Department of Physics

  • UAB team plans to build a ‘Silicon Valley of the South’ model for growth

    Success will position UAB, Birmingham and all of Alabama at the epicenter of the race to develop the advanced materials that will power the 21st century.

  • New state of matter discovered that could lead to better quantum engineering

    Theoretical and computational physicists at UAB helped identify a new state of matter to impact quantum computing, information storage and communication. 

  • Atomic clocks, low temperature plasmas are focus of new physics grant

    Researchers at UAB will investigate atomic beryllium as a new candidate to develop a next generation atomic clock and produce an ultracold neutral plasma for novel low-temperature plasma physics investigations.

  • A new home for science and engineering

    More than 35 years ago, the Business-Engineering Complex opened for classes. Now, a new complex will support the unique instructional, research and collaborative needs of UAB’s programs.

  • New UAB Science and Engineering Complex proposal advances with Stage I Board approval

    Science and engineering programs will come together in a new state-of-the-art complex at UAB, pending additional Board approvals.

  • I am Arts & Sciences: Christina Richey, Ph.D.

    Physics alumna Christina Richey, Ph.D., is a planetary scientist and astrophysicist with the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology.

    Christina Richey, Ph.D., is a planetary scientist and astrophysicist with the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology. She first came to UAB as a junior from Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia as a participant in the Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program. Her experience in that program led her to pursue both her master's and doctoral degrees in physics here at UAB. Richey left Birmingham in 2011 and has built a successful career in the competitive, mostly-male, field of planetary sciences.

    We profiled Richey in the Spring 2018 issue of Arts & Sciences magazine. Read an excerpt from our interview with her below or read the entire feature article "Stellar."

    On why she chose UAB: "I found out about the REU program at UAB my junior year, and so I came to Birmingham and I just fell in love with UAB and the physics department… I was doing graduate-level research for an entire summer."

    On her experience in the Department of Physics: "The general community in the physics department was just fantastic; everyone was really supportive. Right from the beginning of my graduate work, I knew I would do well; it was just the right environment. Dr. [Ryoichi] Kawai was a huge influence on me, and so was Dr. [Renato] Camata, who had a big service aspect to his worldview, and that was so important to me coming from a Jesuit school."

    On how she almost missed her window to finding her dream job with NASA: "I had told my advisor at UAB that I wanted to be at [NASA] headquarters in 20 years, but when a funding situation almost shortened my post-doc position [at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center], I realized the job opportunities were becoming really slim, really quick. I had missed all of the Congressional deadlines, and I just went to my car and cried. But the next day, I started looking at contractors working with NASA, and I ended up as a contract program officer with Smart Data Solutions, and then with Arctic Slope. Basically, I went from thinking I was going to be unemployed to jumping ahead about 20 years in my career."

    On her advocacy for female scientists in a field notorious for harassment and abuse: "We're making progress. We have to allow the system to fill with diversity. We have to welcome these young people into the sciences who are coming in with their eyes open. They're less tolerant than we were; they're getting proper harassment and bystander training. And that's occurring more now because more women are in positions of power. Too many times I'm the only woman in a room, or my black colleague is the only non-white person in the room. But that game is changing now and it needs to continue to improve."

    Continue reading "Stellar."

    Read more "I am Arts & Sciences" alumni profiles:
    Sarah Randolph of Birmingham Audubon
    Dr. Johnny E. "Rusty" Bates

  • NASA awards undergraduate and graduate students with grant to support space research

    Six students further space research through grants provided by NASA.

  • UAB fall doctoral hooding, commencement ceremonies are Dec. 14, 15

    Approximately 1,627 students are scheduled to graduate from UAB this fall.

  • Weaving new materials with DNA strands

    Can genetic code help build next-generation solar cells and shrink our devices? Physicist Krishen Appavoo aims to find out with a new NSF grant.

  • Federal grant will support interdisciplinary materials science graduate students

    This Ph.D. training targets a Department of Education “area of national need.”

  • Seed grant allows for new research internship opportunities in applied physics

    Physics students will be selected to study laser-induced plasma as full-time research interns because of recent seed grant from the National Science Foundation.

