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Quantum Correlations: Interview With Nobel Laureate Brian Schmidt at ESOF on Success, Europe, Women in STEM, War and ET

By Alaina G. Levine

On 21-26 June 2014, 4500 delegates from 75 nations assembled in Copenhagen, Denmark for an amazing event- the EuroScience Open Forum (ESOF). This all-purpose conference seeks to engage the STEM-hungry public about as many areas of science and engineering as possible, with talks, workshops and even a special outreach festival called Science and the City. Held every other year in a different European city, the meeting is the go-to place for early-career, and mid- and senior-level professionals spanning the universe of –ologies, -onomies, -onomics, and -istries, to congregate, consult and create collaborations. As it celebrates and draws attention to the very best of European science (and science policy), it also serves as a terrific opportunity to network with thought leaders in, out and way out of many STEM field.

I attended the event as press on a Nature Travel Grant Scheme Fellowship and this was the second ESOF I had the good fortune in which to participate (the last was in 2010 when it was held in Torino). It seems to get better every year as it aims to be the largest general science conference on the continent, similar to the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The galaxy of attendees include stars in academia, industry, non-profits, government, and other sectors; this year, we were graced with The Queen of Denmark, Her Majesty Margrethe the Second, among other luminaries.

Nobel Laureate Brian Schmidt and Author Alaina G. Levine at ESOF in Copenhagen
Nobel Laureate Brian Schmidt and Author Alaina G. Levine at ESOF in Copenhagen

Not surprisingly, a number of Nobel Laureates were invited and I was especially excited that Brian Schmidt, Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics at Australian National University and 2011 Nobel Laureate in physics served as a plenary speaker. An engaging orator, Schmidt discussed the accelerating universe and his work in cosmology. Behind the scenes, I had the opportunity to sit down with the scientist, someone whom I have known for a few years. We are both alumni of the University of Arizona and I first came in contact with him when I wrote an article about him in celebration of his Nobel Prize for the University of Arizona Alumni Magazine. Since then I have seen him at a few conferences, most notably the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, which I reported on here in 2012.

Brian sat down with me for an hour to discuss his research, why banging your head against the wall is great career advice, his work in gender equity in the sciences and why he travels halfway around the globe to attend ESOF. What follows is the interview, edited for clarity and space.

AGL: What is the most exciting thing that you’re working on at this moment?

BS: We’re doing a survey of the southern sky looking at billions of objects, and from that we’re able to pick out the very rare objects. So earlier this year we announced the discovery of the first star that contained no iron in it. So the Big Bang makes hydrogen, helium, a little bit of other stuff, but it didn’t make anything heavier than lithium and beryllium, so by finding an object that has no iron it, we know it’s a very primitive star. And we think it is made up from one of the first stars, one of the stars that was created out of hydrogen and helium, the stuff left over from the Big Bang. So that was very exciting. And we hope we’ll find a whole bunch more of them over the coming years.

AGL: So you identified it was a single star?

BS: Yes, a single star.

AGL: And where is it? What galaxy is it in?

BS: It’s in our own Milky Way and it’s like this idea of galactic archaeology. We sift through the building blocks. You can imagine going through and fossicking through the stars of the galaxy and putting together how the galaxy was constructed. Finding the most primitive star is a good place to start because then you know you got one of the Rosetta stones of how the galaxy was broken up, because you got one of the first things.

AGL: So is this the oldest star?

BS: I can’t say it’s the oldest star, although the press release did say that against my better judgment. But It is the most primitive star. You can’t guarantee it’s the oldest because different stars are made in different places, but it’s the first star we’ve found that’s made from effectively THE material created in the Big Bang and not much else and that’s why it’s important.

AGL: What can you ascertain about the objects around it? Or have things just moved huge amounts?

BS: Things have moved huge amounts. That’s the problem. There’s this new mission that’s been launched called Gaia [by the European Space Agency], which will allow us to measure very accurately the orbits of almost a billion stars. And it turns out if you know where a star is and you know its direction of motion very accurately, that’s pretty well preserved. It gets smeared out just a little but not a lot. So by doing that for many, many objects, you’re actually going to figure out which stars were created together. They also have chemical fingerprints that are the same and that’s a big program were doing in Australia, and this is the whole program of galactic archaeology of which were part of. I think it’s really exciting stuff.

AGL: The chemical fingerprints – is that a new enterprise?

