We have chosen Professor Traschen to participate in this month’s Professor Spotlight. This is due to her interesting research and dedication to the department. Professor Traschen specializes in High Energy Theory and is committed to diversity in the STEM program.
What is your professional background? What did you major in and where? Where did you go to graduate school and for what?
I started my career with a Bachelor of Science in Math and Physics from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. I graduated in the Class of 1977. From there I went on to do “Part III of the Mathematical Tripos,” officially Master of Mathematics/Master of Advanced Study, at Cambridge Department of Applied Math and Theoretical Physics (D.A.M.P.T.). Next, I got my Ph.D. in 1984 from Harvard University studying general relativity, a theoretical analysis of causal cosmological perturbations and implications for observations of CMBR anisotropies, which had yet to be discovered. After my Ph.D., I took a post-doctoral researcher/fellow position at the University of Chicago and the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Why did you decide to go to graduate school? How did you decide which grad school to go to? Where else do you study applied mathematics and theoretical physics?
I ended up first at Cambridge because it sounded so charming and I got a Churchill Scholarship to go there. All the places that I had visited (Cal-Tech, Brown, and Princeton) were getting crossed off my “want-to” list! Of course, I found that Cambridge had similar “issues” to these places. I decided to come home, and I ended up at Harvard.
Were there any barriers to you going to graduate school? How did you overcome them?
I would say, given the sad tale above, my barriers were more in finding a place that I wanted to stay, but I loved Harvard. I think that I was lucky in having an excellent peer group.
Briefly explain your research:
My research is in theoretical, classical and quantum gravity; focusing on the early universe and black hole thermodynamics in various dimensions.
What class in the undergraduate curriculum is closest to your research?
PHYS 568 & PHYS 821: General Relativity
PHYS 120: The Big Bang to Black Holes
Do you take undergraduates in your research group? What type of work do they do? Have you published any papers with undergraduates?
Several undergrads have done research projects with me in theoretical general relativity. This means a lot of pencil and paper calculations with a significant amount of fun. The timeline is compact, because students need to take General Relativity (PHYS 568) first. Publishable work must contain new results at the boundary of current theory. So, in most cases, the end product is a great senior thesis! Three of my undergraduate students have been coauthors on published papers.
What is your favorite class to teach at UMass at the undergraduate level?
General Relativity (P568 and P821). However, I’ve really enjoyed all the classes, even though PHYS 151 was a bit of a strain.
What do you do outside of physics? Do you have a hobby?
I like to spend as much time outside as possible, given the constraints of having a job requires sitting at a desk. I also like drinking good strong coffee, which fortunately is compatible with sitting at a desk.
What is the biggest challenge you faced as a woman in physics? What is the biggest challenge to women in physics today?
I think that the biggest (but not the only big) problem is what I call the invisible / negligible person effect. Physics research is both a collaborative and a single-person endeavor. Physicists learn from each other, and develop successful ideas and calculations by exchanging ideas. Inclusion vs. incidental exclusion is a key component to creative productivity.