Mansi Kasliwal, an astrophysicist and an Assistant Professor at Caltech, USA, briefly visited ICTS in Dec 2019 to present her research. In the short time she spent on our campus (and the long drive to Bengaluru airport), we caught up with her on her work, her journey towards becoming an astrophysicist and how she manages to juggle her personal and professional life. Read below the excerpts from the interview.
IH: To start with, tell us what you work on?
MK: My work is on time domain multi-messenger astronomy. I observe cosmic fireworks and try to characterize them across the electromagnetic spectrum and understand the physics associated with them.
IH: How and where do you spot these cosmic fireworks?
MK: What we have is a network of robotic telescopes and they image the sky. Basically, celestial cinematography, where we continuously make a movie of the sky and we look for changes. For example, here is a star that was not there before and what can we learn about it and also new flashes of lights, that are millions-billions times brighter than the sun, but only for a few hours on some days.
IH: How frequent do these cosmic fireworks occur?
MK: Every single night. Weather sometimes plays spoilsport. You cannot see anything when it rains, but they occur every night.
IH: Tell us about the network of telescopes that you mentioned earlier. How does it work?
MK: The main advantage of having this global network of observatories around the world that we call GROWTH (Global Relay of Observatories Watching Transients Happen), is that we can beat sunrise. When we discover a transient in one part of the world, we need to study it before it fades away. If it lasts for only a few hours and will not occur in the same location the next night, we need to keep tracking it as the sun sets. So, we need to keep moving west - from California to Hawaii, then to Japan, Taiwan and India, to get a ring of telescopes from around the world to observe the event, so we can continuously collect data before it fades away.
IH: How long do cosmic fireworks lasts?
MK: Sometimes they last for a few hours and sometimes a few days.
IH: And you know beforehand how long each one is going to last?
MK: We use the rate of evolution in the same hour during nights to calculate which ones are going to be the fastest. We accordingly organize the follow-up campaign.
IH: How is it like being a part of a project with so many collaborating scientists?
MK: It is like a one big family. But at the same time, there can be differences in opinion, cultural differences etc. Not everyone sees the same thing in the same way. Fortunately, I have not faced much challenges in this aspect because the network of people is much stronger than the network of telescopes. And many of them are young scientists, some are friends and classmates from graduate school, now based in different countries. So, it is a very nice supportive set of people. Even during intense times, like for example during an event in August (2017), we were able to stand together as a team and continue working hard. We were able write three papers in Science, in just three weeks. Many teams, due to the intense amount of pressure, stress and high stakes, face difficulties in situations like these. But I was very lucky that my team was very supportive, and we all stood together and focused on the science and tried to get it right.
“Students bring a fresh perspective and they don’t bring with them a bias in thinking.”
IH: Looks like large and multiple collaborative projects like in CERN, LIGO etc. is the new way for science.
MK: Absolutely. The universe is such a beautiful place. Its so majestic. Now that we are investigating it deeper and deeper, mysteries of the universe are slowly dissolving political and national boundaries. The earth is one tiny little dot in the context of space. I think it promotes and facilitates global citizenship. You are united in your curiosity to understand and study the beautiful universe that we live in.
IH: Share with us your journey of becoming an astrophysicist?
MK: I grew up in Indore. On a farm actually. We had a dairy with a hundred cows. I went to a local school- Sri Sathya Sai Vidhya Vihar, until 10th grade. I always loved science and at that time I didn’t even know what being a scientist meant. I didn’t know that it could actually be my profession. It was just my passion. My parents and the entire extended family are in businesses of different sorts, so I had no role model in the family to whom I could look up to and follow in their footsteps to be a scientist. But still I wanted to be one. I had a vague notion of what a scientist did. My parents were very supportive and they wanted me and my siblings to pursue our dreams, and they thought one of the ways that this was possible for me was to send me abroad to study and explore. On finishing 10th grade, I applied to high schools in the US and decided to go to Pomfret school in north east Connecticut-a private school, atop a hill and very isolated. But they were offering college level science courses for high school students. And when I spoke with the teachers there, they were really really nice. In this school, I could be a part of research projects and see how research was done firsthand. My parents were brave (laughs). I don’t know whether I will able to do that with my own kid now. People used to say things like “you can’t send a young girl all alone and so far”, but my parents always used to reply saying “this is what she wants and she should follow her dreams. She needs to take up this opportunity, have a sense of adventure and follow through with it”.