  • Physics graduate student takes her thesis research to a Department of Energy national lab

    Ashlyn Burch’s DOE award lets her study at Sandia National Laboratory, Albuquerque, New Mexico.

  • Superconductors, the future of low-cost energy, focus of newly awarded grant

    Understanding the physics of superconductors starts with understanding and manipulating their physical makeup to more efficiently conduct energy.

  • Lauren Rast featured on The Weather Channel during Lightning Safety Week

    Dr. Lauren Rast, Instructor of Physics and Project Leader for UAB Physics Online Education Project, offered her particular expertise in understanding how lightning works and how to stay safe.

    Dr. Lauren Rast, Instructor of Physics and Project Leader for UAB Physics Online Education Project, recently appeared on The Weather Channel during Lightning Safety Week, June 24-30, 2018. Dr. Rast and Dr. Walter Schrading, Associate Professor in the School of Medicine, offered their particular expertise in understanding how lightning works and how to stay safe. Dr. Rast offered a clear explanation of how nitrogen is added to the Earth’s environment with every lightning strike. Congratulations!


  • UAB and Southern Research launch collaborative pilot project

    Two new studies will have an intriguing mix of catalysts, “tunable” chemical bonds, supercomputers and ultrafast lasers.

  • Department of Energy selects UAB graduate student for esteemed studies at Oak Ridge National Laboratory

    Graduate student expands knowledge of beamlines within physics through 20th National School on Neutron and X-ray Scattering.

  • Researcher looks to identify physics of ultra-small laser with funding from ORAU

    UAB Physics researcher continues to identify inexpensive ways to laser print with small functional devices.

  • They Persisted

    Despite complex social, cultural, and professional trends that keep women from academic careers in the sciences and mathematics, a small percentage of female research faculty stay the course.

    Photos by Steve Wood

    Why do girls lose confidence in their science and math abilities when they reach pre-adolescence? What are the barriers that block women's progress through graduate school? What is it like to be the only woman in your department?

    We asked four of our female faculty members these questions—and more—at a lively and thought-provoking discussion on what it’s like to pursue an academic career in the sciences. Dr. Eugenia Kharlampieva from the Department of Chemistry, Dr. Karolina Mukhtar from the Department of Biology, Dr. Mary Ellen Zvanut from the Department of Physics, and Dr. Tracy Zhang from the Department of Computer Science shared stories of their education, their professional advancement, and their new roles as mentors to female junior faculty, graduate, and undergraduate students. They also offered thoughts on what we can do to ensure that more girls prevail in reaching their goals to be scientists.

    A&S Magazine: Why don’t you start by introducing yourselves?

    Tracy Zhang: I’m Tracy Zhang from the Department of Computer Science. I got my Ph.D. from Florida International University and joined UAB as an assistant professor after that in 2004. I’m a full professor and also the graduate program director in the department.

    My research focus is on multimedia databases and data mining. Anything to do with object detection in videos, or image classification in videos; for example, extracting events from surveillance video, or videos from the biomedical field—I can be of help. I’m originally from China.

    Eugenia Kharlampieva: Hi, I’m Eugenia. I’m originally from Russia and I’m an associate professor of chemistry. I do polymer chemistry, so biomedical applications for polymer materials, for drug delivery, or cell transplantation.

    I came to UAB in 2010, but my career path was not traditional. I was trained as a medicinal chemist in Russia and I worked four or five years in the industry. Then I decided to explore a new direction so I got a master’s in linguistics and cultural communications. [As a chemist], I worked in a company and got promoted to a lead scientist in Russia, but I wanted to explore my new potential as a linguist. I was applying to graduate school in linguistics, and then my master supervisor in organic chemistry called and encouraged me to apply to grad schools in the U.S. I said, “No I’m done with chemistry. I’m going to be a big translator,” but then he convinced me that if I got my chemistry Ph.D. in the U.S., I could practice my English and I would be a more successful interpreter and translator. So, I came to the U.S. in 2010 and fell in love with science and the people and realized I was looking for something interdisciplinary. What I do now is a cross between chemistry, biology, medicine, and engineering, while still doing translation every day. [laughs]

    I received my Ph.D. in polymer chemistry/science at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey, and got my post-doc in biomaterials from Georgia Tech. My initial position at UAB was a little unusual: I was an interdisciplinary faculty member supported by Associate Dean for Research Dr. Yogesh Vohra—I was funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for two years. I had multiple offers at the time, but I took this job [because it was] interdisciplinary and because of the facilities at UAB. I was tenured in 2015.

