Couples podcast: written in the stars
Astrophysicists Fred Rasio and Vicky Kalogera actively avoid collaborating on research. That decision once came into play in the announcement of one of the biggest discoveries in modern science.
Photos by Doug Haight.
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This is a Northwestern Now podcast. In this episode of our couples series, we talk to two astrophysicists who actively avoid collaborating on research. Coming up, hear how that choice to maintain separate identities played out in the lead up to the announcement of a top secret discovery – one of the biggest discoveries in modern science and one that will forever change the way we study space.
Fred: Fred Rasio. I’m also a faculty member in the physics and astronomy department.
Before we get to the story of how these two astrophysicists met, I want to take a little detour to talk about complications that can arise for two people who work on totally separate projects in a relatively small field with occasional confidential discoveries.
Vicky is a member of an international team of scientists involved in the LIGO Scientific Collaboration. Fred is not a member.
Fred: I’m not at all involved in LIGO.
Last September, more than 1,000 LIGO scientists learned that detectors had picked up gravitational waves for the first time, proving Einstein’s theory of relativity.
So anyway, Vicky was one of the cast of a thousand scientists who were in on this secret that would soon be celebrated around the world. She was one of the first people to learn about the discovery, but for several months, she wasn’t supposed to tell anyone – not her mom, not her husband and certainly not another member of astronomy community.
Northwestern: You had to keep it secret?
Vicky: That was tricky in the following sense.
Fred: Are we on the record? Be careful.
Vicky: No I’ve told this story.
Don’t worry; Vicky gave permission to share this story.
Vicky: In principal, we were supposed to keep it secret from anybody, but the reality is that people who had spouses not in the field, they all told their spouses what was going on.
They had to, and, eventually, so did Vicky because…
Vicky: The fact is you can’t hide the fact that a discovery like the LIGO discovery is impacting your life, suddenly.
Vicky started having middle-of-the-night phone conferences; she was working late; heading to the office early; she wasn’t able to pick up the kids from school.
Vicky: It didn’t take more than three or four days before it became clear that something very not normal was going on.
So she told him.
Vicky: What I had told Fred was that we have a detection. I didn’t say what kind of a discovery it was. I didn’t share the most specific information that would benefit him as a researcher.
She thought he’d be begging to know all the details, but as it turns out, Fred didn’t ask any questions because…
Fred: I was not interested in knowing the details of something I thought was fake.
Fred says what we have to understand is...
Fred: There was a previous time a few years before where, as part of preparation for doing this sort of science, the LIGO collaboration had done a full dress rehearsal.
It’s called a blind injection. Basically they faked a detection in order to prepare the thousand scientists involved in the collaboration for the real deal. Then the first real detection happened in September 2015 when scientists were still testing the instruments. No one was expecting a detection – not the scientists involved and certainly not Fred.
Fred: It was so much in the too-good-to-be-true category.
Vicky: He looked at me like, “Okay, whatever,” not believing. You can see how he’s the type who would say, “Whatever you’re crazy.”
That once-in-a-lifetime discovery is the biggest of Vicky’s career, and an important part of her story is understanding that this is a career she never thought she would have. Let’s go back now to the beginning of both Vicky’s and Fred’s lives to see what brought them to the U.S.
Fred grew up in Brussels, Belgium.
Fred: I’m from a family of academics. My father was a university professor. When I was 12, I knew that later in life I would probably be in a university.
Fred got his undergraduate degree in Brussels, then came to the U.S. for graduate school at Cornell.
Fred: I knew from a very early age that the best universities to do science were in the U.S. There was no question. I had no need to think about it.
Vicky took a totally contrary path to academia.
Vicky: I grew up in a small town in Greece. I’m the first in the family to go to college.
But that’s not to say her family didn’t value education.
Vicky: My father was always interested in math and science.
But he grew up during World War II, and Greece had a civil war after that.
Vicky: He graduated top of his high school, but circumstances were such that the only options he had were to go and find a job and start building a life and make sure his mother is supported.
But Vicky says her dad always felt like he missed out on something, and he wanted more for his children.
Vicky: It was very clear, from kindergarten, that the only thing ahead of me is going to college. Ph.D. was not in the picture though.
So Vicky focused on her studies.
Vicky: I spent my time just doing math for fun.
She got her undergraduate degree in Greece, and it was only then that she started to think about a career in academia. But she worried about money. Vicky says, at the time, the United States was the only place where you could earn money as a teacher’s assistant or researcher while pursuing your Ph.D., so she made the life-changing decision to leave everyone and everything she knew.
