What do gravitational waves produced from massive events in the universe, like the collision of two black holes, have to do with particles smaller than a single atom? And what is one scientist's favorite holiday? (Hint: Vampires!)
"Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t because you aren’t the right gender, you aren’t the right color, you don’t have good enough grades, etc. If you do hear any of those things, work to prove them wrong. That has always been a motivation for me because there have been more people who have told me that I can’t than believed that I could." - Amber Stuver
For today's post we sat down and chatted with Amber Stuver, a physics instructor in the LSU Department of Physics & Astronomy and a scientist at the LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) Livingston Observatory. LIGO just celebrated the first anniversary of the detection of gravitational waves, commonly known as ripples in fabric of spacetime. The first detection showed up as a very distinguishable series of blips on computers at LIGO, and sounded something like an electronic bird chirping. Amber talks about her research at LIGO, her visit to the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) and more in the Q&A below. Enjoy!
LSU College of Science: The last year has been very exciting for LIGO! What does your research at LIGO look like? What has it been like there on a daily basis since the first two gravitational wave detection events?
Amber: My research has usually focused on work needed to separate true gravitational wave signals from the predominant noise. It's like pulling out a radio signal of a song that is mostly static coming out of the speakers. There are lots of different aspects to that, but they all involve computer programming. I’ve developed programs for supercomputers that pull out the signals from the noise. I've also developed programs to simulate gravitational waves to test these signal programs and programs to identify strong signals that are caused by things in our own environment.
There's a lot of statistics, computer science and physics involved in looking for gravitational waves in the data we collect, not to mention all of the engineering, electronics and other disciplines needed to make the instruments to collect the data.
Life has been very busy at LIGO since the announcements of the gravitational wave discoveries and it is exactly as wonderful as I always hoped it would be. I’ve been working with LIGO since 1999 toward these first detections.
I also work with the education center, so I get to talk to students of all ages and the public about what we found and what it means. And on top of that, I also get to teach physics and astronomy classes at LSU.
LSU College of Science: What makes gravitational wave research exciting for you personally?
Amber: What’s truly exciting for me is the possibility that we will discover something that we never imagined, something new. Every time humans have looked at the universe in a new way - visible light with a telescope, microwaves, infrared, ultraviolet light - we have found something we didn’t expect and revolutionized our understanding of the universe. Since gravitational waves are an entirely new way of observing the universe, it is probable that we will make similar discoveries with gravitational waves. I want to be there when that happens.
LSU College of Science: You recently got to visit the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab). What is Fermilab? What was most exciting for you, visiting that laboratory? How is the work there related to the work done at LIGO?
Amber: Fermilab is a high-energy particle lab, meaning that they study the smallest particles that make up the universe. There have always been a multitude of such experiments there. While it may not sound like these have anything to do with gravitational waves, since those come from the physics of very large things, we need to understand how both the physics of the small (quantum) and large (general relativity) work together in the universe.
For example, very small and nearly massless particles called neutrinos that can travel through matter (including you and me) are a major driving mechanism for the explosion of a star in a supernova. Neutrino experiments like the ones they have at Fermilab may help us understand the supernova of a star better as well as the gravitational waves that are produced from it. While I was there, they gave me a tour of their Holometer, which is an interferometer experiment that uses a detector like the one used in LIGO to try to determine if there is a quantum of space; that is, trying to find if there is a limit to how small of an amount of space there can be.
I was honored to be invited to see the lab’s various experiments and to speak about LIGO’s discoveries with the scientific staff as well as students and teachers who were working at Fermilab for the summer. I gave a talk, but beforehand I got to speak with some of the people who were going to attend my talk over cookies and coffee. When the time came to gather for the talk, the organizers rang a gong in the open center of the large 15-story main laboratory building (Wilson Hall). Because of the open structure, the gong can be heard throughout the building. The beginning of my talk was announced by gong! It was truly an honor to be asked to share my science with the Fermilab community!
LSU College of Science: What do you do for fun?
Amber: A lot of my job has me working with the public, either teaching at LSU or working with visitors at LIGO. Most people think I am an extrovert because of this, but I’m really not. Being “on” for long periods of time can be draining to me and I need to have quiet time to myself. So most of what I do for fun isn’t what most people think of as fun.