    Karolina Mukhtar: I have also been here since 2010 and was also hired as an assistant professor. I’m from Poland and did all of my education up to my master’s in Poland in biology, all in my hometown. I never had to move away for college; I guess that was in my best interest. That was the first place I got interested in plant science, which is my current research area.

    I was pretty traditional except for one gig. Straight from my master’s, I was offered a job in the same academic unit where I did my master’s, which was a cell biology lab. And these were really coveted, full-time, permanent research positions—there’s not really an equivalent in the U.S. But I hated the job: it wasn’t the right place for me, and I started looking for something else pretty quickly, just within the first few months. I applied for an internship at the Polish Academy of Sciences, which is a really good place. Even though my original intention for that internship was to just get out of where I was, it turned out to be life-changing, because I met great people there who showed me what science could be like and got me excited. While I was there, the head informed me of the Max Planck Research Institute, which was opening a [new location] in Germany, so I applied for their Ph.D. program. I got in, and during the interviews I also met my future husband so that was a really quick fix for my whole life. [laughs] I got my Ph.D. in genetics with a focus on plant diseases. After that [my husband and I] were pretty open to going anywhere for post-doc training. That ended up being Duke University for me, and I did that for a little over four years.

    After I finished my post-doc, I decided to have a trial run [on the job market], and I applied for assistant professor positions at four schools. One of them called me back and that was UAB. I’ve only been to one job interview in my life and I hope it stays that way. [laughs] My lab studies plant immune systems and various types of plant stress responses.

    A&S: And Eugenia and Karolina, you both won the National Science Foundation CAREER Award in 2014, correct?

    Eugenia: Yes, that’s right.

    Karolina: Yes, with Thamar Solorio and Ragib Hasan.

    Mary Ellen Zvanut: My story's relatively simple. I got my bachelor’s-through-Ph.D. at the same institution up in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania at Lehigh University, not far from where I grew up. I did a post-doc at UNC Chapel Hill, then moved on the Naval Research Lab [in Washington, D.C.] before moving to UAB as an assistant professor in 1993 and I've been here ever since.

    I research the materials they make your computers, cell phones, and electronic gadgets out of—and these new lights that are based on LEDs. I focus particularly on defects, which are not necessarily a bad thing. Actually, sometimes you need those defects to make devices work. We look at defects directly as well as their interactions with other materials.

    I’m a full professor, associate chair and the graduate program director in the Department of Physics.

    A&S: What are some of the pros and cons of being a woman in your field? Did you have a mentor who supported you? Have any of you had a negative experience? What are some of your stories?

    Tracy: I have many stories. When I was a Ph.D. student at FIU, I remember one time I had to work into the early morning hours. I came back at 6:00 a.m. and one of my roommates, who was a male student, said, “You just came back from doing homework?” And I said, “Yes, I got the last bug fixed, so now I’m turning in the work to earn bonus points.” And he said, “Computer science isn’t for women.” He didn’t think it was an appropriate lifestyle for women, working late like that. Even my husband, who was also doing his Ph.D. during this time, [has had similar opinions]. We got to know each other when I was working late in the lab.

    Karolina: Us too, there is no time for anything else!


    Tracy: Right. But from the other point of view, I had a male dissertation advisor who was so supportive. He was so strong-minded but in a good way. He never gave up on me, even when I messed up badly, and there was a time early on that I did mess up really badly. He always held the standard high, but he was always extremely supportive. He would always say, “You are capable of doing anything, you can do it.”

    I think the support from your male peers and your male advisors is very important. Because I think oftentimes the things that make girls or women in my field quit is a lack of confidence and support.

    Karolina: I actually had female mentors all along and I just recently realized that. I have to tell you that, when I grew up in Poland I was completely unaware of the concept of gender inequality. My eyes were really opened when I was over 30 [years old] and I was here in the U.S. My boss made a comment, “You as a female may have a better chance of getting a job,” and I honestly had no idea where that was coming from.

