Andrea Ghez ’87 awarded 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics

Ghez: being a woman in science is like being ‘accused stupid until you prove you’re smart,’ which ‘really pushes you to prove that you belong’

Astrophysicist Andrea Ghez ’87 was awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences Oct. 6. She received half of the prize jointly with Reinhard Genzel “for the discovery of a supermassive compact object at the centre of our galaxy.” Ghez is currently the Lauren B. Leichtman and Arthur E. Levine Professor of physics and astronomy at the University of California, Los Angeles. She received a B.S. in physics at MIT, and is the 38th MIT alumnus to receive a Nobel Prize.

The Tech spoke with Ghez over the phone to discuss her winning of the Nobel Prize, research, and experiences as a MIT undergraduate student. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length. 

The Tech: What does winning the Nobel Prize in Physics mean to you? 

Andrea Ghez: Oh gosh, I'm just thrilled. I’m thrilled that the work was recognized at this level. It’s a wonderful opportunity to highlight the kind of science that we’re doing and the technology that enabled it. I guess I sort of see it as both a recognition and an opportunity. 

TT: When were you initially interested in astrophysics and what fueled that interest?

Ghez: It’s hard to identify the true start. I’d always been interested in the universe from a very early age, but I came to MIT actually wanting to be a math major. Formally, I switched my focus to astrophysics somewhere between my freshman and sophomore year.

I first got interested in astrophysics through the moon landing [which happened when I was four]. I got really captivated by imagination about the scale and size of the universe; when you start thinking about that you immediately come up against these concepts of boundaries and edges and infinity, which I think initially took me in the direction of math. Ultimately, I came back to a more pure approach to thinking about the universe directly rather than through math. MIT really developed that in a professional way, from a childish fascination to a much deeper understanding of what aspects of the universe I found compelling. 

TT: In the realm of astrophysics, why did you choose to specifically research black holes? 

Ghez: They are so simple yet hard to understand. They’re where gravity starts to mix space and time. You get into these conundrums that are very fascinating — just by how we experience gravity in our everyday life. 

I was fortunate enough to do an REU [MIT’s Research Experience for Undergraduates Program], an undergraduate research project, so I participated in research effectively every year I was at MIT. I have to say I was just hooked. Once you get involved in this world of research, it’s compelling. I love using telescopes, I love programming, I love thinking about future satellites. And I’m so grateful to [physics professor emeritus] Hale Bradt [PhD ’61], who supported my education, really, because when you work with undergrads — and I appreciate this also from a faculty perspective — there’s so much teaching that goes into it. He was really generous with his time and provided me with opportunities that were rather amazing, in terms of both working on future x-ray satellites and getting to go to the telescopes.

MIT is so good at high-energy astrophysics, and black holes — smaller kinds of black holes, in particular — is what we were interested in. The ordinary-mass black holes, looking at the high energy properties with X-ray satellites and then finding optical counterparts to these things at MIT telescopes. And I think that’s when I discovered the wonderment of these objects. 

TT: What led you to choose to attend MIT of all places for your undergraduate degree, and what work did you initially envision yourself doing as an undergraduate student?

Ghez: I applied early action. I really wanted to go to MIT; MIT was my first choice, clearly above everything else. In fact, when I was admitted, I threw out all my other applications, to a little bit of my father’s disappointment. To me, MIT was just the perfect school. I really fell in love with it well before I attended. I really wanted to go into math and science. There was no debate about the general direction. 

To me, MIT offered everything — it just seemed like the perfect university. It catered to those who were interested in math and science, and when I got there, I was like “Oh, I’m with my people.” It was a fun university. 

I have to say, MIT is such an interesting place — even the idea that it has a strong Greek system. I actually lived in a co-ed frat when I was there, so it was this combination of a place that people who loved math and science could go to and still have fun. [Ghez was a member of the Number Six Club.] It had a great art museum and had these living groups. It just was like nirvana to me. 

I met some of the most interesting people there, and [the community] resonated with me. People were really interested in math and science, yet had a lot of other things going on like sports. It was a place you could nurture those other aspects. At the time, there was the requirement that you had to take basically on average one humanities class every quarter, and I loved the idea that there was sort of this expectation that you maintain this other aspect of yourself, that even though you’re going to a school that’s fully committed to math and science, it was a school that was interested in helping you develop fully as an intellectual individual.

TT: What are some of your most memorable moments at MIT?

Ghez: Oh gosh, I had so many of them. Going to Chile to use the telescopes — just being up in the middle of the night and learning to use the telescope — was an amazing opportunity. 

It’s so funny because you know being in college comes with so many different aspects of life. I loved having dinner at Number Six, making the nightly trek, finding an empty classroom to study in with friends. There’s something about the shared comradery of studying hard but not forgetting to have fun. Every weekend we would go out dancing, and I had so much fun as an undergrad, but I worked really hard.

That’s what really stuck with me at MIT — this group of people that was really committed to science and engineering and all these very curious pursuits, but on the weekend were very committed to going out and having some fun. They’re not specific memories, but just living life fully. 