One of my favorite things to do when I’m not working is to read. I love books about the paranormal and vampires are my favorite! It’s my guilty pleasure. I think that I like these books because the plots explore things that just can’t happen in reality, so it is a fun escape.
I also love spending quality time with my husband. He and I have been together since our senior year in high school (our 20th anniversary of being together is in a few days). Some really happy memories are of us just being together and talking, even if it is just over a meal.
Oh, and I LOVE Halloween! I guess that goes along with my choice in books. So I love haunted houses and parties and scary movies and anything that goes along with being spooky. But I am easily startled - I can’t play the game Operation since the buzzing makes me jump and scream. I think my husband likes to go to the haunted houses with me just to watch me scream!
And hockey! I love the Pittsburgh Penguins, whether watching the games on TV or going to them when I am home visiting my family. Go Pens!
LSU College of Science: You have a blog where you write about LIGO research. On your blog, you say that one of the reasons you started it was to "show people that scientists are real people." How do you seek to show people that scientists are real people, too?
Amber: I like to show people that scientists are real people by just being me. For example, I tell people about the things I like (like vampires and Halloween) and the things that I don’t like. I’ve talked about how I wasn’t always a good student. There has been more than one F on a report card. So don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do that thing that captures your dreams.
I like to talk about things that many people won’t. For example, I’ve had clinical depression and anxiety since I was a child. This affects more people than most realize because there is a stigma attached to it. I think that’s silly, so I share my experiences with the hope that other people will realize that they are not alone and that they can lead good lives, since I think my life is truly blessed. My colleagues know all about my depression and anxiety and no one has told me I’m somehow lesser for it; most tell me about their own struggles.
I also like to share pictures of what I am doing. Sometimes these go on my blog but I usually put them on Twitter. Not only do I get to share my science but I also get to show others images of me and my colleagues doing it. At LIGO, some of the school children will comment with wide eyes that I look like a “normal” person. I love it when that happens, so I try to show people that I really am just like them. I hope there are people out there who see me as a real person with flaws and then see parts of themselves. If they do, then they know that they can do this amazing work too!
LSU College of Science: Who is your science role model?
Amber: It’s hard for me to pin that down. When I was a kid, I always wanted to be an astronaut. Then my interests moved more towards studying astronomy and physics. But I can’t really put a finger on a single person who is my role model.
Instead, there has been a long line of people who have supported my dreams and lifted me up when I needed it. The first of them is my mother. She never tried to shy me away from physics and astronomy because of my poor grades or because I would be a woman working in a male dominated field. She has always believed in me.
In high school, I had a truly great physics teacher for a two-semester sequence. Chuck Bowman was the first person to introduce me to relativity and how mind-bending it is. It was because of that experience that I became interested in relativity and why I focused my career on LIGO. Now I make it a point to visit the students in my old high school to talk to them about what I do and why I do it.
In college, I had professors who encouraged me while doling out tough love when I needed it. Dr. George “Moose” Plitnik befriended me and would talk about pretty much anything I needed to talk out and Dr. Greg Latta helped guide me through to graduation. In graduate school Dr. Gabriela Gonzalez not only opened the door to LIGO for me but gave me the support I needed to get through the first few difficult years of grad school. I am beyond proud to be a member of LSU’s faculty with her all these years later!
LSU College of Science: What advice would you give to students interested in getting into your field of science?
Amber: First and foremost, if you are willing to work hard, there isn’t anything you can’t do. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t because you aren’t the right gender, you aren’t the right color, you don’t have good enough grades, etc. If you do hear any of those things, work to prove them wrong. That has always been a motivation for me because there have been more people who have told me that I can’t than believed that I could.
Also, be true to yourself. Find that thing that makes you happy. What piques your interest? You have to really love something in order to put the time and patience needed towards your work. Many times it will seem like nothing will come of your work and that it would make sense to cut your losses. Maybe that’s true, but if it is something you truly believe in, you will find a way to persevere, even if that means that you revise how you go about doing it.