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Tell us who are you and what do you do?
My name is Eve Vavagiakis, and I study the oldest light in the universe! I am a postdoc in physics at Cornell University, in Ithaca, New York. I am working on building and testing a large cryogenic camera, too big to wrap my arms around, to observe the sky from the new Fred Young Submillimeter Telescope in the Atacama Desert in Chile. We’re studying light at microwave wavelengths (like those in your kitchen!) and a bit above, to learn how the universe evolved over time. I study how galaxies evolve and what they can tell us about our universe. I also love communicating about science, and am a children’s book author , hoping to inspire young people to pursue their dreams.
Giving my virtual PhD thesis defense talk from home last year. I give talks on the cameras we’re building as well as the exciting science we do with them, like studying groups and clusters of galaxies. This talk featured art from my children’s book “I’m a Neutrino”, which illustrates how the physics of subatomic particles shaped the universe we live in today.
The cameras we’re building to look at some of the oldest and most distant things in our universe are much larger than the ones we use at home. Here I’m posing with some parts of the cryogenic (the inside gets very cold!) camera I’m working on, called Mod-Cam. The tube I’m holding will contain lenses and filters to focus light from the telescope onto the pixels of the camera.
What was your path like and how hard was it to get to where you are today?
Growing up I was interested in all sorts of science as well as in writing. I decided I wanted to study astronomy because I was fascinated by space, and went to college to become a physics major, even though the thought intimidated me. I had no idea if I could be a physicist, but I wanted to give it a try. It turned out I loved working in a lab with other scientists, even though I found the coursework challenging, and often worried I wouldn’t do well in my program. I also had to navigate physical health issues, and I struggled with long bouts of illness. This continued into graduate school, but I worked hard to become as healthy as I could to not let my body stop me. Just last year, I finished my PhD and went for a 100 mile bicycle ride, two things that were unthinkable when I was younger. I am so happy I continued to pursue my dreams.
3D printed models of our cameras are useful for talking about our science when we give talks and laboratory tours to students. I’m holding a model of Prime-Cam, which will be an even larger cryogenic camera than Mod-Cam, and will be used for exciting astronomy observations. Prime-Cam will be almost six feet in diameter (1.8 meters), but here it sits right in the palm of my hand.
What is the best part about your work?
The best part of my work is how inspiring the goals are, and how varied my activities are. It’s really exciting to wake up every day and have my job be working towards understanding the whole universe!
Peek-a-boo from inside of Mod-Cam! I love working on the design of these large cameras and putting them together in the lab with my team. Once I take my head out of the way, this tube will be held under vacuum (so no air is inside of it) and the pixels we install will be cooled to just above absolute zero (0.1 Kelvin, or -459.5 degrees Fahrenheit). That’s colder than outer space!
What is a day in the life of Dr. Eve Vavakiakis like?
My work days vary a lot, which I love. I write code, design mechanical parts, write, prepare presentations, and communicate with my collaborators. I assemble parts and electronics in the lab. I talk a lot with students, postdocs, scientists and engineers across the world. I get to travel internationally for conferences, so I work on research talks for those trips. I like to have lunch outside when possible, and some days I attend talks on campus, or go on coffee breaks with friends. I also get to communicate science by organizing events and writing about physics like in my children’s book “I’m a Neutrino.” After work, I love getting some exercise and fresh air by biking, hiking, climbing, kayaking, snowshoeing, going to the gym, or doing a workout with my friends. I cook dinner and get some rest before the next day. Maintaining my physical and mental health is the foundation of all the work I do!
Who inspires you?
Every person I meet who is pursuing their passions inspires me. We all come from different backgrounds and have to overcome different obstacles, and everyone has a story to tell. When I learn about where a person has come from and what they’re most excited about doing, their face lights up. I have friends who are researching plant genetics, insect-borne diseases, exoplanets, robotics, medieval history, protein crystals and particle accelerators. I have friends climbing mountains, writing books, running ultramarathons, performing in circus shows, playing the pipe organ, going scuba diving, and volunteering in the community to help people access food and housing. I feel like anything is possible when I talk to these people.
What is the best advice you ever got and what advice would you like to give our young readers?
The best advice I received was “take little risks early and often.” Take that class you think might be too hard. Try that activity you think you won’t be naturally good at. Lean into doing hard things early, when you’re surrounded by a support system, because personal growth happens outside of our comfort zone. It’s okay if you have different challenges than the people around you. You can’t control your circumstances, but you can do your personal best every day, and take little steps towards the life that you want every day. Little steps can get you farther than you can imagine.