Girlhack STEM Jobs: Physicist Undergrad Research

by Meg on February 14, 2012

Girlhack STEM Jobs will bring you the same set of basic questions for Women engaged in various STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, & Math) careers, so that you can learn about what it takes to be in their particular field.  If you want to submit about your own job or have someone to recommend, please send an email to info AT girlhack DOT com

Hi there, my name is Sam. I’m in the 3rd year of my undergrad degree at McMaster University. I’m double majoring in math and physics, as well as working part-time as a research assistant. I’ve wanted to be a physicist since middle school, and before that I wanted to be a ‘scientist’. When I’m not doing physics-related things I’m reading, painting, knitting, or sewing. Even though by any definition I’m an adult, most of the time I still feel like a five year old.


What is your current job and career field?
Currently I have a job working as a research assistant. Generally my work is in theoretical astronomy (as opposed to observational astronomy), and more specifically I’ve been studying some properties of magnetohydrodynamics, which is a big word that essentially means the study of magnetic fluids. This has some properties in engineering here on Earth when dealing with liquid metals, but it also has a lot of applications in astronomy where plasma is prevalent. I’ve not yet completed my undergrad, but my research work has been so interesting that I’ve decided it is the field that I would like to pursue.

What sorts of jobs did you have leading up to this? aka What is one example of a path to get where you are today.
This is actually the first physics job I’ve ever held. In Ontario there are grants available to students with financial need to put towards summer work, as a hiring incentive. I was automatically approved for a grant, so essentially I walked in to my now-supervisor’s office and introduced myself and asked if he’d considered hiring a summer student. Things worked out really well, so my contract was extended into the year.


Everyday is probably different, but what general tasks are you responsible for? What sort of technology do you use?
A research group including my supervisor wrote a paper in 1999 outlining a model for fast magnetic reconnection, and in 2009 they wrote another paper describing a simulation they had run to test the model (it worked!). What I’m doing now is looking at the data that they produced with this simulation and writing programs to analyze it further. I program in Fortran 90. It might sound ancient, but all the theoretical physicists I have talked to in the department use Fortran. It’s an important language to know if physics is a field you’re considering. I generate plots using gnuplot and occasionally MatLab. Since all of my work is in programming and analysis I can work wherever I want, and I do all my work on my laptop.

What schooling do you need for a job similar to yours?
The only class that was necessary for this job was my programming/intro to Fortran class. Programming skills are really important, because that’s all that theoretical astronomy is.

In your industry, what are typical entry level jobs and pay?
My job is a typical first job in physics as a student. I get paid 11.25 an hour. There are of course jobs available to upper years as T.A.s though I couldn’t say what they’re paid, since I’ve not done it.

What is cool about what you do?  What do you enjoy the most?
So as I said, a lot of what I do involves analyzing data in some way, and then re-plotting it. A lot of my plots turn out to be really interesting. The data I work with is essentially a picture taken of a box of fluid at a specific time. I interpolated and plotted the centre of this box, and there was an overall twist to the centre sheet and it was so amazing to see the physics fall out of the simulation like that. More generally I love the problem solving that comes with my job. My supervisor will meet with me, or send me an email, about where we should go next with the data, and it’s up to me to figure out how to do that, and then how to program my strategy. It’s a really fun process.

What are common assumptions or mistakes people in regards to your field?
I think that a lot of people still think of physicists as Einstein or Hawking. When they think of a physicist they think of a veritable ‘Genius’. And that’s not what we are. We’re just normal people, and as far as I know none of the people in my class made any amazing discoveries in their teens. On that same line, we’re not all socially awkward and weird. The people in my classes are really cool, generally charismatic and awesome.

Do you have any organizations, websites, or internships you can recommend for ladies who want to learn more or get connected?
Definitely just go talk to a prof! It’s how I got my job, and it’s been going amazingly well for me. Check with financial aid to see if there are summer grants you can get, to make you more appealing to a professor that might be strapped for cash. Most universities/colleges have subscriptions to hundreds of journals, and they can be accessed through the university internet. Figure out what you’re interested in, and start reading up on the current articles in the field. You probably won’t understand them at first, but it’s a great way to expand your personal education and start figuring out where you want to go.

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