WORDS & PHOTOGRAPHY by Alessia M.

Victoria Kaspi, a professor and researcher at McGill University, is experiencing something exciting in science: a new phenomenon. A whole new phenomenon in science research is something rare and exciting, Kaspi says.

“We don’t yet understand them. They are called radio bursts,” she says. “The first one was observed in 2007, and then three more were found in 2013. Since setting up our telescope, we have found several hundred in the past few months. We are breaking this field open,” says Kaspi.

The telescope she’s referring to is called CHIME, which stands for Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment. It’s a Canadian radio telescope located in the mountains of British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley. According to Kaspi, it will map the largest volume of space ever surveyed.

The CHIME radio telescope in British Columbia. (Photo courtesy of The University of British Columbia)

“The radio bursts are short and fast bursts of radio waves that come from all over the sky. In one day [of a radio burst event] there are about a thousand of them,” says Kaspi. “And we know for sure that they are coming from way, way outside our own galaxy.”

When asked the inevitable: Is it alien contact? Kaspi replies that, no, it’s not. “People think, ‘Oh, radio waves, we use radio waves to communicate, perhaps aliens are trying to communicate with us.’ It is true that we don’t yet know what they are, but there are lots of ideas as to what they are. And when you study the phenomenon in detail, it smells a lot like a natural phenomenon,” she says.

“It’s not like we have never seen radio waves from the sky before. Radio astronomy has been around since the 1930s, and we know that there are many different processes in nature that can produce radio waves. We also know that there are many processes in nature that produce bursts of light. I mean, this is a whole field of astronomy: short transient events,” Kaspi says.

Kaspi did her undergraduate degree in physics at McGill and then did her Masters and PhD in physics at Princeton University. She then got a postdoctoral fellowship, the prestigious Hubble Fellowship, and took that fellowship to the California Institute of Technology and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. She then spent a few years at MIT. Kaspi returned to McGill when the school wanted to create an astrophysics research department.

When speaking on her academic and career trajectory as a woman in science, Kaspi says that women have to work twice as hard. “It’s subtle and hard to quantify, although people have made efforts and have found that signal in data, in real evidence based studies, that women do have to prove themselves more than men do,” she says.

“But I hate to say this because I wouldn’t want to discourage any woman from actively pursuing a career in science. I have worked pretty hard, but I’m really happy with my job. I can’t believe they pay me to do this work,” Kaspi says. “Of course, there are a million examples I could give of being at conferences and having to speak louder or more forcefully to be heard.”

Kaspi says that when she was a graduate student at Princeton, there were very few women faculty members, and today there are still very few women in the physics department. “It’s quite disappointing, I really thought by now it would be parity.”

Amanda Cook, a McGill math and physics undergraduate student who is a student of Kaspi’s, says that it feels good to see yourself represented in your field of interest.

“It’s nice to be able to have female role models and to be able to see yourself fitting in your field of interest, whereas in some of the more material sciences I would say that’s harder to do,” says Cook.

McGill’s astrophysics department is comprised of 33 per cent women, Kaspi says proudly. “It might not sound like a lot compared to other fields, but I just recently did a little number checking around North America and I could not find an astrophysics department that had a higher percentage of women.”