    I was always happy being a girl. But I did have an experience in the first lab I worked in, where I got my master’s, being there was a completely different story. Every single person there was female: the boss was female, 100 percent of the lab was female. And this is the other side of the story: Women can be amazing support, but they can also do a lot of damage when they aren’t the role models you need them to be. When I was hired, I was the most junior member of that group. I felt like an outcast, I wasn’t welcome, and they had ways of letting me know that. I was the one teaching late labs or Saturday morning labs because I was single with no children. I was the one going down the street to the deli to get their lunches. And so I realized, this is not the place where I’m getting the support I need, and at this rate it will take me forever to get my Ph.D.

    My Ph.D. boss was female and she was a neutral figure in my life. My post-doc boss was another female and she was definitely a strong supporter and a great role model who helped me navigate through my own personal life choices through my post-doc, so I ended up coming out on the other side without too much damage and building a stronger case for myself. So, I had both: the good, the bad, and the ugly. [laughs]

    We focus on the impact that male advisors have on female students, but being a female advisor is a whole different responsibility that we have toward our female students. Because there was a time in my life I seriously doubted I could stay in [academia] and if it hadn’t been for that internship, I’m not sure I could have stayed much longer.

    Eugenia: Those stories are wonderful! I’ve been lucky. In Russia, we had the same situation as Karolina had, we didn’t feel that gender difference.

    Karolina: It’s cultural.

    Mary Ellen: My impression is there is a big cultural difference in Europe; they don’t have the same kind of social structure we do in this country. My sense always has been, because I’ve interacted with a lot of European men, that it’s very different than with Americans.

    Eugenia: You know, I didn’t think about this. Out of 50 students in my class [in Russia], only three were guys—the rest were girls. And that felt normal because it was chemistry. If you went into physics or computer science, the ratio would be different, but it was never just 5 percent female. By the time we all graduated it was 50/50, male/female across all of the disciplines. But even when I first came to the U.S., I didn’t experience this gender difference because I happened to be in a lab with an assistant professor who was female. In my group, it was five women and only one man. And I was very lucky; she was very supportive. And we are all in that situation now, right? You take students and you are responsible for them. She was supportive at the time and I just thought it was normal.

    When I did my Ph.D. at Georgia Tech, the environment was slightly different. It was engineering and it was more competitive, but again it was 50/50, female/male students.

    When I came to UAB, I was the only female tenure-track professor out of maybe 15 in the department, and then it was an eye-opener. That’s when I realized, “Wow this is different.” But the department was very supportive so I didn’t notice at first; I just was focused on my work, but gradually it dawned on me. And I noticed it with my students. Girls are less confident and that was strange to me; I was always confident. But when I look at my students here, they are more hesitant to make decisions, they are careful in their experiments, they are very critical about what they do—self-critical. It can be a good thing to be careful and critical, but they are often more conservative than the guys. And to me, it seems like when they have a failure, they are much harder on themselves and it’s much harder for them to move on. I just feel like the girls need more encouragement than guys.

    Tracy: I agree. That reminds me of another joke that’s very true and reflective of reality: When you tell a girl she did a good job, she might think, “What did I do wrong?” You should say: You did a great job, not a good job.

    Mary Ellen: It’s interesting listening to the stories because not only are most of them not U.S.-based but they’re also much more recent, so it’s a completely different situation. I had no female mentor, it never occurred to me to have one. In contrast though, the first 12 years of my education my teachers were entirely female: they ran the school, they did everything. So, it didn’t occur to me even when I got to college that [women] couldn’t be in charge of something. Of course you could be in charge of things! Now I went to a heavily male-dominated school, my two best girlfriends were probably “the engineers” as undergraduates…there were probably more, but it was a very, very small percentage. I think out of a class of 100 electrical engineers, maybe five were women. I was a physicist; I may have been the only one, maybe a couple of others.

    It was a very different experience, but I never really had any trouble. But physics is a very different environment: it’s small and maybe more encouraging because we need more physicists and we don’t care if they’re male or female! [laughs] But no, I shouldn’t joke. Women obviously don’t go into physics and there are a lot of stories about women not being encouraged, being told they couldn’t do math or they shouldn’t do math, and those are stories I’ve heard from friends and from students. I never experienced that, but I’m sure it was true and I dare say is probably still true. But I’ve been lucky. My research advisor was a gem to everyone. He had a wife who was a schoolteacher and daughters about my age, so he knew. But there were issues that I didn’t realize as a student, but he took care so that I didn’t realize them. He made sure that I got along.

