It’s #BlackInAstroWeek2021 June 20th to June 26th! Find out more and follow along at blackinastro.com and @BlackInAstro on Twitter. This post is also part of our ongoing series #BlackInAstro. For our cornerstone post, see here.
Dr. Carl E. Fields is a computational astrophysicist at Los Alamos National Laboratory. His journey in astrophysics started in high school when he decided that he “wanted to do physics” and to get a degree “to make sure that he could get a decent job.” At Arizona State, where he did his undergraduate degree, it stopped being about just getting a degree and started being more about doing science. “During undergrad, I sort of transitioned from ‘I’m just going to get a degree so that I can get a job’ […] to ‘I enjoy physics; I want to do research.’”
Dr. Fields went on to become one of the few Black astrophysicists with PhDs in the field. I asked Carl what made him stay in academia, and he said, “I enjoy the awesome people that I’ve met in academia across the country. […] I want those to be my colleagues someday […] I think it’s really important for me to identify a department that feels like they’re actively working to make it a better place”
Dr. Fields was lucky to have an awesome advisor: “I had a good advisor in grad school. I said many times if I didn’t have the advisor I did, I would have left a long time ago. […] That’s how grad school can make some people feel, if you don’t find someone or have some sort of a network to support you in the way that you need to be supported.” It is frustratingly common to hear that persistence in academia often comes down to having a good advisor, so I asked Dr. Fields about how he might change academia to be more supportive. “I think that that’s going to take work to understand the diverse set of needs that different students from different backgrounds might have,” he said, “and to create resources to support them in the way that they need. […] That means allocating funding for students to go home to visit their families during the holiday. […] It’s supporting students to attend conferences that are focused on marginalized people like NSBP.”
Improving the academic culture and supporting students and peers is particularly important to Dr. Fields. “I think what makes a good physicist is a physicist that is willing to work hard and better themselves as a researcher, as an educator, as someone that’s contributing to the department to make it a more equitable space,” he says.
“It’s really rewarding to help students sort of to get to that next step in the field, because we all love the science that we do. […] I’ve helped review a few NSF GRFP proposals for some of my friends. […] And then I find out six months later that they end up getting awarded. […] That’s something that I really value, is helping someone sort of to get to that next step, because I know someone helped me in the way that I felt. So that’s kind of something that also keeps me going in academia.” On his website, you can find resources that help students to apply to fellowships.
Did you know how much coding tells us?
Although “awesome people” are critical to our journeys in the fields, the reason many of us originally entered academia was science. That’s also true for Dr. Fields. Fun fact: Carl Sagan’s famous quote about how we’re made of star-stuff is actually related to Carl (not Sagan!) Fields’ area of research. After a star dies it spreads out chemical elements among the galaxy – that’s how we get made by star-stuff! Dr. Fields loves looking at dying stars. This might sound cruel, but this is actually very exciting! When massive stars die, they explode, and there’s a lot of physics involved in their explosions. That’s what Dr. Fields is trying to understand: “I work on computational simulations of massive stars and their explosions, so I’m primarily interested in trying to understand the life of a massive star in the final minutes before the collapse to see what sort of implications that might have for the explosion and some of the things that we can determine about the predicted multi-messenger signals. And so trying to connect progenitors, the explosion properties that we see with the models with things like we expect to see with Super-K detecting neutrinos or with advanced LIGO or even future detectors is how we’re trying to connect these simulations to ongoing observational efforts.”
Yes, folks, Dr. Fields does all of this using sophisticated computer simulations! “I get excited about trying to model something that we can’t see directly,” he tells me. “For instance, if you have a bunch of perturbations in the depths of the star, in the interior of a star, that might show up in your gravitational wave spectrum. And so connecting that, I think, is really cool because it allows us to look at this new area of physics or astrophysics through these simulations that we can only kind of predict with observation. […] It’s really great because it’s a way to solve some equations that otherwise we just can’t really understand what they physically mean.”
Advice for Black astronomers
When asked about his experience as a Black researcher, Dr. Fields says, “It’s affected my career just in terms of being sort of the only [Black] person either in my department or at a conference.” He wishes that non-Black people could understand, “what it’s like to be the only something in a room, in a space in academia. […] I think that that might be where empathy will start.”
Dr. Fields advises Black astronomers to “build a support network of folks in these spaces that we occupy […] that make you feel comfortable. And they can help you be your best version of yourself because you exist in a lot of spaces where that’s not the case,” he continues, “just be mindful of some of your time. […] you will be asked to be on committees and stuff like that and […] it’s important that you give yourself time to do what you need to do before taking on extra work.”
Edited by: Huei Sears, Kate Storey-Fisher
Featured Image Credit: Astrobites