BS: It’s a new enterprise because it’s the first time we’ve been able to do it on lots of stars so we have this new instrument in Australia called HERMES which is going measure the chemical fingerprints of [more than] a million stars and the idea is that sibling stars will have the same chemical fingerprint so it’s sort of like I go out and take a bunch of DNA and that persons here and that’s their brother and that’s their sister, and you can link them all together that way.

AGL: And what about the fact if you found a star that has the iron in it, the objects that are nearby in proximity in time, are [you able to see] signatures of the objects that are nearby that demonstrate that that star has contributed to their makeup?

BS: Not yet.

AGL: Is that another step down the road?

BS: It might be. That’s the next step harder. Because that means the DNA fingerprint has been modified by a new parent, and that becomes harder. We’ll see. It’s one of these things that when we get a lot of data we might well be able to do that. But were at the infancy. We don’t yet have the data.

AGL: Do you think of it in terms of parents?

BS: Yeah , it’s the same basic idea. We all think about DNA, and that’s what you’re doing. As the supernova explodes, it chemically pollutes the area around it and new stars, its progeny, are made from the gas that started and the gas that supernova created. It’s sort of like more like a plant than a human, but you really do have the initial DNA – what is there- and then a star explodes into that and adds a bit to it. So you got the old DNA and the new DNA and the progeny are built from that. And it turns out that those things are very, very unique.

AGL: Are you yourself writing the algorithms to mine the data?

BS: Not anymore.

AGL: So what role do you play in this?

BS: I’m the leader of the program that’s mapping the sky and so I lead a team that’s working on these various questions. Until three or four years ago I was definitely in there writing the code but that’s sort of gone away unfortunately. So I have to take that scientific leadership role.

AGL: It’s a collaboration.

BS: It’s very collaborative. I bounce ideas around and we try to come up with a program together that [works]. Ultimately I guess I’m in charge, but in a very loose sense. I tend to think science works best when you let individuals be creative. So we have a chat and I just make sure that that person and that person and that person are working sensibly together and that they can benefit from my knowledge to do what they want to do as best as possible, in a coordinated way.

AGL: So that relates to your own leadership and teambuilding style. Can you talk a little bit more about how you developed that, how you figured out that this was the right way to do it? Because of course being a scientist, we’re not necessarily taught this, so I am curious how you learned it and why you implemented it in this way.

BS: I learned it by trial and error…Leadership can be learned to a degree, but it is a lot in your personality. There’s not a one size fits all in my opinion for leadership. Different people will lead in different ways and those things are more or less effective in different arenas. I would be a terrible general in an army because I am not a command and control type. I like to work on inspiring people to work to a common purpose, and that’s good in many areas. How did I learn that style? I don’t know…even back in high school, I was always trying to organize people, and how do you organize a bunch of people, where you have no financial instruments to do so? All you can do is try to convince them to do what you think is the right thing. I guess that’s how I started and you just learn on the fly what works over time.

And the best strategy that I use is to put yourself in the position of the person you’re talking to and try to make sure that what you say and what you’re thinking is gonna make sense to them. And sometimes when you have to make hard decisions you need to say how am I going to convince this person that I’m doing the right thing even though they are hurt. So that means having really open, frank conversations with people so they understand the whole process. Most times, people are reasonable and say “well this sucks but I understand why you’re doing it”. But sometimes they say “this sucks and I’m going to try to destroy you”. And you have to be prepared if you’re having that conversation with everyone, and the majority of people think you’re doing the right thing, then even if individuals who miss out, if it’s thought that this is the right thing to do in this case, then you prevail. And so that’s why I’m very open. I tell everyone everything I’m thinking. And when they do something, I will say “well, I will have to oppose you and I will do it for the following reasons and this is how I’m going to do it”, and they need to know that because I always assume if I’ve got the right argument I will win. And if they want to do nefarious tricks, that’s fine. But I have trusted, and in the end it’s always worked out. There are short term losses by being open but in the long term, I’ve always found that people trust you, even if they’ve had a bad run in, three years later they say, “well you did treat me pretty fairly”, and when it’s something else going on they say “I saw how you did it and I trust you because I saw how you work and you’re not a surprise”. And although [they are] mad at you, most people will forgive you eventually.

AGL: Because they see the value of the relationship?

BS: Right. And I accept the fact that if I can’t convince everyone, I’m going to lose the argument and I do lose arguments sometimes even when I think I’m right. But if I haven’t convinced people, fine; I did my best and I move on.

