Monday, December 01, 2008

Natalie Batalha: The Thrill of Discovery is a Gateway Drug to Becoming a Scientist

This month's issue of California Monthly profiles Natalie Batalha, an associate professor of physics at San Jose State University and co-investigator on NASA's Kepler mission, which is attempting to detect habitable Earth-like planets orbiting other stars.

Batalha isn't one of those scientists who had childhood dreams of becoming an astronomer or chemist. She actually started out her undergraduate career as a business major. She did have an interest in NASA and space science though, and considered becoming a mediator between business and science.

. . . Batalha enrolled in a physics class and was "terrible" at it, she says. But as her professor explained the mathematics behind the formation of rainbows in oil puddles, she was "blown away," she recalls. "It was like a religious experience for me—that the universe is so ordered. That's profound, right?"

Batalha became slowly immersed in the practice of science, first completing a research internship at Wyoming Infrared Observatory and then working in the lab of Gibor Basri, an astronomer at Berkeley. She recalls one day, while they were sitting at a computer looking at observations of young stars, or "baby Suns," from a new instrument at Lick Observatory, when Basri turned to her and said, "Natalie, no one else in the world has data like this." The thrill of discovery, she says, clinched her decision to be a scientist. "It must be, on a much smaller scale, like the feeling Galileo had when he saw Jupiter's moons," she says. "That's the gateway drug."
Batalha received her bachelor's degree in physics and astronomy in 1989, her MS from the Observatorio Nacional, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992, and a Ph.D. in astrophysics from the University of Santa Cruz in 1997. She's been affiliated with NASA Ames Research Center since 2000.

I've often read the argument that the lack of women in scientific fields such as physics and computer science is due to women simply choosing alternative career paths. While I think that's certainly the case - I doubt many women have been forcibly ejected from physics courses - it doesn't explain why women are choosing other fields. Our career choices are influenced by many factors, including our aptitudes and our family's (and society's) expectations of "appropriate" career choices. I think it also depends on our exposure to the field. In Batalha's case, she didn't realize how much she loved physics until she was in college - and I think it's very unusual for non-science majors to even attempt to take a college-level science class. That's why I think programs meant to provide girls with hands-on science experience are worthwhile. Who knows how many potential astrophysicists there are out there who have never taken a physics class?

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Hayley said...

I appreciate your comment about females not being exposed to science careers or societies views on what is appropriate. I attended an all girls school and was actively discouraged to follow my dreams of doing computer science because it was just not the done thing. The career advisors and speakers focused entirely on arts and business. Without the support of my family I would have studied law and probably hated it. One thing I can say though, the guys in science classes love having females doing "their" subjects and actively encourage them to stay in the science streams.