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 also as CEO of InSpace, a science education and outreach company that encourages young girls to pursue space science.
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 the city’s 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 her curiosity about the night sky and the galaxies that lie beyond it to use.
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 lead 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 astrophysics. So she majored in physics 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, and rhythmically spurting out hot, glowing plasma – to catapult her onto a helio-centric path that included not one, but two, Ph.D.’s in space physics: the first at the National Institute for Space Research 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 the code…I got his email address and I wrote him asking for help,” Pacini explained. The email resulted in Pacini travelling to Oulu, Finland, first with the purpose of soothing her coding woes, but the second time, 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 strived 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 way to receive funding so that she could complete her graduate studies. However, to her surprise, Pacini found profound joy in education and has been deeply impacted by her students.
“…from the very first moment that I stepped in 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 Law and the physics of planetary motion, but was also grounded by the sparkling enthusiasm and interest her students displayed for science.
“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 student’s path, 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 show young girls that “there are women in science” 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.”