AGL: So what advice would you give for early career scientists who will have to deal with people who will be out to destroy you at some point, and maybe not in a huge way, but maybe in a small way. There’s a lot of discussion right now, especially amongst women in astronomy, I mean it’s all over the blogosphere, and I wonder for young, early career astronomers, men or women, when you’re faced with someone who is out to destroy you, what advice would you give them?

BS: When I was younger and there were people out to destroy me, you have to judge your position. Most of the time, you just had to get out of their way. You have to have the ability to sensibly defend yourself. There have been many times in my career where I was in situations where I had to make decisions about what I was going to do and I felt that I would be supported by my colleagues, but I wasn’t positive. But I was prepared to face the consequences. I said “ok this is where I’m going to go; if I’m not supported then I can do this, this or this, or leave the field and do something else”. But people worry too much in my opinion about the job they’re doing right now and how they have this career plan that is very linear and “I’m doing that and anything away from that is a failure.” Well that’s not the way life is. Life changes too quickly. And I have always backed the fact that maybe I will have to do something else but how bad is that gonna be? And you know, I’ve come very close to having to do other things and I wasn’t a bit happy about it at the time, but two weeks would have passed and I would have been fine with it.

AGL: Because you would have gotten excited about it, you would have learned from it?

BS: I would have gotten excited about doing something else.

AGL: That’s really good advice.

BS: The reality is that we are all very comfortable with what we’re doing normally. I always tell people general career advice: if you like what you’re doing, keep doing it. But make sure you do it well and you learn and you’re changing, because if you don’t, you’ll get bored, and if you don’t like what you’re doing, then change. And if you get confronted by a problem, in the current alley you’re headed down, [such as] a dead end, [which could be ]a person, or just be an unlucky choice of what you decided to do, then you need to get in reverse and get out of that alley as fast as possible. And I call that banging your head against a brick wall. It’s what my tenth grade English teacher told me: “you need to know when you’re beating your head against a brick wall”, and that is the absolute best advice. That is one of the things that makes people successful. If you know when you’re beating your head against a brick wall and you can identify that really quickly and do something else, you will be successful. Because you’re wasting your time [pursuing] a dead end, [it’s] a real killer, but you just need to be open to anyone/thing. [But] if you’re convinced that the only thing you can be is a research professor at a top ten university in your area, then good luck, and it’s happened to me, but I never had any expectations it would happen. I always assumed I would have to leave the field. Always. After I discovered the accelerating universe, I said “I’m going to be able to stay in academia”. That was the revelation to me. Nine months earlier I was looking for jobs because I didn’t have a job. My job was ending in nine months and I was like, well, it didn’t happen.

AGL: (When was this?)

BS: This was when I was at ANU. It was 1997, and I applied for a job that would give me another five years. I was there on a three year position, and this was the beginning of 1997, and I finished 4th in that job [application process].

AGL: Oh really?

BS: I was married to my wife who is an economist. We had a young child, another one on the way, and her job paid twice as much as mine, and she had a better career than I did at that point. So I wasn’t going to pick us up and move us to some unknown location on the other side of the planet where I would be in another postdoc and then have another three years and then have to do the same thing again. I wasn’t prepared to do that so I said well, I’ll take this job and if that’s it, that’s it. I’m gonna stay here in Australia and do something else.

AGL: So did you start looking for other jobs?

BS: [At ANU], three people turned the job down, and I got the job as the fourth candidate.

AGL: No kidding. And this is the job you’re in now?

BS: It eventually morphed into it. It’s not atypical. People think that “oh you always had this charmed life”. No, I was just like everyone else. That’s the way everyone is. You can’t pick who’s going to make a Nobel Prize winning discovery until the Nobel Prize winning discovery happens. That’s the whole nature of them.

AGL: You had no idea [you were in the running for the Nobel]?

BS: I knew I was doing a very interesting project, but I did not ever think it would win the Nobel prize. I didn’t know the universe was accelerating. And even when it was accelerating, it wasn’t clear to me that it would win a Nobel Prize until I got the phone call in 2011.

AGL: But your research showed that it was accelerating.

BS: Yeah, a year later, so that was the point. At that point, in early 97, I could see we were getting an answer and I was kind of concerned because it was a very different answer than what the other team was getting, but we didn’t know then that the universe was accelerating. At that point it was consistent…it was a funny number, we weren’t sure what was going on. Sort of negative, but not really significant enough to be sure.

AGL: so would you say you’re one of the luckiest guys you know? Would you say you’re lucky?

