Inspiration: The New Face of Physics

Physicist Alexa Staley (c) Photo by Kai Staats

Here’s a fun fact about physics: “The gravity that we feel towards earth is not a force, but is earth curving spacetime and us following the curvature,” explains Dr. Alexa Staley, who recently received her PhD in Physics from Columbia. A less fun fact about physics? Although women earn 53% of doctoral degrees across the board, they earn only 39% of the PhDs awarded in STEM disciplines, and in Physics, they earn a mere 20%. That’s why we were so excited to sit down with Dr. Staley and hear more about her story.

Growing up, Alexa Staley “didn’t really like Barbie,” preferring to spend her time playing with toy cars and building roads out of blocks. She attended an all-girls school, which she says “had a huge impact on me. We gained so much confidence, and learned to be active in the classroom.” She recalls that in college, an advisor told her that in his higher-level courses, men and women spoke up equally, but in big intro classes, girls spoke up less. “My friends and I were never shy about raising [our] hand in class, and I attribute that to going to an all-girls school,” said Staley.

But the path that led to physics, a math-heavy discipline, wasn’t a straight shot—Staley, who has a learning disability, struggled with math in elementary and middle school. Fortunately, she was able to work with several tutors, and by the time she reached high school, math was one of her stronger subjects. So in ninth grade, when physics was added to her curriculum, she tackled it with relish. “I was super excited about it,” recalls Staley. “I liked how [the] equations described the real world. Physics has the ability to answer interesting and extremely challenging questions with fundamental laws and mathematics, which I think is awesome!”

Staley credits strong mentors with encouraging her to pursue physics: “I took Intro to General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics [in college]. At the end of the semester, my professor came up to me and said, “You’re going to be a physics major.”” Staley declared the major the following year. The inspiration to continue her studies was echoed by her college advisor, who suggested she go to graduate school, and her advisors at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) lab, where she conducted the research for her Ph.D.

Staley wrote her thesis on the Advanced LIGO gravitational wave detectors. Gravitational waves, a phenomenon predicted in 1916 by Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity, are disturbances of space-time caused by energetic processes in the universe, like colliding blackholes or the collapse of a supernova. While the prediction of these waves dates back to the early twentieth century, they have never been directly observed. Staley worked for two years at the LIGO lab, where she helped get the advanced detector up and running, with the goal of being able to detect these waves for the first time in history. “I had to do a lot of different kinds of work: working with lasers and optics, learning control theory, assembling hardware—soldering!—and different work with software like modeling and automation.”

While she knows there have been instances of female physicists experiencing discrimination, Staley says that she has never felt like an outsider in the field. “I never experienced anyone telling me I don’t belong here,” says Staley. “I think that the field is very welcoming. I can see that the field of Physics is trying to encourage women.” During her summers in the LIGO lab, the undergraduate researchers were predominantly women, and she worked with a female post-doc as a mentor. Even with this positive progress, she agrees it’s important to inspire young girls to get a kick-start in STEM professions: “I think encouraging girls to be in STEM is very important.” She has gone back to the all-girls school she attended to talk to fourth graders about her profession. “They were so psyched. I want to help in any way I can."

Alexa, you inspire us!

You can learn more about gravitational waves and the LIGO lab (and catch Alexa in action) in this documentary: