Prof-iles: Professor reaches for the stars and learns to fly on the way

As a child, Katherine Rawlins had one huge dream and that was to become an astronaut. Rawlins, who is the department chair of the Department of Physics and Astronomy and a physics professor at UAA, said she was always ambitious as a kid and part of that ambition was directed towards becoming an astronaut.

“I learned all about what it takes to become an astronaut. I did lots of independent research on this topic and there are two routes,” Rawlins said. “You can be a scientist or you can be a pilot. Most of the pilots at NASA are from the military and I didn’t want to join the military, and I like science… so that’s the route I’ll take.”

To pursue science, Rawlins, who grew up in the San Francisco Bay area, moved to the opposite side of the country for college at Yale University where she got a B.S. in physics. Looking back, she says one of the classes that propelled her into the field of physics was an introductory physics class she took her freshman year. Her physics professor taught a class of his own design without a book, and by the end of the second week in that class, it went from a lecture hall of around 150 students to only about 35. By the end of the third week the class had dropped down to around 30 students. Rawlins was one of those 30, and even though she had to learn a lot of new math at the beginning of the class to survive, she stuck with it.

“Well looking back on it now with the benefit or retrospect, I would say, if I hadn’t stayed in that class, I might not have become a physics major,” Rawlins said. “At the time, I was very ambitious and this was clearly going to be a challenge, so I went for it. And it was challenging. It helped to teach me the limits of my own ability, and how to take notes and work hard… Challenge is healthy, and I am very glad I stayed for that reason.”

Rawlins hadn’t forgotten her dream of becoming an astronaut, and it was still present as she attended school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to get her PhD in physics. The project Rawlins did her thesis on was called AMANDA, a project that has since been decommissioned. A larger project like AMANDA exists, called IceCube, and Rawlins is still involved with that project today. Her work with both AMANDA and IceCube took her to the South Pole, to the Amundsen-Scott Research station, where she’s worked three times: first from 1999 to 2000 for a four-week stint, the second time she visited in the summer during 2000 to 2001 and her third trip lasted an entire year from November 2001 to November 2002.

“It’s more like a really small village in the middle of nowhere that you can’t leave,” Rawlins said. “In the summer, which is from late October to mid-February, there’s about between 200 and 250 people. Then in the winter, which is from mid-February to late October, winter is the season when they can’t fly planes in and out because it’s too cold and dark. So the number of people drops to between 25 and 50. The station is maybe a mile across at it’s largest. It’s a bunch of little buildings… but beyond that is just ice for hundreds of miles in any direction.”

While she was in the South Pole, Rawlins researched cosmic ray and neutrino astrophysics. The IceCube Observatory is a particle detector a cubic-kilometer in size, with thousands of basketball-sized light sensors buried under the Antarctic ice that acts like a huge net for catching particles that cross it.

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“Our instrument is basically doing astronomy but instead of a telescope that collects light from a distant galaxy, we are collecting particles,” Rawlins said. “The questions are sometimes the same: What’s inside these distant galaxies? How did they work? How do they burn? We think that a lot of distant galaxies have some sort of really high energy engine at the center of them, they’re called active galaxies. They would be expected to spit out a lot of high energy particles, so we are hoping to learn about the kinds of processes at really high energy that drives some of the crazy explosives far away stuff in the universe like active galaxies and gamma-ray bursts.”

Rawlins’ research was still very focused on the stars and space, and after her time at the South Pole, she finally applied to NASA at the age of 28. Rawlins wears glasses, and while she can see just fine with the corrective lenses, NASA medical requirements specify perfect vision.

“I flunked out because of my eyes, they’re not good enough,” Rawlins said. “I knew that before I applied, but I thought I would apply anyway, and the rejection letter they sent me is still one of the nicest rejection letters I’ve ever gotten. It basically said, ‘You don’t meet our medical standards because of your eyesight, but our medical standards do change from year to year, so we encourage you to potentially re-apply if they change in your favor,’ which I thought was a very nice way of saying sorry.”

After her rejection, Rawlins decided that even if she couldn’t get to space, she could get in the sky, and she started working on her private pilot’s certification.

“I got my private pilot’s certificate the day before my thirtieth birthday, and I know this because my father was flying into town for my birthday, and I really really really wanted to take him flying as my first passenger on my birthday. But before I could do that, I had to take this test and pass it,” Rawlins said.

She views her getting her pilot’s certificate as one of her biggest achievements because unlike math and science, flying was something she wasn’t naturally good at.

“It’s not something that I have a natural talent for. It took me nine months and about 80 hours of flight time, which is longer than average,” Rawlins said.

But learn she did. Rawlins earned her certificate while she was at MIT through a fellowship on an experiment called LIGO. LIGO was a machine with the purpose of searching for ripples in spacetime caused by really large masses in the distant universe being shaken violently, Rawlins said.

“Back then it wasn’t clear if this instrument would see anything,” Rawlins said. “These ripples are predicted to be really tiny, like it is an effect that is so subtle that for decades there were many physicists who doubted we would ever be able to see them, if they existed, but now we have, as of last year. This is, of course, many years after I left the project, I left in 2005. But LIGO, that same experiment, made big news last February. The newspapers were going crazy because they had announced that they had discovered gravitational waves.”

Rawlins left the project in 2005 to become an assistant professor at UAA, and now she is a full professor and department chair at 42, showing that ambitious little girls can grow up to be many incredible things.