BS: I’ve had luck. Absolutely. Huge luck. And I’ve had bad luck as well. But I’ve had some great fortune, and you know, one of the other pieces of advice I tell people is not to make your own luck, but don’t self-destruct when the chips are down. Because you will eventually have opportunities and then you have to be able to run with them. And the key in life is running when you have the opportunity and not self-destructing when the chips are down. And that’s a big way that really smart people self-destruct. They have a run of bad luck and they just melt down and can’t deal with it. They become bitter, they become twisted, they get mad, they burn all their bridges. And these are external, where you just can’t deal with them. For example, imagine you’re being bullied or sexually harassed at work. You need to deal with that in a very professional way. It needs to be dealt with. But you have to make a decision: is the thing that you want to do have justice, to ensure justice is put upon to those people? Or do you just want these people to be dealt with by the system and have it measure out the justice and you move on with your career free of them? I would argue you need to hand that type of stuff to the professionals, the professional part of your organization, trust it will do a good job, and move on with your career, if that’s what you want to do. But a lot of people will feel that it is their job and they’re going to spend all of their effort, not working on what they want to do, but rather ensuring justice is served as they see fit on to the people who screwed their lives over. And I can’t tell people not to do it, but if that’s what you really, really want to do, spend your time serving out justice on someone who’s wronged you, I personally think it’s a waste of your time.

AGL: It’s interesting that you put it in terms of the professional side of it, because yes there are professionals who deal with this.

BS: But you have to trust them, and a lot of the time, you don’t want to mediate, you just want to have it gone. “Can you please discipline that person and I want to not be part of it”.

AGL: But that’s their job, that’s their profession. Your job is being a scientist.

BS: Precisely.

AGL: So you have to decide which one is more important.

BS: But that’s not what normally happens. Because people become fixated on ensuring justice is served to the level that they think is appropriate. And you know, it’s just a huge waste of your talent. Because that’s a very emotional thing, and I understand why people have that, especially when you are wronged in a very terrible way, but in the end, you’ve let in that system, an external event has thwarted you from doing what you want. And that will seem offensive to people who have had bad things happen to them, and it’s not meant to be. It’s meant to be, that we fortunately live in a society where [for] most of us, there’s a justice system, there’s a police system, there’s university systems that are meant to [oversee these matters]. And if that system fails you, then I would spend an effort saying that the system has failed, but it’s not going to be my singular purpose in life to say that the system has failed. Tell the vice chancellor or the head of police “you failed me”. I’ll tell the newspapers, but I’m going to move on with my life, because what else can I do? I trusted you guys and you let me down.

AGL: Right, and you’re not a professional justice maker. You are a professional astronomer.

BS: Right.

AGL: I think that’s a really good way of putting it. Different topic completely: what [other] areas of science are exciting to you right now?

BS: I try to work on everything I’m interested in (laughs) so unfortunately that means I’m spread very thin. I’m involved in a program to look for nearby planets, transiting planets. And one of the really neat things we’re going to be able to do over the next decade is find Earth-like transiting planets on bright nearby stars, and that means we’re going to be able to find out a lot about those stars, including potentially even seeing what their atmospheres are made of. How cool is that? [I’m also excited about] the new generation of instrumentation that’s going to allow us to look back to the epic of the first stars. We kind of reconstructed what a first star was like from the chemical fingerprints put in this primitive star, but imagine with the next generation of telescopes, these extremely large telescopes, like the James Webb Space Telescope, we can actually look back and see the supernovae themselves that did that. That’s going to become possible in the next five to 10 years. We can already sort of do it with gamma ray bursts, so while I have been here (at ESOF) I’ve been talking to people trying to get a world wide effort to do our best to chase gamma ray bursts that are very high red shift and use all of the facilities in the world collectively to do this so we can do it better than we are doing it now. So that’s an exciting time to be able to look back 13 and a half billion years and literally see the objects. But I like being able to compare what you get there, to the fossicking we do in the Milky Way.

AGL: [What else are you in involved in?]

BS: I’m spending a lot of time keeping on top of science policy, education policy, and stuff like that. It’s kind of dry but it’s where my passion lies, to try to sort out with my Nobel Laureate voice. Women in academia is the other area I’m working on.

AGL: Tell me a little but about those programs. What are you missions? What are you trying to do?

BS: Education, how we improve how we teach STEM in K through 12. And you know most of the western world is going backwards on this front. And I think it’s because we have undertrained teachers. It’s my number 1 issue. It’s probably my number 2 and my number 3 and my number 4 issue. You can’t expect people who are scared of science themselves to suddenly go out and make it seem wonderful.