I spent senior year of high school at Bryn Mawr College. After that, I chose to go to Cornell University, where I could pursue engineering physics. I wanted to build a broad foundation in physics, chemistry and math before specializing in astrophysics. Then at Caltech, I did my Ph.D. in astrophysics following which I took up a NASA fellowship for post-doctoral work. It was called the NASA Hubble Fellowship at the Carnegie Institution for Science and I visited Princeton University. On finishing it in 2015, I went back to Caltech as an Assistant Professor.
“Challenges women scientists face are very different from those faced by their male colleagues.”
IH: Tell us more about the kind of mentoring you received in US by your teachers? How important was it in the way it influenced your interests?
MK: The mentoring style I experienced in the US had no restrictions or constraints. Literally, the limit stretched much beyond the sky. When it came to courses, one could explore or pursue which ever course one was interested in or passionate about. The curriculum there had hands-on experiments and the teachers opened-up new avenues for your learning. One could finish for example, a math course and immediately go to the next level. So, if one liked a subject or was able to solve a set of problems, the teacher would give them another more challenging set of questions to solve. It was adaptable according to your interests and speed. One could do 11th grade English and at the same time also do college level courses in physics and mathematics. The curriculum was adaptable to each individual and a class could have had students with different courses and at different levels. This way the students were able to challenge themselves with new information at a pace they could cope with and take up subjects they enjoyed. The other important thing was the internship opportunities during the summer, where one could go and work with a scientist in a research lab and have a chance to solve a small mystery or two of the universe. When I was an undergrad at Cornell, the Spitzer Space telescope was launched, so there were a lot of fun projects to do.
IH: What is it about working in the US, that you like the most?
MK: Unlike in many Indian institutes, there is no hierarchy between students and professors. In fact, all my students call me Mansi. I insist that they call me Mansi. Students there are considered as junior colleagues, and everyone is treated in a very similar manner and their opinions taken seriously. Having mutual respect for all, creates a very productive environment for research. Students bring a fresh perspective and they don’t bring with them a bias in thinking, which might develop if one is working in the same field for many decades. I really appreciate the mutual respect that the systems in US have towards all ages.
“As far as career is concerned, having a baby is always inconvenient. But if you want one, you have one. Be brave and work through it.”
IH: Share with us how you manage to strike a balance between professional and personal life?
MK: The most important factor is my husband. He is supportive, always has been and has helped me so much in all aspects of my life. That’s what helps me balance my work and home. Challenges women scientists face are very different from those faced by their male colleagues. I got married when I was in graduate school and had my first child just as I started as a faculty at Caltech. It was very important for me and my husband, that we have a child at the right time. My baby was just three months old and I had to go to work. I loved astronomy, but I loved my baby also. I had to nurse and feed him frequently and this made it difficult to just get up and go. I was then struggling to strike a balance and was juggling so many things at once. Thankfully Caltech has a childcare center on campus, and I started taking my baby with me when he was 6 months old. They had very nice people to take care of him and I could visit him whenever I needed to nurse him and check on him. When your baby is small, you find it difficult to stay away for too long. But the childcare center allowed me to enjoy both my career and motherhood. It’s a juggling act, it’s very difficult, but it’s do-able. In my opinion, if you give up one for the other, in the long run you will regret it. These two are essential parts of life and I cannot give up either one of them. As far as career is concerned, having a baby is always inconvenient. But if you want one, you have one. Be brave and work through it.
IH: What can institutions do to help women scientists with young children?
MK: I think being a little understanding can make a large difference. The childcare at Caltech is fantastic. I must admit, it took a great weight off my shoulders to know that my child was safe, happy and cared for, while I was working. And I was always close by for emergencies. It also builds a community and a support system because all faculty with kids make use of the childcare centre and one gets to interact with faculty from all across the institution. The second thing is, making conferences and workshops that scientists attend, children friendly. Not long ago, I received the Packard fellowship and I went to the Packard conference to present my work. And it was for the first time in my experience, the conference organizers actively invited families to come to the conference. They held the conference in an aquarium, and it was open to all children. They had arranged special activities for children and my son enjoyed playing with other kids. They made them feel welcome and not an inconvenience. I wish more organizers would realize that it is difficult for scientists with young children and make conferences child friendly.