    A&S: What kinds of issues?

    Mary Ellen: For example, we were going to a conference and remember it so well but I was so oblivious to it at the time. It was driving distance and I was a relatively new student and we were all going as a group. When we got there we had to spend the night, and I appreciate this now: It cost a lot for a hotel room. Should I have one of my own? Because usually everyone shares a room. But apparently this was a big topic of conversation in his house. His wife and daughters were all advocating that I get a separate room even though it cost a lot. But on the other hand, it does mean you’re cut off…a lot happens socially when you’re spending time in situations like that, I probably missed out on some things.

    A&S: Eugenia, you addressed this earlier. What are everyone's perceptions of your female students?

    Mary Ellen: I think the one thing we all have to keep in mind, even about us: we’re here, the graduate students who are here, they are the ones who persisted. Already the female students we see are the people who are willing to go the extra mile and fight the battles. I had a student here, she came from another institution, and she was basically told when you’re married and have kids, you shouldn’t be here. But she continued. It’s probably very challenging to them, but you shouldn’t say those kinds of things to anyone. All the female students I’ve worked with they’re much more aggressive than I would have been.

    Karolina: Biology absolutely doesn’t have a problem with recruitment—more than 50 percent of our graduates are female, which is a national trend. And that’s also true at the master’s level and Ph.D. level, so we have quite a lot of trained female biologists. Our problem is the leaking pipeline. When you move up in the academic setting every step of the way, from post-doc to every level of faculty, we have a huge, precipitous drop in terms of the numbers and we probably get single digits, 10 percent at best, of full professors. So, our challenge isn’t the lack of motivated undergraduates; they start these careers. The problem is the girls flock into biology because they’re told not to go into computer science, chemistry, math, and physics and so biology is the STEM discipline they think they can handle, plus it has the connection to healthcare, which a lot of women would like. So they come to biology and suddenly we are left with this huge population, and they don’t even realize they are bottle-necking by all flocking together. I think biology has a unique problem of being too popular or being seen as easier. I’m an example, because I had to work really, really hard to get my A’s in math and physics, and I did, but it was more effort. I feel like a lot of girls would be like me and go down this path, but not be prepared for when it becomes more difficult down the road.

    What’s also difficult is when these young women enter biology thinking they will go into medicine or nursing or another health profession and they aren’t accepted, then it is often too late for them to adjust into academia, because they don’t have the research experience they need to continue. We could definitely do a better job of mentoring this large female population we have into more diverse careers.

    Eugenia: I feel so jealous of all those students!

    Karolina: Too much is not always a good thing!


    Eugenia: Of course, there are always exceptions. I’ve been here seven years and I would say yes, female students need more encouragement and more motivation. Their standards are often higher, which can actually have a negative impact. Maybe because I’m a female professor they feel they can't disappoint me more than a male student can? Maybe they’re more sensitive to that? I don’t know, I don’t have a controlled experiment. [laughs] But I agree with Karolina that the retention of female professors in our field is much lower than male professors. In fact, look at our department, we have only two tenured or tenure-track female professors.

    Tracy: I’m the only one in my department.

    Mary Ellen: I’m the only one in mine, too.

    Eugenia: The search committees say, “We need to bring more female [applicants]!” But how are you going to do that when you have out of 100 applications only 10 are female?”

    Tracy: Same here. But I don’t ever feel isolated. They asked me, “Will you have a problem being the only woman in this department?” and I said, “No!”

    A&S: What can UAB do to support you and your students? What do we do well, and what can we do better?

    Karolina: I am a mom of two little daughters so I have that insight and they are both elementary-school age right now. One of them came back home from preschool and said she wished she could be an astronaut, but she couldn’t because she was a girl. And that was the point where I knew I had to do something. Because she’s spending days with people who have told her something like that, because I can assure you she hasn’t heard it at home. We started working hard to find summer camps and after-school activities to immerse them in science and programming and basic engineering. It’s not my interest and it may not be theirs either, but it’s just an alternative to cheerleading and gymnastics. We as a female faculty—we all do outreach activities obviously very heavily—but something UAB could probably do better is programs for younger girls.

