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“I just became incredibly tough”

At the age of 32, Judit Szulágyi convinced the European Research Council to fund her research on planet and moon formation. With that, she also takes over leadership of a PlanetS project. Even though her fast track career makes it seem so, getting this far was not always easy.

As most, Judit Szulágyi currently works from her home. The wall of her home office is decorated with light chains and artistic wooden masks. Art, as many would call it, is also what first grasped her fascination for the depths of the cosmos…

Judit Szulágyi is an assistant professor of Computational Astrophysics at ETH Zurich and a project leader within PlanetS.

PlanetS: How did you first get interested in astrophysics?
Judit Szulágyi: When I was 13 years old, I often watched the science-fiction series Star Trek Voyager. It featured many interesting astrophysical phenomena – such as Pulsars (a compact star emitting beams of radiation) –, which I looked up on the internet and learned more about. This made me fall in love with astrophysics.

Was the TV show accurate?
Yes, I think it was reasonably accurate. They definitely had a scientific supervisor or something. And another aspect of it that I liked was that the captain of the starship was female – a scientist, actually. To me, that was quite amazing. Especially since at the time (20 years ago), there were even fewer female astrophysicists than today. So she became kind of a role model – even though she is fictional, of course – she showed me that women too, can become scientists.

And now you became a professor of astrophysics – she would be proud!
I hope so (laughs)!

Your group is called Computational astrophysics. That sounds rather vague. What will you and your group be looking at and what would you say distinguishes your approach from that of others who also use computers to study astrophysics?

Our group studies how planets were forming in the Solar System and elsewhere. When you do computational astrophysics, you create a computer model of real physical phenomena. That model is necessarily simplified, because nature is just so complex – many different factors play a role and it is simply impossible to include them all.

What I would say separates my approach from most others is that I try to include as much physics as possible. I consider effects that many do not – such as thermodynamics, so any kind of temperature effects: Heating and cooling, how the planet heats its surroundings, how the star heats the protoplanetary disk (in which the planets form), how energy is transported around in this system and so on. I also plan to include more effects, such as the self-gravity of the gas in the protoplanetary disk and magnetic fields. And all of this in very high resolution. That allows me to learn how these different physical forces influence the formation of planets.

A downside is that my simulations take a lot of time to compute and require the very powerful machines – even five years ago, state of the art computing power was insufficient to attempt this.

That sounds fascinating. Any idea how your results could influence popular theory?
I think they could help us understand how and why  different planet types are formed that have so far been difficult to explain. Like Super-Earths or Ice-Giants, that seem to be relatively common but could not be reproduced with traditional planet formation models.

Could this help us find habitable planets?
Or habitable moons! Let me explain: In the Solar system, two of the most promising targets for habitable worlds are actually icy moons of Saturn and Jupiter: Enceladus and Europa. Beneath their icy surfaces, they are expected to have oceans (due to internal heating melting the ice). And as we know, life on Earth developed in the oceans.

With my research, I also try to understand how moons form around planets, how often they form and how frequent such icy type moons (that could be habitable) could be.

So the habitable zone, which is defined as the area around a star in which liquid water could exist, could extend around planets outside the current definition?
Exactly. There are many different factors that can influence the necessary conditions for the existence of liquid water other than the star. For example, internal heating, atmospheres, volcanism. Exomoons (moons of extrasolar planets) will be important objects to look for in the coming decade with the next generation of telescopes.

You started doing research during your undergraduate studies, interned with NASA at the age of 21, were a Forbes 30 under 30 scientist and became an ETH professor at the age of 32. Are things just easier for you than for others?
I wouldn’t say so, no. I worked very hard to get where I am. I also got a lot of rejection letters – CVs only show the successful applications for internships, jobs and grants. And the fact that I am a woman hasn’t made it easier. There aren’t many female astrophysics professors. And even now that I am one, students on the hallway sometimes ask me what undergraduate program I am attending and which master degree I plan to get (laughs).

They think you’re a student?
Yes, often. Last year one of the students thought I am 22 years old. Another time, a retired professor asked me if I am the new secretary. People have presumptions of what a physics professor is supposed to look like and often they don’t picture someone like me.

And there are other difficulties for women. For example, women get interrupted more often when speaking at conferences. Women also get fewer citations on their papers and their grant applications are often reviewed more strictly. So you have to learn how to deal with these things and try to counter-balance them.

What tips would you give a female PhD student on how to deal with these issues?
I think that you have to be very persistent. Women often get bad feedback that is based on their gender. You have to be aware of that and continue with your work without taking such comments personally. And if your work gets ignored – for example when a paper of yours doesn’t get cited even though it should be – contact the authors and inform them about it. Be polite but also stand up for yourself. The same applies when someone tries to interrupt you or mansplain (explain something to you that you actually know more about), let them know in a polite way. So be persistent and hold on to your dreams. This is what I did. I just became incredibly tough.

Has the ERC grant changed anything?
It helps. But even today, I still sometimes get bad feedback that is hard to justify, like someone saying that you only got a job offer or a grant because you are a woman.  There is still a long journey ahead of us and I am very glad that PlanetS makes an effort to increase the share of women in planetary science. The mentorship program in particular helped me and I would recommend that to anyone.

Thanks for your insights and good luck with your research!
Thanks, and thank you for your time!

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