Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Postdoctoral fellow highlight: Dr. Lia Corrales

Dr. Lia Corrales, Postdoc at MIT
Recipient of the Einstein Prize Fellowship

Dr. Lia Corrales is currently a postdoc at MIT Kavli Institute, and will be taking an Einstein Fellowship to University of Wisconsin-Madison in Fall 2016. She received her Ph.D from Columbia University, where she was a NASA Earth and Space Science Fellow, studying astrophysical dust with high energy light. She received her bachelor's degree in Physics from Harvey Mudd College and was born and raised in San Diego, CA.

This interview is part of a series of posts on the Astronomy In Color blog dedicated to recognizing achievements by outstanding astronomers of color. Feel free to contact Jorge Moreno (jorgemoreno AT if you know any other person of color in astronomy who has recently won an award or made any other accomplishment.

Moreno: What was your reaction when you first learned that you won the 2016 Einstein Fellowship?

Lia: Complete surprise. I saw the email in my inbox, with the first line reading "Congratulations," and I was floored. First I did a happy dance, and then I had to sit down for awhile to catch my breath.  I went out dancing that night to celebrate! 

Moreno: Please tell me more about yourself. What’s your story?

Lia:  I grew up in San Diego, CA. Originally, I wanted to move out East for college, I suppose because the idea of snow and big cities was very appealing to me.  But at the last minute, I applied to Harvey Mudd College, a small liberal arts college with a strong focus on undergraduate education in science and engineering. When I look back on it now, I can't believe what a fortunate accident that was. The focused teaching and the personality of the college totally won me over, and I never looked back. I finally headed east for graduate school at Columbia University, where my advisor, Frits Paerels, got me hooked on wacky ideas like studying dust with X-rays.

Moreno: What inspired you to pursue a career in astronomy?

Lia: When I was six, my dad explained to me that the Sun was a star, and that other stars could potentially be "Suns" for other planets. My mind was BLOWN. I was also hooked on Discovery channel space documentaries, and when I was in 8th grade I permanently adopted my dad's copy of A Brief History of Time and read it over meticulously. I just happened to be good at math and physics, so when it came time to decide what I would do for college, I knew that I was going to go for a career in astrophysics. At the time, I knew that it entailed graduate school, but I didn't know what it took to get there. I was fortunate enough to be offered a summer research position right away at Harvey Mudd, and this was the first time I learned that I could do research!

Moreno: In your opinion, what qualities makes your work so unique and compelling?

Lia: I grew up incredibly enthusiastic about black holes. So of course, when I got to graduate school, I wanted to study nothing but black holes. However, for my second graduate research project (a requirement at Columbia), I got hooked on dust when my soon-to-be advisor Frits Paerels pitched an idea to look for X-ray scattering from intergalactic dust. At the time, I was very attracted to the high risk, high reward idea of discovering intergalactic dust. It was definitely a long shot; I have two papers on the subject now that describe just how hard it is. In general, I still find myself attracted to novel projects that use instruments in a way that they weren't necessarily intended to be used.  These projects are also generally very hard to do, otherwise they would have been done already.  In graduate school I spent a lot of time building my own infrastructure and frameworks for studying dust with X-ray imaging and spectroscopy. In a way, dust scattering has been done before. However, I consider it a huge reward to bring a new perspective to the field and to convince people that high energy instruments can contribute to our understanding of interstellar dust in a way that other wavelengths can't.  I am very excited for the future!

Moreno: As a woman of color, what challenges and obstacles have you faced in your career? How have you overcome these challenges?

Lia:  Sometimes it is hard to pinpoint whether challenges are directly related to racism or sexism, etc.  I would say that my biggest challenge has been feeling the need to validate my presence as a scientist, whether in a classroom, in a meeting, or on a panel. I also struggle frequently to feel that I am being heard. Several things have helped tremendously. First, finding a good therapist. Second, I have consciously been taking steps in my personal life to practice self-affirmation and to cultivate self-confidence.  Finally, having a good social network of support and good collaborations is helpful. Aid and cheer for others’ success, because science is a group effort!

MorenoPeople of color, especially women of color, are severely under-represented in our field. Can you point to 1 or 2 factors (specific programs, mentoring etc.) that helped you succeed? Can you also share 1 or 2 ideas for making astronomy a more equitable and inclusive community? For dismantling racism and sexism in general?

Lia: I think the summer bridge program at Harvey Mudd College, which I attended before starting my freshman year, gave me a huge opportunity by funding my first summer of undergraduate research. At the time, I definitely did not know that summer research was something I could do, or needed to do, to boost my graduate school application.  I think bridge programs, or programs that allow underrepresented students to boost their work experience in general, are tremendously helpful. These students need good advisors, however. I believe that the science community needs better training for mentors who are not aware of the issues that many underrepresented students face.

Moreno: What advice would you give to other young women of color interested in following your path?

Lia: Don’t work alone. Find people who can understand what you’re going through on the path you’ve chosen — both people who understand your career path and people who understand you’re situation as a minority. Also, you may feel tempted to take on all the problems in the world, but one of the most important things you can do as a member of an underrepresented minority is to succeed. (Advice given to me a long time ago, which I am passing along now.) So pick your battles (if you can), conserve your energy, and assert your presence.

Moreno: Any final words?

Lia: Learn to dust yourself off after a failure or rejection. A lot of things in science don’t work, and the vast majority of your applications will be rejected! This is completely natural and okay. If you make mistakes, learn from them. Don’t take no for an answer.  And don’t get turned off by the first rejection — apply again next year. 

*Jorge Moreno is an Assistant Professor at Cal Poly Pomona. He is also a member of the AAS Committee on the Status of Minorities in Astronomy (CSMA).

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