    Tracy: Right. Some of our faculty offer the Girls Who Code training camp, but that’s purely on a volunteer basis.

    Karolina: So yes, targeting them earlier, because once we already have them as undergrads the damage is often already done. Research shows that it’s during the preteen years that the whole math/physics thing kicks in that, “This is not for me.”

    It’s so frustrating, I see it among my female mentees, there could be a student that could be doing so well for years and is planning on having an academic career, but in the final year she tells me, “It’s actually going to be really hard.” It breaks my heart but they say, “I’ve been looking at you and it looks so hard and I don’t think I can do it.” And I feel like all that I’ve been trying to do is radiate joy and family/work balance and saying, “Hey, you can do it if you want to, you can. It’s doable and let me show you how.” But there is kind of a consensus that after their degree is complete, they would like a job with defined hours—they are really looking for the structure. These are people who are great thinkers, who are really creative, who have great hands for experiments and they could have a great future. They just can’t make it work.

    Tracy: Let me tell you an encouraging story. My first Ph.D. student was a female student, and she was brilliant. She earned every award and I thought she would have a really promising career in academia, but she decided to follow her husband and work in the industry. But I never gave up trying to talk her into an academic career. I finally convinced her last year and she’s now an assistant professor.


    Karolina: How many years did it take?

    Tracy: Well, six or seven.

    Karolina: But you persisted.

    A&S: What else needs to happen?

    Eugenia: There are a lot of things happening, we just need to keep doing them. More scholarships and fellowships for females at all levels. Hiring more female professors: It’s not easy, but it’s possible. And mentoring. It’s a good thing, but we don’t see it enough in STEM. Mentoring junior faculty is important, but especially female faculty. Senior faculty should see this as a privilege not a load. There needs to be a way to take some of the [responsibility] off of senior faculty so we can do more of this. Because it’s a huge responsibility—it’s a service. Mentoring would require departmental support.

    Karolina: We have a mentoring program in Biology and we had one when I came in.

    Mary Ellen: We have mentoring for faculty, but it’s less formal. As associate chair I try to work with new faculty we have coming in and try to get them in the swing of things. I think it has to happen at the department level, because we all do such different things and the departments have a better idea of what people need. But it does add a layer of things to do. And for most of us, you don’t get into a faculty position until you’ve done a post-doc; it’s not like you come out with a bachelor’s degree and you can teach. So many of these faculty have some independence and have some idea of what it will take, but for us in the Department of Physics, it’s helping them to learn how to teach properly—physics is notorious for not training graduate students to be effective teachers—and also research, but it’s mostly informal and at the faculty level.

    Karolina: When I first came here I was the only female faculty member with a lab, and I was also the first faculty member to be pregnant on the job in the history of the department! A lot has changed since then, though. We’ve had a huge influx of younger female faculty members.

    A&S: So there are good signs.

    All: Yes.

    Karolina: We just have to keep working at it.

  • Stellar

    Physics alumna Christina Richey has built a successful career in the competitive, and mostly-male, field of planetary science.

    Growing up in East Liverpool, Ohio, Christina Richey didn't know very many astrophysicists. In her small working-class town on the Ohio River right where Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio meet, she had few models of what a research career could look like. “It was the Appalachia,” she says.

    She liked science, so she majored in physics at nearby Wheeling Jesuit University, graduating in 2004. But it didn’t have the broad science platform of a larger institution. “It was a great school, but it was a small school, and it had limited research opportunities,” she explains. “I found out about the Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program at UAB my junior year, and so I came to Birmingham and I just fell in love with UAB and the Physics department.”

    The REU program, funded by the National Science Foundation and directed by Associate Dean and Professor of Physics Dr. Yogesh Vohra, provides a 10-week, hands-on research experience for undergraduate students. During the program, participants work in the labs of some of UAB’s best scientists to conduct research that will contribute to the work already being conducted in the labs.

