What's an "Astro Panda"?
It was my first year of grad school, and I was having a rough day (as will happen in grad school). I made a Facebook post to wallow, calling myself a "Sad Panda", and my friend and colleague James Silvester corrected me and said I was an "Astro Panda". The name has stuck ever since! Unfortunately, I haven't been able to secure "Astro Panda" on all social media platforms. When it's unavailable, you'll instead find me at some variant of "Angry Astro Panda".
Follow-up question, are you actually angry?
Everybody gets angry sometimes, right? I don't know that I'm particularly angry, but I do usually wear my emotions on my sleeve. I've been known to gesticulate wildly in both excitement and frustration so yes, it can look like I'm angry. I'm just passionate! (ノಠ益ಠ)ノ
Do you like The Big Bang Theory?
Don't make me angry.
How did you get into astrophysics? How can I?
I grew up around science a lot. Both of my parents are engineers, and a fair number of my extended family ended with jobs in the sciences. The physical sciences always particularly attracted me. I find nature to be such an incredible force, and I've always had a deep desire to understand it. Humans have progressed a lot, but we are still at the mercy of lots of natural phenomena. I used to spend most of my weekends at the library looking for books on space or natural disasters, and my father often had a science documentary playing at home. It just felt right. Astrophysics was particularly interesting to me just because of the sheer size and extremes of all the objects studied. It's hard to even fathom the size of an entire galaxy, yet they are so far away that we can observe them in one piece, or sometimes even as single points in our sky. Unlocking their mysteries just feels like unlocking the key to the Universe to me! Also, I just really love learning.
I took all the science courses I could throughout high school and CEGEP (a type of college in Quebec that is a step between high school and university). I then applied to McGill University's Honours Physics program, with the intent of becoming a professional astrophysicist. My advice to anyone interested in doing the same would be to try to get research experience as soon as you can. There's no substitute to working with actual data. If you're feeling up to it, you can even learn to do astronomy yourself using citizen science projects such as the ones at The Zooniverse, or use publicly available data like the SDSS's. Reach out to university professors, ask them if they have anything you could work on during the summer. Also, learn to code! Programming is an indispensable tool in the modern astrophysicist's arsenal. Most importantly, stay curious. Read, ask questions, keep learning!
Is being an astrophysicist hard?
All jobs have their difficulties. If math doesn't necessarily come "easy" to you, you'll have to be mindful of this, but it's not necessarily an unsurmountable obstacle! There are so many different things you can do in the field of astrophysics that most people will be able to find something that fits the bill as long as they have passion for the subject. If you love abstract thinking, pure research might work out. If you love tinkering with machines, you could develop instruments for telescopes! You could become a science writer, professional communicator, even just a hobbyist amateur astronomer! You'd still be a part of this community.
The road to becoming a professional researcher can be hard, it requires a lot of patience, resilience, and support. Our community needs to continue making sure that young astronomers don't fall through the cracks due to lack of adequate support as they work towards their career goals. The myth of the lone genius spending months wracking their brain until they finally solve the problem is not an accurate depiction, especially not in today's highly collaborative world. Most of research is just persistence, trying different solutions, attention to detail. It's a lot of hard work, but it's not merely the realm of the supersmart (by whatever arbitrary measure you'd want to define smartness). Don't dismiss yourself as not good enough to be an astrophysicist before you've even tried, give it a shot first!
What's it like being a lady in science/physics/astrophysics?
Science has a well known gender disparity. Men tend to outnumber women, especially as you go further down career paths. This is especially true in the physical sciences. Astrophysics is probably one of the better fields of physics in this regard, with roughly 25-30% of astrophysics PhDs being awarded to women in recent years. I was personally not consciously aware of gender stereotypes pertaining to women's inferior skill in math and science until I got to university, and I'm very thankful to my family for having somehow sheltered me from part of that. Since then, I have dealt with my fair share of sexism, inappropriate behaviour from colleagues, etc. More shockingly, however, I've seen young girls dismiss science and physics as a future option for them simply due to their gender during my outreach activities. This, more than anything else, has made me want to be a positive role model for young girls, to prove that there is absolutely a space for them in science, and they can absolutely do everything the boys can do. My academic great-grandmother, Vera Rubin, once said "There is no problem in science that can be solved by a man that cannot be solved by a woman.", and to that I say heck yeah.
More random questions?
Feel free to reach out to me on social media or via email! In the meantime, here's a Twitter moment that may answer some extremely random questions about me. ★~(◠‿◕✿)