Women’s History Month: Dr. Ekta Patel

The pronunciation of Dr. Patel’s name can be found here.

Dr. Ekta Patel standing in front of a blackboard
Dr. Ekta Patel. Source: Timothy Archibald

Dr. Ekta Patel is a Miller Postdoctoral Fellow in astronomy at the University of California, Berkeley. She uses computational methods to study the dynamics of satellite galaxies around the Milky Way and our nearest neighbor, Andromeda. She is also passionate about outreach and mentorship, and I had the opportunity to chat with her about her career thus far and any words of wisdom she might have for budding astronomers.

Growing up in New Jersey and completing her undergraduate degree in New York City, there weren’t a lot of opportunities for Dr. Patel to see the stars in her childhood. She also didn’t even really begin thinking of astronomy as a field that people could study until she was a high school student, when she watched a meteor shower with her sister and friend. Not only did this experience get her asking questions about astronomy, but, as she puts it, “still to this day, that was one of the coolest things [she’d] seen.”

As she began her undergraduate program at New York University (NYU), Dr. Patel was beginning to solidify her interest in astronomy. Because NYU had no formal astronomy undergraduate degree, she opted for the next best thing and enrolled in the physics curriculum, with the hopes of ultimately getting to study astronomy once she’d completed the introductory classes. As is unfortunately too often the case, she found herself feeling out of her depth – a combination of narrow instructional techniques and adjusting to a new style of learning made navigating the intro classes very difficult. Nevertheless – as we will come to see is a common trend in her career – she persevered, progressing into the second and third semesters of the physics degree. While her conviction wavered at times as she struggled through these first few physics classes, an excellent instructor in her third semester helped convince her to stay the course as she realized that the field was not ubiquitously unwelcoming. 

At this stage, she was also mollified by a realization that, following the lead of other students, she could begin to think about actually doing astronomy research. Starting with a small research project in the winter of her second year, she was excited, but “psyched herself out,” felt overwhelmed with the tasks she was given, “and basically just gave up”. The isolating feeling of beginning one’s first research project on their own and not knowing how to navigate the field temporarily drove her away and she again doubted her conviction. 

Nevertheless – again – she persevered, sitting in on a new research opportunity with one of her peers and beginning the project with them. By starting the project alongside her classmate, she found that they were able to escape the feeling of isolation as they worked together and “learned from each other” to tackle problems they faced. Importantly, after a short trial period, this new advisor also offered her financial support for her work, freeing up her time by allowing her to eventually quit her work-study job. As she says, “had [she] not had the opportunity to be paid to do [her] research, [she] might not have ever ended up here.” She ultimately ended up continuing to work with this group through the rest of her undergraduate and it was here that her story with astronomy formally begins.

Dr. Patel smiling with her sisters and niece
Dr. Patel with her sisters and niece

Throughout her undergraduate experience, she faced “what are pretty common challenges for a lot of people who go through these programs… there is not a lot of power in numbers.” That is, she was one of a few women in the field and microaggressions from her peers and mental health issues compounded an already difficult experience, and she struggled with juggling all these different pressures. She describes how she didn’t confront her issues with test anxiety until much later in graduate school, simply because she felt – in another unfortunately common experience – that what she was facing must just “be a ‘me’ thing.” Reflecting on this, she wishes that she’d been aware of and sought out help sooner and advises younger students to not be afraid to do the same.

As she began to consider graduate school, she was uncertain about her chances (given that she’d performed poorly on the Physics GRE) and faced comments from her peers along the lines of “you’re going to get in just because you’re a woman.” With this sort of environment, she realized that having a strong support network was deeply important and luckily she had just that. Between networks of women in STEM she’d sought out from undergraduate opportunities at the college-level and unwavering support from her family, she again persevered and applied, getting into a few programs and ultimately deciding to attend the University of Arizona.