    Launchpad: UAB Physics

    During the REU program, Richey worked with former UAB Physics professor Dr. Perry Gerakines—who is now at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center—to study ice in the outer solar system. “I was doing graduate-level research for an entire summer,” she says. After seeing what the field of astrophysics could offer and knowing she wanted to continue her research, Richey applied to several schools with astronomy programs. But she ultimately decided that UAB was where she wanted to be. “I knew it was what I needed,” she says.

    Richey made the decision to pursue a master's and doctoral degree in physics rather than specialize in planetary science or astronomy.

    And that was in large part because of the relationships and guidance she received from faculty members in the Department of Physics. “A physics degree is flexible and applicable to a number of fields,” she says. “I knew I would be hirable in planetary science, but if that didn’t work out, I could find any number of other jobs with my degree.”

    She says the relationships she built in the department helped her plan her next steps through graduate school and into her career.

    “The general community in the Physics department was just fantastic; everyone was really supportive,” she says. “Right from the beginning of my graduate work, I knew I would do well; it was just the right environment. Dr. [Ryoichi] Kawai was a huge influence on me, and so was Dr. [Renato] Camata, who had a big service aspect to his worldview, and that was so important to me coming from a Jesuit school.”

    As Richey worked through her graduate program, she also came to realize that, just as she didn’t want to limit her degree to astronomy, she also didn’t want to limit her career to laboratory research. “I never wanted to be a tenured professor,” she says. “I was really into project management, government relations, business modeling—all kinds of things that weren’t traditionally ‘physics.’ I had an advisor who really supported my desire to have a non-traditional career, and I am so glad I didn’t have that boxed-in reality that so many graduate students have.”

    UAB Physics faculty members empowered Richey to follow her interests even while working on advanced science. “Dr. David Hilton was another huge influence on my career,” she says. “He was arriving at UAB right when I was finishing my Ph.D. and was very supportive of me from the beginning. I always knew my career path wouldn’t be the same as other people. With faculty help, I was networking at conferences and even taking a business class when it interested me. Dr. Camata said, ‘I feel like you’ll be a senator one day,’ and that really summed up my broad interests. I was not a traditional physics student and UAB really let me pursue the path that was right for me.”

    Early Orbit: Program Officer, NASA Planetary Science Division

    After completing her Ph.D., Richey began an 18-month post-doc at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, where she concentrated on astrophysics, specifically how water adheres to dust grains in space, and how that informs our understanding of stars and how they form. “I noticed even then how I wanted to be out of the lab a lot,” she says. “I worked on education and public outreach programs for the James Webb Space Telescope, which is the next Hubble and will launch next year. I was the president of the post-doc association. I started blogging; I just got involved in so many things in addition to my research.”

    She got so involved, in fact, that she almost missed her window to find a job with NASA, a dream she had held since her first year in graduate school. “I had told my advisor at UAB that I wanted to be at headquarters in 20 years, but when a funding situation almost shortened my post-doc position, I realized the job opportunities were becoming really slim, really quick. I had missed all of the Congressional deadlines, and I just went to my car and cried. But the next day, I started looking at contractors working with NASA, and I ended up as a contract program officer with Smart Data Solutions, and then with Arctic Slope. Basically, I went from thinking I was going to be unemployed to jumping ahead about 20 years in my career.”

    As a contractor, Richey worked at NASA headquarters for five years and ran programs that distributed grant funding to Principal Investigators at universities across the country. “I wasn’t on the review panel, but I was the person who gathered and organized those panels of experts,” she says. “I was the person the community contacted—the one who handled the administration and business management.”

    Richey says she loved the work, but after five years serving as a Deputy Program Scientist and a Deputy Science Advisor for Research and Analysis (R&A) she says, “There was no place up for me to go, and I wanted to try something different.”

    Current Mission: Senior Scientist, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

    In February 2018, Richey took a position as a Research Technologist and Scientist with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology. There, she helps prepare grant proposals, an internal process that is painstaking and multi-layered. “I bring an important perspective to the team as a former contractor at HQ,” she says.

