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Meet the Scientists

Sarah Gibson
High Altitude Observatory, National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR)

 

I was born in San Francisco, California, and lived in the San Francisco Bay Area until I was 21. Then I went to graduate school in Colorado, then to work in Maryland, and now I am working in Cambridge, England. I think I will continue going East until I eventually get back to California!

My mother and father are both college professors- my mother teaches philosophy, and my father math. Since astrophysics has elements of both subjects - you can't get much more philosophical than "how did the universe begin?" after all - I am sure that they influenced my choice of profession. Since I have red hair and fair skin, I expect that my first experience of the sun was a bad sunburn. Nevertheless I am a solar physicist, so I guess I don't hold a grudge. I was interested in astrophysics and cosmology from a fairly early age. I was particularly impressed with how big the universe is, and how much we have yet to learn about it. I was and am deeply curious about what (or who?) is out there. I did my undergraduate degree in Physics, but was always aiming to do Astrophysics. Once I had started grad school in Astrophysics, I discovered that I was most interested in our nearest star. This was largely because there are so many wonderful recent observations of the sun - I feel that we have enough information about it now to make significant progress in understanding it during my lifetime. And by understanding the sun in depth we have the crucial building block for understanding stars, galaxies, and indeed the universe.

I got my B.S. in Physics at Stanford University, and my Ph.D. in Astrophysics at the University of Colorado, Boulder. I am currently working in the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics at the University of Cambridge, England. I am here on an NSF-NATO postdoctoral fellowship - these are designed to further international collaboration. Meeting and working with people from around the world is an aspect of the job that I really enjoy. Mostly I work on the computer, writing and running programs, analyzing data (much of which is now available on the web), writing papers, and coordinating work with colleagues via e-mail. But I also spend some time reading papers and books, attending the occasional talk, and from time to time deriving equations for a new piece of analysis. Several times a year I travel somewhere for a conference, workshop, or collaborative visit. Last year I went to Washington DC to be involved in a NASA press conference, London, Paris, Guernsey, Florence, and Maryland for conferences or workshops, and Colorado and Maryland for collaborative visits. The travel is great, and the beautiful observations are inspiring. Most of all, though, it's the feeling that I am continuously learning. Education doesn't stop with the Ph.D.

I rely on my computer a lot and continuously use the web, both for accessing data and for organizing collaborations. However, for certain kinds of analysis such as working out mathematical formulae I still rely on the old fashioned tools of pencil and paper! I like problem-solving. Writing a computer program to address a particular scientific problem, I can clearly and logically demonstrate a solution to the problem. True, such a solution may involve a lot of simplifications and assumptions (nature is generally messier than any model we can come up with). Nonetheless, I get a great feeling of accomplishment once I have figured out a puzzle that I have set myself, no matter what it is. As a scientist I am paid to work on puzzles.

The only thing I dislike about being a scientist is that there is little job security - it is difficult to get a permanent position and short-term positions often mean that you have to move every two or three years. Luckily, I now have a permanent position as a staff scientist at NCAR/HAO, and have been enjoying the tough but worthwhile balancing act between work and time with family. My husband Mark is also a solar physicist, and we have a great time teaching (and learning from!) our two young children: Nicholas 8, and Jeremy 5 (as of 2009).