Skolar Award judge Katherine Freese: “Taking risks is a way for breakthroughs”

Cosmologist Katherine Freese has done groundbreaking work both as an academic and as a trailblazer for women in physics. The important thing is to never get discouraged, she says.

Katherine Freese

Katherine Freese is a woman on a mission. In her research, the theoretical astrophysicist and author concentrates on identifying dark energy and dark matter that permeate the universe. She has spent decades on trying to solve the larger-than-life question of what the universe is made of.

This fall Katherine Freese will be a member of the Skolar Award jury at Slush. Aside from acquainting herself with postdocs’ bold research ideas, she spends her days either in the US, teaching physics at the University of Michigan or in Sweden, where she’s a guest professor at the University of Stockholm. Freese works mainly with postdocs and young researchers whom she describes simply as “excellent”.

“I hope in a way I’m offering these young people a future,” she says. Come December, Freese will take this message to the Slush stage.

Tackling the lack of communications training

During her career, Freese has among other things taught at Harvard, MIT, and Berkeley and served as Director of Nordita, Nordic Institute for Theoretical Physics. With her fellow researchers, she has ruled out an existing theory in dark matter and proposed to replace it with a new model. Oh, and back in 2007, she proposed that there’s a new undiscovered star.

Fittingly for a Skolar Award judge, Freese has also contributed in communicating about impossibly difficult research in an accessible and understandable way. Her popular science book, Cosmic Cocktail: Three Parts Dark Matter, was published in 2014 and centers around the consistency of the universe.

Cosmic Cocktail made Freese a sought-after public speaker. Lectures, panels, Ted talks – even the queen of Sweden wanted to hear the cosmologist explain how space works after an event. Although speaking engagements might now seem like just a part of the job, initially public speaking terrified Freese.

“I really needed help with presenting my work and my thoughts. There weren’t any opportunities to learn how to do so, although it should be a part of the general education. Researchers worldwide are missing media training, and that’s a significant problem,” she says. Her own solution? She hired a media specialist, that she paid for out of pocket.

The importance of keeping passion alive

Skolar Award encourages postdocs to go after their wilder ambitions. Unlike many standard funding grants, the competition embraces risky ideas. Freese sees the possibility to go after something unusual as a nice change. Research and science is mostly trial and error: you try something and half the time it fails, she says.

“Usually in order to receive a grant, you have to do the same thing you did yesterday, but better. There’s not much room for risk-taking, although taking risks is a way for breakthroughs.”

In general, becoming and being a researcher is quite a risky business, as far as career paths go. When Freese was beginning her academic career, she took quite a gamble. Being one of the few women in physics at that time, there was a lot of ground to cover. The number of women was and still is very low in the field, Freese says.

However, she has taken massive strides if not leaps in blazing the trail for other female physicists. In the 1970’s Freese became one of the first female undergraduates in physics at Princeton. She’s also the first woman to have been appointed to the physics department at the University of Michigan.

“If there are hurdles, you have to get past them. Don’t let yourself get discouraged. You have a passion, so keep it alive,” she says.

Katherine Freese is one of the six members of Skolar Award stage jury. They will choose the finalists and the winner of Skolar Award.