    She’s also a Project Staff Scientist on the Europa “Clipper” Mission, which will send a powerful spacecraft to Jupiter’s moon Europa sometime in the early 2020s to collect data and do extensive research. “Europa is the second-most-likely candidate site for life in our solar system after Earth,” she explains. “It’s covered in an icy shell that’s a few kilometers thick over what planetary scientists think is a liquid ocean. Back at UAB, I worked on ice, and during my post-doc, I worked with a federal relations group trying to get a mission to Europa funded. Add to that my mission experience from HQ…I am responsible for coordinating different groups and different science, so this is a perfect fit for me.”

    Richey says the Clipper will travel in intricate orbits in the Jupiter system, but the orbits have to be carefully calculated since Jupiter’s magnetic particles rain down on everything around it, and would do damage to the Clipper. “It will have to come close to Europa to collect data and then kick back out further into the Jupiter system,” she says.

    Rocket Fuel: Advocacy for Women

    Throughout her academic and professional career, Richey has championed the cause of female scientists in a field that has been notorious for harassment and abuse. “I don’t have a degree in a social science, but over the years I have become something of an expert on this topic, particularly harassment in STEM workplaces," she says. “After an incident when I was a post-doc, I remember really having to think, ‘Is it worth losing my job over this?’ I was so powerless back then, and also so fed up. But I just decided to get up at a women’s lunch—we were always relegated to the women’s lunch—and start a community discussion on the topic in planetary science. I felt like I was screaming into the void then, and occasionally still do. But we’re making progress.”

    Over the years Richey has served as the Chair of the American Astronomical Society's (AAS) Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy from 2015-2017 and was co-Chair of the Division for Planetary Sciences’ Subcommittee on Professional Climate and Culture. She was also a contributor on the Women in Astronomy blog.

    She also helped run a survey and study with three other social scientists and astronomers, including anthropologist Dr. Kate Clancy at the University of Illinois, to explore how hostile the work environment was in planetary science and astrophysics. “Not surprisingly it’s bad, really bad. 39 percent of respondents said they were verbally harassed, and 25 percent said they felt unsafe in the workplace because of their gender.” Her work led to a Career Service Award from the AAS Division for Planetary Sciences (DPS) (“I can say I’ve won the same award as Carl Sagan,” she says proudly), which Richey says she accepted only if the DPS would agree to let her make a presentation on the prize stage. DPS agreed, but then the story about harassment charges leveled against renowned University of California, Berkeley astronomer Geoff Marcy broke in national media. The Marcy story exposed more of the harassment in the field of astronomy and planetary science than any single ‘harassment 101’ speech by Richey would.

    “So, I ended up getting very personal with the crowd, in addition to showing the data”, she says. “A lot of men just didn’t know these things were happening around them. People only knew about a few instances anecdotally, that’s why the study data was so important. It’s hard to ignore when you start to realize these numbers are the same people sitting in the room with you.”

    Today, as the country continues to grapple with these issues after the #MeToo movement exploded into the cultural consciousness, Richey says she’s encouraged.

    “We’re making progress. We have to allow the system to fill with diversity. We have to welcome these young people into the sciences who are coming in with their eyes open. They’re less tolerant than we were; they’re getting proper harassment and bystander training. And that’s occurring more now because more women are in positions of power. Too many times I’m the only woman in a room, or my black colleague is the only non-white person in the room. But that game is changing now and it needs to continue to improve.”

    Even the Hidden Figures movie about black women working as mathematical “computers” at NASA during the Apollo missions of the 1960s helped make an impact. “It was important because it made the conversation about women and gender inequity popular. I saw one of my heroes in Katherine Johnson on the stage at the Academy Awards and cried at realizing just how big that moment was for my field, and for women of color in STEM.” she says.

    Richey, who received a Trailblazing Alumni Award from the College in 2016 and a Rising Star Award from the National Alumni Society in 2017, loves UAB and sees only potential for her alma mater. “I see a world of opportunity for UAB. It is the capital of the economy for Alabama and its research is world-class. My hope for UAB is that it would embrace its opportunities and run with it.”

    She also has hopes for her colleagues in planetary science as they continue to advocate for safe and supportive work environments for their peers. “If there’s an opportunity for us to be the standard of excellence in this, why wouldn’t we?”

  • Decades-long grant brings undergraduate students to UAB for summer materials research

    Students from underrepresented groups and from schools with limited research opportunities get stipends and do hands-on research in high-risk, high-reward projects.