It appears inevitable that whenever someone brings up space exploration I revert back into my twelve-year-old-Star-Wars-loving-self. Not to get all NOVA over here, but doesn’t it seem like curious wonderment about space is intrinsically wired into us? So imagine my joy to speak with Sara Seager, Professor of Planetary Science and Physics at MIT and recent winner of a 2013 MacArthur Fellowship.
Professor Seager is an innovator in the field of exoplanets, those planets that exist outside of our Solar System. And as if your curiosity hasn’t been sparked enough, Professor Seager specifically researches how we can discover life beyond our own planet. I’m going to duck out of your way so you can enjoy this great interview, but first here’s a great primer on her work.
And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five with Professor Sara Seager!
Suzanna Bobadilla: First off, huge congratulations on your MacArthur Fellowship! What about your recent research has really inspired you to get to your lab in the morning?
Sara Seager: For the time that I do have to do research, certainly the one that inspires me the most is my project that is related to how we find forms of life on a planet that’s far away. That’s my favorite project, we’re trying to see which gases might be produced by life that could be detectable remotely with sophisticated space telescopes.
SB: There continues to be a huge push to encourage women to enter and stay in the STEM fields. What are some best practices that you think might be able increase this yield?
SS: It’s such a hard question to answer and there are so many different answers. It’s difficult to give a simple answer, but I would say to encourage young women to pursue what they love doing and what they are good at and giving them tools to overcome obstacles, whether that’s social or scientific.
SB: You’ve mentioned in other interviews that you are often the only woman in meetings, etc. What does that feel like?
SS: I usually try not to think about it at all because I just try to do my job. And my job is so overwhelming in a good way, but I try to get my job done. I try to be a successful role model and I think that’s the best way I can help the world. When I pause and look around, I think, “Whoa what happened here?” I remember in my MacArthur video I was sure to put the caveat that the number of women in science should have changed based on the effort that was put forth. It’s not like people haven’t tried, they have tried to make things better.
SB: Have you noticed a shift at all?
SS: Oh yes. When I was an undergraduate, and that was about 20 years ago, the university where I was studying, the University of Toronto had never had a female physics professor ever. And now there has been. So in that sense, yes. There is definitely change in women moving up the so-called food chain, but there is just not as many as we would have expected.
SB: Who is your favorite fictional heroine, and who are your heroines in real life?
SS: Well, I’m not the type of person who has heroes, I’m my own person and I like to follow my own thing. But I do have one person who is role model for me and that’s Marie Curie. Marie Curie, she won two Nobel Prizes, and she started a whole new field of research that no one had ever considered before. Also, she was widowed when she was 39 which was the same age I was widowed, I was 40; she had two kids, I have two kids. And she was still successful after she became widowed, so I see her as my only role model, she’s the only one that I can identify with.
I like people who are on the frontier of whatever they did. And one of my favorite books is Jane Eyre, and if I had to pick another hero, I’d say its author, Charlotte Bronte. She was some unknown obscure person, doing her own little thing, and she wrote one of the most brilliant novels in the history of humankind. And did you know that — haha well I’m not into romance fiction, her book is what Gothic literature and romantic fiction is all based on? She started the trend. The fact that someone with a great idea and a brilliant communications style who would succeed just on their own merit, not because someone pushed them along or favored them, that’s the kind of thing that I like. Charlotte Bronte was ahead of her time, she had proto-feminism in there.
SB: You’re going to a desert island and get to take one food, one drink, and one feminist. What do you pick?
SS: The feminist one is a little hard, because I don’t follow the movement, but if I could pick a dead person, again, I’d pick Marie Curie. I feel like she needed a friend, someone who understood her, and I’m that person, so I’d choose her. In terms of food, my favorite food is peanut butter. My favorite drink is sparkling water, but being at MIT I’d bring some carbon dioxide, well this is assuming there is fresh water, so I could have a continual supply of sparkling water.