Andrea Ghez is a professor of Astrophysics at University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) and a co-recipient of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics for her role in the discovery of a supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy. The Moore Foundation supported Professor Ghez’s research of the design and construction of a high-performance imaging camera for a near-infrared instrument operating on the Keck-I telescope. In 2018 this allowed for the study of the star SO-2 as it made its closest approach to the black hole at the Milky Way’s center. These unique observations provided crucial information to test the theory of general relativity. The foundation also supported Professor Ghez’s scientific use of a new-generation adaptive optics system at the Keck-I telescope to investigate the environment around that black hole.
In this installment of Beyond the Lab, Professor Ghez discusses her insatiable curiosity about the mysteries of the universe and shares her perspective on the interplay between science and society.
What motivates you as a research scientist?
I have a passion for puzzles, especially bizarre ones that don’t seem to make sense. That’s often a signpost for really interesting discoveries. But beyond the big discoveries, I love the daily work of thinking about unsolved problems. You can’t be in research solely for the “aha” moments. You have to be comfortable with the natural ebb and flow of the scientific process.
What types of scientific problems are you most interested in solving?
I’m interested in questions about fundamental physics and black holes. I’d describe the work we do as “technology-driven discovery.” We’re helping to develop large telescopes that capture more detailed images than ever before, and we’re using that technology to expand our understanding of the universe, physics and strange phenomena like supermassive black holes.
What limitations or challenges do you see for researchers in your field?
Funding is often a challenge, which can lead researchers to feel the need to be “salespeople,” and they pursue safer projects with short-term payoffs. But good science comes from the authentic pursuit of meaningful questions, and that requires time and a willingness to take big risks.
Research in academia also presents logistical challenges because we train people who graduate and move on. So collaboration is essential, and we have to find ways to sustain the work over many years without losing sight of the core research questions. One thing that’s actually very helpful in this regard is writing proposals and progress reports. Scientists often view these activities as headaches, but going through the process forces you to articulate your goals on a regular basis.
How has your life changed since you became a Nobel Laureate?
The Nobel Prize has brought new attention to our work and expanded our interactions with other researchers. It’s also been a wonderful opportunity to increase our engagement with the general public. With the problems facing the world today, science is more important than ever, yet it’s often under attack. Many people criticize basic research because they don’t understand that transformative technologies, like GPS, are the result of decades of exploration in many different directions. Even more troubling is the widespread lack of scientific literacy and increasing skepticism of facts. As a Nobel Laureate, I feel a greater responsibility to be a spokesperson for science.
How do you combat skepticism about science and bring out a diversity of perspectives?
Scientists need to step out of their bubble and communicate with society, for example through public lectures, documentaries, and educational outreach. I’m particularly passionate about teaching. I try to engage my students in the scientific process of asking questions, rather than being passive consumers of information. Our understanding of the universe is never perfect, because we’re working with imperfect information. However, by bringing in as many diverse perspectives as possible, we can get to the best version of the truth.
The diversity comes from being open to conversations with others – especially those you disagree with. We need to embrace different points of view instead of shying away from them. These interactions force you to articulate your own thoughts more clearly, and they help you see things in a different way.
Who inspires you as a researcher and scientist?
As a teenager, I was inspired by reading biographies of scientists, particularly women like Marie Curie. My advisors in graduate school were also very inspiring. Gerry Neugebauer taught me the importance of taking the time to “get it right” in research, and Anneila Sargent taught me how to do great science while also maintaining work-life balance. Inspiration is everywhere, really. I believe everyone has something to offer, and we just have to be open to learning from them.
Are there any seemingly insignificant decisions that ended up having a big impact on your life?
Yes, there are so many! One example is the decision to send my children to UCLA’s daycare center. At the time, I was only considering what it would do for my kids. But the university daycare system actually does so much more. It creates communities by connecting people across disciplines who face similar challenges and can support each other. Many of the parents I’ve met have become important parts of my life both professionally and personally.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
Research is my passion and I can’t imagine doing anything else. I’m excited to see how the technologies we’re developing today will be put to use five or ten years down the line, and I want to be part of getting us there! I’d also like to play an active role in the success of large telescope facilities. Researchers all over the world want access, so the time allotted to any one group is extremely limited, and that creates many challenges. However, by increasing collaboration and communication across institutions, we can use these state-of-the-art technologies to tackle previously impossible questions.