Vicky: Then the United States, coming from a family who had never even been to Athens, how do you come to cross the ocean?
Vicky ended up getting her Ph.D. from the University of Illinois and a post-doctorate at Harvard, and it’s during that period that she met Fred. He doesn’t quite remember it that way, though.
Vicky: The first time we met, he doesn’t remember. Okay, I’m gonna tell a little story.
In Fred’s defense, he met Vicky in a large group at a conference.
Vicky: I remember going to that conference and there was this guy.
A guy who asked a lot of questions.
Vicky: They were not questions just for the question, but to the extent of my knowledge at the time, they seemed thoughtful questions.
Vicky says she and Fred were introduced during a group discussion. Fred was just about to start as an assistant professor at MIT, and Vicky was still pursuing her Ph.D., so she doesn’t feel too offended that he doesn’t remember that meeting. But then later…
Northwestern: Now tell me the second story.
Vicky: What do you remember, my dear?
Fred: Of how we met? Vicky: How you noticed me. Fred: Involved in a more personal relationship.
Vicky: Tell the story of when do you remember noticing me as a researcher even.
Fred says his first memory of Vicky is at another conference, this time in Italy. It was a small conference, so they talked a lot. But at this point, their relationship was still strictly professional. Fred invited Vicky to speak at a few events, including a conference at the Aspen Center for Physics in Colorado.
Vicky: That’s where we really got together.
Fred: Got to know each other a little better.
That physics center in Aspen is a special place for Fred and Vicky. They spend several weeks there for work every summer, and it’s also where they got married.
Fred: Also during a conference that we were then both co-organizing.
This was in 2001.
Fred: We took a day off from the conference to go get married at sunrise, about a one-hour hike from Aspen up the mountain.
It was just them, three friends, a judge and a photographer.
Fred: Our wedding reception was basically the conference group coming to our apartment and having a party.
One month after that, Fred and Vicky moved to Chicago and started their careers at Northwestern, but they didn’t follow the typical dual hire process. Vicky didn’t even mention Fred’s name during interviews.
Vicky: When I applied to Northwestern and eventually got an offer, I had to sort of ask the question, “Do you think you might be interested in also hiring…” Who? He’s not my husband yet. Just bringing it up was not easy.
But she did find a way to bring it up eventually, and it turns out, Northwestern was more than willing to accommodate her request.
Vicky: Northwestern not only opened a second position, but offered him tenure.
In those first years, Vicky and Fred were very careful to avoid collaborating on research.
Vicky: For me, at the time, it was important that I certainly build up my junior faculty record, not connected to my now husband and next-door colleague
Fred: In our case, we were at rather different seniority levels. That makes an important difference. It would obviously be a bad idea for a junior person to have too much of his or her work always with the spouse as a co-author.
Vicky: That would be true for a female or male faculty, either way.
Even now, they’ve only written 17 papers together. That’s less than 10 percent of their individual bodies of work, which is surprising since they actually operate a research center together now. It’s called CIERA.
Vicky: It stands for Center for Interdisciplinary Education and Research in Astrophysics.
CIERA is an astrophysics research center that Northwestern opened for Vicky and Fred in order to keep them on staff together when they both got other offers in 2009.
Vicky: The center was a vision that would bring Northwestern, as an institution in astronomy, to the forefront, compared to having individual faculty leading their own research.
CIERA was the first time Vicky and Fred really ever worked together, but even now, they say they rarely talk about science or research outside of the office. They say it’s great to have a partner who relates to them on scientific matters, but more than that, they say they value being married to someone who understands the life of an academic.
Vicky: It’s invaluable to me.
Vicky says when you work with your spouse…
Vicky: You lose some benefits: the benefits of disconnecting, not having to deal with your professional life when you connect with your spouse. I think there is some benefit to that, but it’s a lot more important that you understand each other’s life, especially when your professional life is so all-consuming as an academic’s.
Vicky says that, like any couple, they struggle to balance work, family and parenting. In fact, she actually had to leave this interview early.
Vicky: I’m sorry, but I have a 4-year-old who needs to get to ballet class.
But they’re making it work – balancing life, family and science; maintaining their independent identities, while sharing a family and a second home at Northwestern.
This is Kayla Stoner reporting a Northwestern Now podcast. To check out the rest of the couples series, just head to our website, Northwestern.edu.