Dr. Patel and her graduate advisor, Dr. Besla, smiling at her graduation
Dr. Patel with her graduate advisor, Dr. Besla

Dr. Patel attributes much of her good experience in graduate school to having an advisor, Dr. Gurtina Besla, with whom she got along very well – by then, she had realized “that who [she] worked with, and [who] [she] surrounded [her]self with, were really going to be the way for [her] to be successful.” She had also loosely determined the type of people with whom she got along well and could tell that Dr. Besla’s advising style aligned well with her needs. As a then-new hire at Arizona, Dr. Besla was able to dedicate a lot of time and attention to her only student, Dr. Patel. “Having [Dr. Besla] as an advisor was one of the reasons that [she] finished grad school.” Her support helped Dr. Patel keep up – seeing as she hadn’t come from an astronomy undergraduate degree, like many of her peers – and made her graduate school experience one that she looks back on fondly.

Now she works at UC Berkeley as a prize postdoctoral scholar, continuing/building from the work that she began as a graduate student, studying the dynamics of satellite galaxies around the Milky Way and Andromeda. Dr. Patel looks back on the days when she was applying to graduate school, when she was required to take the dreaded Physics GRE with a wry chuckle. Referencing this study about the lack of correlation between prize postdoctoral fellowship winners and test scores, she remarks about how “[she] was in the bottom two percentiles [and yet] here [she] is, with a prize postdoc fellowship,” just solidifying the lack of utility of these standardized tests as a metric of any sort of academic success.

On the research side, she is “particularly interested in satellites because they act as tracers of the dark matter halo” around a galaxy. I could fill the entire article with a discussion of the variety of projects related to galaxy dynamics with which she is involved, but I’ll just describe a few here. Using data from satellites – like the ESA’s Gaia – that have made measurements of the positions and motions of many stars around these galaxies as inputs, she designs orbital models to trace back the dynamics of the satellites’ interactions with the larger host galaxy. She uses this work to identify interactions between satellites like the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds and less massive dwarfs to quantify signatures of their passage. She is also interested in studying satellites on a population scale, which teaches us about the formation history of the host galaxies and can probe the conditions for galaxy formation in the early universe. 

Dr. Patel hugging one of her dogs
Dr. Patel with half of her work-life balance, Dakota

In her capacity as a postdoc, however, her work has not been limited to research. Recently, she led a group of postdocs and research staff in the creation of the Cal-URSA (Undergraduate Research Scholarships in Astronomy) program, which offers sponsored research opportunities to any undergraduate student majoring in physics or astronomy in any of the 9 Bay Area counties. Building a program intended to mitigate financial pressure “resonated very well with [her] situation when [she] was an undergrad,” so this program was designed to support students from any background with any amount of experience, providing the financial support they may need so they can get involved with research while still in school. In the first year of the program, they were able to support a few community college students –some of whom were pursuing nontraditional courses of study – and received glowing reviews from the participants. Having a program designed with the intention of making astronomy a more inclusive and accessible space made the students feel especially welcomed and supported in their experience. On top of this, the URSA program provides a source of funding by which postdocs can finance undergraduate research, a previously difficult and often unsupported task.

Dr. Patel giving her other dog a kiss
Dr. Patel with the other half of her work-life balance, Pepper

Reflecting on her experiences, Dr. Patel had a few words of advice to offer to undergraduates interested in pursuing astronomy. Thinking back to her struggles as an undergraduate, she advises that students shouldn’t be afraid to seek mental health support and take advantage of the resources available to them through their university. Additionally, recognizing the value of having a good support group, she recommends pursuing opportunities that allow you to find supportive peers. She firmly believes that her support network was integral to her success, and she advises students to seek out the same. Discussing financial support for undergraduate research is often a difficult conversation, but she recommends that students be clear about their situation and expectations with faculty when seeking out opportunities.

Dr. Patel’s first name – Ekta – is the Hindi word for unity, and I think that in her career thus far she has truly embodied that, bringing together students of different backgrounds and experiences and helping them along as she finds success. 

Featured image credit: Timothy Archibald

Edited by: Catherine Manea

About Sahil Hegde

I am an astrophysics PhD student at UCLA working on using semi-analytic models to study the formation of the first stars and galaxies in the universe. I completed my undergraduate at Columbia University, and am originally from the San Francisco Bay Area. Outside of astronomy you'll find me playing tennis, surfing (read: wiping out), and playing board games/TTRPGs!

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