July 31, 2018
In our latest Paths Through Science, space physicist Dr. Alessandra Pacini tells of how she turned her curiosity about the night sky into a fulfilling career as a research associate at Arecibo Observatory and encourages young girls to pursue space science through her role as CEO of InSpace LLC, a science education and outreach company. You can also watch our video profile of Pacini and check out additional profiles of Earth and space scientists in a variety of sub-disciplines and sectors at our Paths Through Science page.
Dr. Alessandra Pacini couldn’t even see the stars in São Paulo. Growing up in Brazil’s most populous city meant that the night sky was too polluted by the glow of lights from its 12.1 million residents. But you don’t need to see the stars to be inspired by them.
The magnificence and majesty of the billions of bright, burning accumulations of gas that populate our universe vividly colored Pacini’s childhood and motivated her to pursue a career that could put to use her curiosity about the night sky and the galaxies that lie beyond it.
As a research associate at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, studying space weather and solar physics, Pacini can do just this. However, the path that led Pacini to her current position was as dynamic as the galactic processes that she studies.
All it Takes is an Email
Although Pacini knew early on that she wanted to pursue a career in astrophysics, the undergraduate college she attended did not have a formal program in that discipline. So she majored in physics instead and in her first year inquired about research positions at the university’s radio astronomy and astrophysics research center. That also happened to be the year of the largest solar flare on record.
All it took was Pacini’s soon-to-be research advisor showing her close-up footage of the flare—the Sun rotating slowly, rhythmically spurting out hot, glowing plasma—to catapult her onto a heliocentric path that included not one, but two, Ph.D.s in space physics: the first at a university in Brazil and the second in Finland, the unlikely result of an email whose subject line read “SOS From Brazil.”
“During my [first] Ph.D., I needed to use [my future adviser’s] code, and I didn’t know how [to use it]…. I got his email address and I wrote him [to ask for help],” Pacini explained.
The email led her to travel more than 7,000 miles from São Paulo to Oulu, Finland. The first time was for the purpose of soothing her coding woes, but the second time was as a graduate student in the Space Physics Group at the University of Oulu.
“Sometimes you can be lucky and find someone who opens the door for you and helps you to overcome problems in your thesis, or in your career,” Pacini said.
Finding Joy in the Classroom
The various advisers and mentors that helped to guide Pacini also motivated her to do the same for others, and she has striven to open doors for girls interested in physics and astronomy through her extensive work in science outreach and education.
Pacini began teaching at a local technical high school during the early stages of her first Ph.D., initially as a funding mechanism so that she could complete her graduate studies. However, to her surprise, she found profound joy in education and has been deeply influenced by her students.
“From the very first moment that I stepped into [the classroom], I learned that [teaching] is an exchange of information. It’s not a one-way thing,” Pacini said. She not only taught her students about Kepler’s laws and the physics of planetary motion, but simultaneously she also learned from them. The sparkling enthusiasm and interest that Pacini’s students displayed for science also helped to keep her grounded throughout her graduate studies.
“Many times, I would get stuck in an analysis and would lose sight of my goal. [I would think], ‘Who cares about what I’m studying?’ But then, [I realized], my students cared. They became much of my motivation to keep going,” Pacini added. “For me, seeing my students’ path [through science] is proof of the importance of teachers…how you can inspire and change the lives of your students and open the doors of science for them…or close them.”
Keeping the Door to Science Open
In addition to her position at Arecibo Observatory, Pacini is also the CEO of InSpace LLC, a company that was established by scientists to produce space weather data products but has since transformed into an innovative space science education and outreach company. InSpace is now focused on producing inspiring, culturally and ethnically diverse outreach materials aimed at getting more girls into space science.
Pacini’s most recent project as CEO is a book series that features girls from all over the world as they learn about Earth and space science using the sky as their guide. The goal of the project is to expose young girls to exceptional scientists who are women and to emphasize that science can be done from anywhere in the world, no matter what language you speak.
“English can be a barrier…but don’t be afraid to say things incorrectly. Don’t be afraid to talk to people, to write to the person who wrote that paper,” Pacini said.
“Science has no borders. There isn’t a problem that can stop you if you just keep going.”
Danya AbdelHameid is the Summer 2018 Talent Pool Intern.