TT: What were some of your favorite classes or activities as a MIT student?

Ghez: Logic, Language, and Values was one of the humanities classes I had to take, and it just happens to have stuck with me. I think it was philosophy. Another was an intro to astrophysics and astronomy class [8.282]. During 8.02 (Physics II: Electricity and Magnetism) in 26-100, I can remember the lecture that stuck with me the most, which is when we were doing Maxwell’s Equations in Walter Lewin’s class. He had 400 daffodils for us to celebrate that we had learned these equations, and we could each take a daffodil home. What he did was so clever, like this beautiful celebration of something that was so significant for the class, so that was hard to forget. 

TT: Do you have any professors that really impacted you and your work?

Ghez: Hale Bradt, for sure. I think he was one of my discussion leaders in 8.01, and then he taught that introductory class. But 8.01, that’s how I ended up working with him. I worked with him all four years through REU, and it was just a wonderful opportunity. I have to say we had a nice interchange because in addition to doing the REU program, I also had a job working in the MIT List gallery, and he ended up participating in a show there. I still stay in touch with him to this day and I’m so grateful for the opportunity he gave me as an undergrad. I mean MIT is amazing in the way they treat their undergrads and give them these amazing research opportunities. An important part of the MIT experience [is how] it really emphasizes the word “go.” And [Bradt] was so generous in terms of introducing me to a lot of different aspects of astrophysical research. Professor Claude Canizares, who was my academic advisor, was also very encouraging. I think Hale was the primary person, when I think back, just proportionately above everyone else.

TT: As a role model for many, do you have any advice for current MIT students?

Ghez: Pursue things you really enjoy, and keep trying new things, because we don’t know what we enjoy until we try them. I think those are the most important things. If you enjoy what you do, it doesn't feel like work. I’d also say that anything that’s interesting also comes with a certain number of challenges, and if you’re passionate about what you do, I think you’ll have the fortitude to overcome any obstacles. 

TT: What inspires you in your work?

Ghez: I think when I’m most inspired is when things don’t make sense. I do a lot of work on developing new technologies and methodologies. And the wonderful thing is when these technologies give you a really different view on the universe, you can find things that are inconsistent with our current understanding. That’s what’s most interesting to me — when things have been turned upside down by a new piece of evidence, you have to think about, well, how do you sort out those problems that our current models don’t explain? That’s when I think research gets the most interesting.

TT: Do you have any future plans for your research?

Ghez: I’m going to keep going. There’s just so much more to do. We’re really in the midst of not only having answered the questions that we set out to answer, but also [having] revealed more questions than answers. And there are so many new directions to pursue about understanding supermassive black holes: how does gravity work near super massive black holes? What astrophysical role do these black holes play in the formation and evolution of galaxies? In that arena, so much of the observations have been inconsistent with the data that we have. That tells you there’s a lot more to be done to further our understanding. It’s exciting, I’m thrilled to see this, but in no way do I feel done with the research. It’s become more and more interesting over time.

TT: What are some applications of your research that you look forward to?

Ghez: It’s definitely basic research, it’s not the realm of applied research, where you know that there’s some invention where you’re going to apply it to a different arena. Where it does lead you is to the next step, the next question to ask about understanding how our universe works, understanding the physics, the astrophysics of it. For me, the next steps are all about furthering our fundamental understanding of the universe and training the next generation of students.

TT: What are some of your experiences as a woman in science, and what motivated you to advocate for them?

Ghez: It’s always interesting when you’re a minority in any field. I feel very fortunate to have been at MIT, because MIT is a place that has always been very forward-looking in the sense that for all of its history, there’s always been women there. They may have been in very very small numbers, but they were never excluded, and I think that fundamentally changes the institutional relationship to women. I always felt very welcome at MIT, and I met some of the most amazing women there. 

I think one of the things I understood when I was a student there was that when you’re a minority, it’s very hard to be mediocre. They’re all pretty amazing. I think the doubt that people have or any questions that people have really discourages women if they're not at the very top of their game. I think that being a minority drives you to work harder because you really have to prove that you belong there.

I like to say that you’re guilty before you’re assumed innocent, or accused stupid until you prove you’re smart, so it really pushes you to prove that you belong there. 

One of the things I remember at some point [is that] as a student, you start to wonder because the numbers get low, especially in physics, whether or not you belong. The thing I used to think about is “Am I in the wrong playground?” because there are so few people who look like you. And so I started to understand when I was at MIT the importance of visible role models.

That’s why I do my teaching today at the introductory undergraduate level, because I think that’s how you can demonstrate to young women and young men that women are part of this field. It’s not that you have to preach about it, you just have to be visible. 

Similarly, I’ve been very fortunate to work at a program that is of interest to the public, so I guess this is what led me to be willing to spend some time working with people doing documentaries. I think that’s the most effective way you can change things: to talk about science, from the public engagement of science, which is now more important than ever, and just to be visible.