Women in Science, Interview with Renee Hlozek, Princeton University Cosmologist & TED Fellow

Renee Hlozek. Photo: Ryan LashRenee Hlozek is a South African female cosmologist and TED Fellow living and working at Princeton University.  She is passionate about getting young women and girls interested in science and being creative.  She feels that we need to change the way we see women and girls and their ability to do science, to dream and to fail — she thinks that by showing how she does science, including the method, the trials and the joys, she can make her field more accessible.  A lot of her time is spent writing computer code, which is pretty cool with me. She shares more of her story with us….

Sarah Worsham: Please tell us about what you do.

Renee Hlozek: I am a cosmologist, which means that I spend my time thinking of the universe and how it formed and evolves with time. I work with a combination of data and theory – it is important to me to make sure that our theories actually match the data we observe!

Sarah: So what’s your day-to-day like?

Renee: Because I analyse data as well as testing theories, a lot of my time is spent writing (and debugging) computer code, and doing statistical analysis. It is very rewarding to go from a theory that you think might explain our universe, to the nitty gritty of data analysis. I’m lucky to be able to work in both areas.

When I’m not coding, I am writing papers, or deriving equations. I also spend time reading new papers from other authors and attending talks, it is a great way to learn what is going on in the field at the moment.

Sarah: What’s the highlight of your day?

Renee: I love the feeling when you’ve been struggling with a problem and it finally starts to unravel, and become clear. Or when you are sitting in a talk by a colleague and their work sparks more questions and thoughts about your own research. I have a great job because my main goal is to think and to understand, so I’m given lots of space and time to do that. I set my own goals and spend my time reaching for them – it is awesome!

Sarah: How did you get involved as a TED fellow?

Renee: One of my friends, Lucianne Walkowicz, who is a research fellow at Princeton too is also a TED Fellow, and so I heard about the program through her. I have been watching TED talks since I was an undergraduate in South Africa, so I was very excited by the idea of the TED Fellows. Although I was pretty nervous to apply, I gave it a shot and I’m really glad I did!

Sarah: You’ve done several podcasts and seem passionate about educating people about science. In your opinion, how can we get more girls interested in STEM careers?

Renee: Communicating not only my science but my love of science is a real passion of mine. I feel so lucky to be able to do this job for a living that it makes sense to share some of what I’m learning, and some of my desire to learn with others. Also being a woman in STEM, I think just by being visible and giving talks and podcasts etc., I can be a role model. Growing up there were nowhere near as many female science role models (that were still alive, at least) as there were male role models, and so I think showing people that all people can be and should be excited by science is really important. My anecdotal evidence for this is that often when I give talks at schools etc., the students want to know about me as much as they do about my science, so I’m happy to share my journey!

Sarah: In your entire career, what’s been your favorite job or project and why?

Renee: Well, I’m a member of the Atacama Cosmology Telescope, which is a large collaboration which operates a telescope in the Atacama desert in Chile. We all do different parts of the analysis, but I love being part of a collaboration that is filled with very smart people who are all striving to do something new, make a new measurement and learn new things about the early universe. Working in teams is a strength of mine, so I really enjoy doing it!

Sarah: Was there a particular event or moment when you decided to pursue a career in STEM?

Renee: Actually, no. I always feel a little bit of pressure since scientists often have had “A-ha!” moments. For me it was more a case of I loved maths and science and knew that I wanted to study something like that at university. I liked solving problems – and so I thought I would do something that allowed me to do that!

Sarah: Did you have any mentors or role models growing up that led you to this career? How did they influence you?

Renee: My mom was a real mentor for me growing up. She doesn’t have a career in STEM, but was always encouraging me to do whatever I wanted, and used to joke that I could be anything, even an astrophysicist! Strangely enough, that is what I ended up doing, so she was right! I also had a few wonderful teachers at school that made me interested in hunting down the answer and figuring things out, so they made me curious

Sarah: What was your favorite game or toy growing up?

Renee: I really like Lego and also Meccano, where you could build things. I also loved my dolls too, and would sing and dance to them as a child! One of my favourite toys (that I still think is an awesome gift!) was a microscope that was originally given to my brother. If you haven’t taken a look at your own skin through a microscope you are missing out, it is AWESOME.

Sarah: Are there any skills or courses that have been more useful than you initially expected?

Renee: I think my ability to talk to strangers has really helped more than I thought it would. Whenever we go to give a talk or attend a conference, there are lots of new people and being afraid to talk to them can make it hard to get your research out there. I think the fact that I’m relaxed around new people makes my job a little bit easier! I try to teach this, and how to relax when presenting a research paper, to the students I mentor, because it is a skill that you can learn!

Sarah: Did you have to overcome any obstacles to get where you are? How did you do that?

Renee: One of things which I think can be an obstacle in a science career is that you typically have to be very self-motivated. You don’t have anyone checking in on you all hours of the day, so you have to manage your time well. Also, the problems we work on can be hard to solve, and it is easy to get disheartened, so learning what will pick you up when you’re feeling down is really important!

Sarah: Have you ever had any difficulties in your career due to your gender? How did you handle them?

Renee: One of the things I have encountered a bit is stereotyping and unconscious bias. I recently wrote a blog about a particular event. It is hard when people have a stereotyped view of what a scientist is or what they look like, and I try to just talk about these things when they happen, so that we can move forward as a community. I think being as open as we can about these things will help, but sometimes that is easier said than done.

Sarah: What advice do you have to anyone interested in a similar career?

Renee: Scientific research doesn’t only happen as a professional academic, and there are many jobs that suit someone with a curious mind… but of course my advice is biased by the fact that I am an academic in a university. Being a scientist comes with many challenges. If you like science and are interested in a STEM career, my advice would be to go for it, but go in with your eyes open.Typically you move around on short contracts until you get a faculty post (if you are lucky), so it leads to a less stable home life than other jobs. But it also comes with lots of work freedom and excitement, which for me are really amazing. I get to travel, to meet amazing people who are thinking about complex problems, and figure out what makes the universe tick, so I think I have one of the best jobs in the world!

Connect with Renee:

A special thank you to Renee for sharing her thoughts!  Hopefully you found her story helpful, interesting and inspiring.  If you would like to share your own story, please submit your information and we’ll be in contact soon!

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