech, was all over the Astrophysics Rumor Mill this winter; she received fellowship offers from MIT, Berkeley and Harvard.

Q: What drew you to astrophysics?

A: Astrophysics contains all the most exciting regimes of physics, at the same time as being spectacularly beautiful. Understanding the beauty makes it all the more amazing. I came in from the physics side, as opposed to the astronomy side -- I never had a telescope when I was young, and I know only a handful of constellations!

Q: In a sentence or two, can you explain your field of specialty?

I am in training to become a general purpose theoretical astrophysicist. That means  applying a wide range of physics to explain outstanding problems in astrophysics, of which there are many. This means that I specifically do not want to become narrowly specialized within astrophysics. I've worked on gravitational waves, turbulence, binary stars, white dwarfs, kuiper belt objects in our solar system, cosmic rays, Saturn's rings and moons, and I want to keep expanding this range.

Q: You were offered fellowships by Berkeley, Harvard (two), the Institute for Advanced Study, and MIT. Where are you going?

A: I am going to Harvard, combining the two fellowships to make a five-year position.

Q: Why do you think you're so heavily in demand?

A: That is a question I have asked myself a lot, and maybe I am not the right person to ask! However, I think it is because I have an approach to astrophysics which is different to that of most people at my stage -- I am not interested in becoming the world's expert in a narrow field within astrophysics. And being a woman in a very male-dominated field helps me to stand out. Also, I have had a fantastic advisor who has helped to promote me as well as fuelling my excitement for astrophysics and helping to make me a better scientist.

Q: When you are as sought after as you are, do universities engage in a bidding war? Salary? Graduate assistants? Lab facilities? What kinds of things are being offered and what did (or might) put someone over the top?

A: The bidding war is quite intense and stressful! I received lots of phone calls from distinguished professors telling me why their institution is the best choice for me. Duration of position is one area in which institutions compete. Office space and research funds are also negotiable. It is very difficult to decide between the top few universities in terms of academics. In the end I chose the Society of Fellows at Harvard because there I will have the opportunity to interact with academics from all subjects, not just scientists. Also, moving away from my advisor will give me the chance to work more independently and work with new people.

Q: What's the likely career path for you from here?

A: Ideally I will move on to a faculty position.

Q: What have you liked most and least about your academic career so far?

A: What I love about theoretical astrophysics is that there are exciting puzzles to unlock using physical understanding, and that is very rewarding. I also love the fact that in the kind of work I do, I can work anywhere I happen to have a pencil and a pad of paper.

My least favorite things have been the moments of self-doubt. It is so important to be confident in this field, and it is difficult to enjoy work when you are not sure you will succeed.

Q: What do you like to do when you're not studying things like the spokes in Saturn's ring and "The Optical Identification of Close White Dwarf Binaries in the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna Era"?

A: When I'm not working, I like to be outdoors hiking, camping, traveling and generally ending up with lots of bruises! Indoors I play squash and racquetball, I read too much BBC News online, I participate in French theatre, I write letters and I make toys. And I collect Slinky springs.

Q: Do you have a dream job?

A: Yes -- professor of theoretical astrophysics somewhere in the south of France.

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