Alicia M. Soderberg of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics
I went to college firmly determined to become a chemist. By the end of the first semester, I had a few chemistry, physics, and math courses under my belt; but I realized that it was the physics and math aspects of chemistry that always appealed to me. I promptly switched my major to physics after enrolling in an astronomy class, which I found to be an excellent application of physics and math — and much more enjoyable than organic chemistry!
As with most liberal arts colleges, there were few astrophysics research opportunities at Bates College, but fortunately my physics professors were active proponents for the National Science Foundation sponsored Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) programs in astronomy. I jumped at the opportunities and participated in several REU programs during my undergraduate summers, spending time at extraordinary facilities including Los Alamos Lab, Arecibo Observatory, and the Cerro Tololo Observatory in Chile.
My first REU program was at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics where I studied supernovae. While I had spent significant time in high school working as an intern in at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (Cape Cod) chemistry labs, research in astronomy was completely new to me. I was inexperienced but ambitious and eager to learn. The foundation of my research ability was established during that summer REU program, but, given the many subfields within astronomy, I was not yet sure at the time that the study of supernovae was the best fit for me. Several summer programs later, and after studying everything from asteroids to globular clusters, I began research on gamma-ray bursts (GRBs) at Los Alamos and loved it. At that point, evidence was emerging that GRBs were produced in unusual supernova explosions. Thereafter, the fields of gamma-ray bursts and supernovae were married.
As my career was progressing toward graduate school, I found myself in a unique niche with interest/experience in both supernovae and gamma-ray bursts. My Ph.D. thesis at Caltech explored the many facets of the GRB-SN connection. Many of the unanswered questions regarding this connection reside in our basic understanding of supernovae so I have since refocused to studying supernovae in a holistic fashion as a faculty member at Harvard. Full circle.
Courtesy Princeton Media Office