Capelo Holly, Dr.
Please give us a personal quote or a quote of a famous person (e.g. of Albert Einstein) that describes you and your life/work.
“Mathematics, physics, chemistry, astronomy, march in one front. Whichever lags behind is drawn after. Whichever hastens ahead helps on the others. My interest has never been limited to the things beyond the moon, but has followed the threads which spin themselves from there to our sublunar knowledge; I have often been untrue to the heavens. This is an impulse to the universal which was strengthened unwittingly by my teachers and the whole scientific circle at Göttingen.” — Karl Schwarzschild 1913, Berlin Academy acceptance speech (translation)
Please describe your job in only one sentence and tell us what the most important goal of this work is.
I design and perform physics experiments to test astrophysical theories of planetesimal formation. The goal is to extend the Planetary Imaging Group’s already significant experimental capabilities that address mainly observations of the present-day Solar system, to include experiments directly related to the early Solar protoplanetary disc and planet-forming discs around other stars, younger than our Sun.
How did you get into this research/work field?
My Bachelor’s degree at Columbia University in New York City and my Master’s degree at Wesleyan University in Connecticut were both in Astronomy. I also had valueable opportunities within the Department of Astronomy at Yale University. The research I conducted at that time involved optical and near-infrared photometry and spectroscopy of variable luminosity accretion disc systems (black-hole X-ray binary, circumbinary protoplanetary disc). My Ph.D. at the Max Planck Institute for Dynamics and Self-organization in Göttingen, Germany, involved ground-based experimental investigations of a two-phase flow, in an extremely dilute parameter regime, suitable to test for the existence of the streaming instability, which is a potential way to help form first-generation planetesimals. Hence, I transitioned into experimental astrophysics. The Planetary Imaging Group at the University of Bern already has a nice synergy between space exploration and experimental physics and so joining them was was very obvious to me.
What would be the greatest discovery you would like to see in your life time?
In the past decades, the capability to spatially resolve planet-forming discs has undergone a major revolution and is enabling many amazing discoveries about the structure, dynamics and contents of those systems. I hope that in the coming centuries the observational techniques will enable direct verification of the small-scale planetesimal formation mechanisms that comprise my research. If that could happen during my lifetime, even better.
You work for the NCCR PlanetS. What do you think will the NCCR enable you to do you couldn’t do without it?
My research is interdisciplinary, so continuing it requires special circumstances in which there is both interest and infrastructure to support experimental astrophysics. The Planetary Imaging Group has already built up impressive facilities for ground- and space-based experiments. Participating in PlanetS, with interactions and collaborations in diverse subfields, gives us the opportunity to consider how the very fundamental processes we study in the laboratory may be important to the understanding of a wider range of problems in planetary science, planet formation, or exoplanet atmospheres. On the personal side, PlanetS provides me the opportunity to continue my career after the birth of my daughter, just two years ago. As a female scientist, I thankfully never experienced overt discrimination, but motherhood is undeniably a demanding role that, without institutional cooperation, can represent career jeopardies. My experience so far in PlanetS is that there is a commitment to providing this support.