Christina Chu

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  • PhD candidate at the University of Alaska Fairbanks

  • Research assistant at the  Geophysical Institute (Fairbanks, Alaska)

  • BS, MS: Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

Who inspired you to become a scientist?

When I was in 7th grade I became incredibly enamored by TV show Stargate. Looking back, it was the fictional character astrophysicist Samantha Carter that really inspired me to pursue a scientific career. She was the only female on Earth’s flagship exploration team. Even without the Carter character, I would have loved the stories, but I felt I could identify with Carter based on gender. In the pilot episode, she pointed out that even in her male dominated military environment, she was smart enough to keep up with anyone – that really resonated with me. I performed academically well in school and I felt my competition was almost always male – Sam Carter was the first female that I felt I could relate to. She was so cool to me: incredibly educated, could figure out alien technology when no one else around her could, and was held in very high regard by those around her. She was the smartest person I “knew” and I wanted to be her. When I was in 9th grade I even joined Air Force JROTC. I saw the air force astronaut program as my way into space (smiles). It was through a JROTC homework that I found a NASA website advertising scientific positions for high school students, and that set me on the path I’m on today.

Why physics?

My career path towards physics started when I was a joint high school/college (associate degree) student at Middle Georgia College. I triple majored in chemistry, math, and physics. The first year, I took classes fulfilling most of my chemistry and math degree requirements. They were to prepare me for the physics degree classes in my second year. Physics I was [and still is] the only class/major I’ve ever had to drop (I was taking 30 credit hours and didn’t have the time to make my C physics grade an A). Why did I want to come back to it after I graduated high school? Well, it was the only thing I could not do (smiles). Also, I always wanted to work in space field. To me, physics has always seemed to be a much more interesting route to be involved in space than math or chemistry.

How many female classmates did you have in your undergraduate physics classes?

There were 0 to 12 other female students in my classes and about 20 out of 100 in the entire program.

How does it feel to be so outnumbered? Do you think it is an advantage or a disadvantage?

I always looked at it as an advantage because everyone immediately knows who you are. When you walk into the room everybody knows your name because you are the girl in the class. Everybody seems to remember what you say, so it is more pressure to do well. Once you do well, you are motivated to keep it that way because once you slip up, everyone will notice. I’ve always liked a challenge.

Why in your opinion are there so few women in physics?

It is probably because of parents. They say “my child can do anything,” and they truly believe it, but are not imaginative enough. They say “I want my daughter to be successful” but in my experience, “successful” means they think of her as a medical doctor.  Society pushes us to define successful women as only caring and nurturing.  When typical parents say that their daughter is going to be successful, they never immediately think she is going to become a physicist or a mathematician.


An intimidating aspect of physics in general is what to do with the knowledge of physics. I think that professors should bring up data analysis examples more often.  Not all of it is hard; there are easy examples, very relevant to ongoing research, that even students fresh out of high school would understand. I had doubts about my own abilities as a “practicing” physicist until shown such examples and truly believe it would work to inspire other students too.

What advice do you have for young female students who are thinking about career in physics?

You do not have to wait until college to start your career and research. It even can be your first job. When I was in high school I got a NASA internship for high school students and it was my first job. I did not even have to clean anything (laughs).  I worked under the supervision of graduate students. We were doing laser vibrometry tests by sending a mechanical wave through metal parts like you’d find on planes or the space shuttle. When the wave propagated through damage like a crack in the material, the wave change indicates that damage. You can have hands on experience with cool instruments like lasers even without having a degree.

If you are already in college, do not be afraid to ask your professors if they need a research assistant, sometimes they take undergraduate students too. There was only one female professor in space physics department at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Katariina Nykyri. She was absolutely fantastic! I felt really lucky that she said yes when I asked if she would be my advisor.

How did you choose space physics and the University of Alaska Fairbanks for your graduate studies?

My masters’ thesis advisor, Katariina Nykyri, was the reason I considered the University of Alaska Fairbanks. She graduated from here. I really respect her as an incredibly knowledgeable scientist and motivational advisor. I wanted to be educated in a place that could produce such a person. Space physics is a relatively young field and aurora (correlated to sunspot numbers) were one of the first signs to mankind that something happening out in space could affect Earth. Fairbanks is a fabulous place with frequent aurora, so I was told that I shouldn’t be surprised that a lot of the oldest and biggest names in space physics have ties to here.

Tell me about your research at UAF. What are you working on now?

I study Hot Flow Anomalies (HFAs) by analyzing data from two of the five THEMIS satellites. HFAs are giant hot bubble-like structures in plasma where the flow of has a direction different than the surrounding medium. Plasma is a state of matter with a mix of positive and negative particles. They extend away from the Earth towards the sun and are located at Earth’s bow shock. Imagine an aircraft that is going faster than the speed of sound; it creates a curved shock wave in front of it.  The solar wind (particles from the sun) is also going faster than the speed of sound, which creates a shock in-between the Sun and the Earth (“bow shock”), and that’s where HFAs occur. HFAs are about 10 times longer than the radius of the Earth. These large plasma structures can modify the magnetic field of the Earth and may induce aurora or other effects on Earth. Particles are energized inside of HFAs; particle energization is important to better understand because it is occurring all over the universe and a lot is still highly unknown.

It seems like something you could not do at one point becomes your future after all. Previously, what other things could you not do?

When I was an undergraduate at Embry-Riddle, about half of my peers at the school were pilots. I did not have enough money then to take flying courses. When I became a graduate student, I had finally saved enough money to finance my dream; I am going to receive my pilot license soon.  

Victoriya Forsythe

Edited by Christina Chu