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“As a child I wanted to be an astronaut”

Hilke Schlichting, Professor at MIT/UCLA, came to NCCR PlanetS as Visiting Scholar for two weeks in September 2016. The Visiting Scholars’ programme invites prominent senior scientists in the field to give scientific seminars and, in addition, to share their experience with young researchers at PlanetS. Hilke Schlichting’s research interests span all aspects of planet formation theory, extrasolar planets and solar system dynamics.

Interview: Nadine Afram

Hilke Schlichting, Professor at MIT/UCLA visited PlanetS in September 2016. (Photo Nadine Afram)

Hilke Schlichting is an expert in planet formation theory and solar system dynamics. (Photo Nadine Afram)

PlanetS: Are you enjoying your stay in Switzerland?
Hilke Schlichting: Yes, very much.

Why did you agree to come to PlanetS as Visiting Scholar?
I was curious to see what kind of research is carried out in terms of planets and exoplanets in Switzerland and interested to meet scientists here to see which research direction they see for the future, also in terms of space programs. I also wanted to learn about the Swiss academic system and the structure.

Are there differences to the way research is done in the US?
In Switzerland the groups seem a lot bigger and there are more PhD students and Postdocs (especially in theoretical research) for each professor. The type of research also differs at least compared to the Universities where I have been active. At Caltech, MIT and UCLA we have a stronger emphasis on analytic work and the basic physics of a problem, while there is a stronger focus on large numerical simulations in Switzerland.
In terms of academic careers: In the US, there is a clear career path: after being a Postdoc, you become an assistant professor, and after 5-7 years you will be promoted to associate professor with tenure, which means that your position is permanent. The biggest step is from postdoc to assistant professor, since most assistant professors will receive tenure and the universities only hire assistant professors according to the number of permanent positions that they have.

Tell us a bit more about yourself. Has it always been your plan to become a professor?
Yes, it was always my dream! Initially, as a child, I wanted to be an astronaut since I have always been fascinated by space and I always loved maths and physics. I moved to Japan with my family when I was a teenager and I really enjoyed learning about Japanese culture and way of life and decided that I wanted to work in an international environment. For me, academia is really perfect since it combines physics, teaching and an international envionment. I consider myself extremely lucky to have a job that consists of learning new things every day and travelling the world for work.

Have you at any time during your career felt you have been discriminated because of your gender?
No. But I felt the difference when moving from Germany to the UK. In Germany, I heard a lot of comments from teachers (such as ‘girls can’t do maths’, etc.), whereas in the UK the schools are competing with each other in rankings and the grades of their students mattered for this. I was supported a lot in high school in the UK and it was wonderful. The school took pride in my good grades and the fact that I got into Cambridge. I loved studying at Cambridge University, it was always a dream of mine to go there and study physics. In the end, only your academic accomplishments counted.

How important are female role models in academia for young women researchers?
During my time at Cambridge, I didn’t have a single female professor. Only as an undergraduate, when I did some summer research at Caltech in the US, I met my first female astrophysics professor when she gave a lecture about her research. This had a huge impact on me. It was really good for me to see that female astrophysics professors exist and I thought to myself: Yes, I can do that too! I think this actually played a role for me when I decided to go to the US for graduate school, I had the impression that as a woman I had a better chance in succeeding in academia in the US than in Europe.

How did you arrive at this conclusion?
In Germany (where I am originally from), it seems that there are more expectations from society as to what you should or should not do as a woman. For example, I was told when I was younger that being good at maths and physics makes you unattractive as a woman because it somehow makes you appear masculine. I was also told by a random stranger that I am wasting my time because a women’s brains are not suitable for logical thinking.  Most recently, less than a year ago, I was told by a male professor after giving a lecture in Germany that it is nice that I am now a professor but that I really should have children now. I am 100% sure that he would never have said that had I been a man. In the US this would never have happened. Probably partly because people pay a lot more attention to political correctness but more importantly because one’s individual happiness counts more than happiness of a group/society and being successful is generally admired. I feel that in the US, the fact that I am a woman usually doesn’t play a role and is never really discussed. I feel accepted and appreciated by my colleagues and at some level I often forget that there is gender difference between (most of) us, because I see us, in the first place, all as scientists.

You are an experienced speaker, how do you deal with being nervous before a talk?
Give lots of them and practice well, this is my advice. Give as many talks as you can. The more talks you give, the less you encounter the feared ‘unexpected’ questions, because they become less and less. If you still don’t know the answer, just say it, don’t make something up.

Is there an advice you can give to young women researchers?
Don’t try to emulate/imitate the men. Do it your own style, draw a line and defend your ideas, yes, but do it in your own way. You don’t have to be exactly like the majority to succeed. There is not one recipe that fits all, and this is the nice thing! This is also important for science: Diversity is important! It is enriching to have different people who approach things differently and with diverse attitudes and backgrounds.

Did you profit from your visit of PlanetS? Will there be collaborations?
There are possible collaborations and possible future visits. After discussions and exchanges of ideas with Professors, Postdocs and PhD students, there will certainly be some follow-ups. It was exciting to come here and learn about new projects and the research that is done, and to find out about new tools and how they can be applied to other science problems.

Was there something that particularly caught your attention?
I liked that so many people work at PlanetS and do research from different angles and at different institutes, broad research is being done and there is a strong team. It was interesting to see that there is a significant fraction (as far as I saw it) of female PhD’s and Postdocs, but concerns were raised that replicating this change at the professor level is challenging.

Do you have any recommendations for the next Visiting Scholar?
My stay was well organized and I could see UZH, UniBe and ETHZ, maybe an extra day for working and letting discussions/seminar sink in at each institution could be beneficial.

Test of the CHEOPS CCD
Earth twin planet found in the habitable zone of the nearest star to the sun.
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