In terms of policy, policy is very country-specific so I know a lot about Australian science policy and how we can improve it but I also know how things work in other countries, and like here [in the EU], they have been asking questions about the various [European Research Council] programs. And very interestingly, how we deal with gender equity in academia is a real [issue]…it’s an interesting point because…there were just some manifestly terrible things up to about 1995. And since 95 the major inequities that were out there, that were built into the system, had been removed. And yet we’ve almost made no progress in the last decade, about improving gender equity.

AGL: When you say the major gender inequities had been removed, what do you mean?

BS: Just outright sexist stuff that was throughout academia.

AGL: Can you give me an example of what you are referring to?

BS: It’s just sexist language. Overt sexism. And so we put in programs to try to make academia more attractive to women over the last five to ten years, how we deal with child care, how we deal with dual career type stuff, dual appointments, we’ve done lots of little things across the world. But they haven’t actually delivered more women into permanent jobs. And trying to solve that problem is really challenging.

AGL: How do you contribute to all three of those areas: education, policy and women in academia? Do you sit on committees, spearhead programs, especially as the platform you have as a Laureate do you specifically seek out platforms where you can speak about the issues?

BS: Yes. I write a lot of op-eds, I talk to lots of politicians, I talk to groups of principals, I talk to lots of people. And I raise it in the national media as best I can on education. I’m on a reference committee for STEM in Australia organized by the Chief Scientist, I support the Academies and actually donated money to a program called PrimaryConnections, which helps educate primary teachers how to teach science properly (in Australia). And I encouraged the US Academies to come over and see what we’re doing and try to get something like that in the United States, which they’ve done.

So that’s STEM. In terms of gender equity, I’m co-leading an initiative by the Australian Academy of Science to create a forum of all the stakeholders in Australian research to address the issue. We’re bringing over the head of Athena SWAN [a national charter that provides a framework to encourage and recognize commitment to combating underrepresentation and advancing the careers of women in STEM research and academia] from the UK, with the aim to try to put in an Athena SWAN like program in Australia, and we’re kind of being beaten to the punch because everyone’s running at the same time. But it’s alright. I don’t care if we get credit. We just need to move in that direction.

Eventually once we get lots of women into senior roles in universities quite frankly we won’t need this anymore , because it will be self-perpetuating. My experience is when I’m on a committee that’s half women, you just don’t need anything then because …gender equity is just part of what you do and the women and the men act differently. When there is a bunch of powerful women on committees or in departments, they just act in a way that’s sensible.

AGL: So you’re working with the Australian academies and national government to implement these types of programs?

BS: I wouldn’t say the national government as I’ve intentionally kept it out of the government. Government agencies are represented. But I want to get all the stakeholders, all the universities, research institutes, and everyone to agree, we want this. And then you get the government. I want us to actually ask for it and I think I can do it.

AGL: [On a different note,] you don’t think we’re alone in the universe, do you?

BS: I doubt it, because the universe is a very big place, but it maybe that they’re separated in time and space a long, long ways away. The question to me is: we have a universe which is quasi infinite. There’s a finite part we can see at any given time. Trying to see an intelligent species that’s much further than the nearest part of our solar system is going to be hard, unless they’re incredibly advanced.

AGL: In which case they’d reach out to us.

BS: In which case they’d probably already be here. And that’s where the Fermi Paradox comes in. If you ask yourself: imagine you have a species like humanity and were able to get to another planet – we can go from us to the nearest star- well, the stars are very evenly spread. So that means when they go there, they can go to other places. We can do all the planets in our little [area]. And then from there, you’d go out and exponentially multiply across the galaxy. And so if someone has done that, they’d already be here, because it doesn’t take THAT long. It takes millions upon millions of years, it takes even a billion years to go across the galaxy, but it’s been around for 13 billion. So the Fermi Paradox is quite an interesting one. It’s like, well, if it hasn’t happened, it probably ain’t gonna happen, unless you think you’re special and you’re the first one.

AGL: What do you think?

BS: I guess it’s really, really hard. I don’t think humanity will ever make it to another star.

AGL: Because of deficiency in technologies?

BS: Because we will destroy ourselves before we go there. I hope not. You know, Science works amazing well. You hear Fabiola [Gianotti, the former spokesperson of the ATLAS Experiment for the Large Hadron Collider at CERN] talking about Israelis and Iranians working side by side in the lab and everything’s fine. But politicians don’t work so well together and just look at how hard we’re dealing with climate change right now. And what do you think the outcome of climate change is going to be? Do you think we’re all going to suddenly work together? Or do you think that what we’re going to have is that things are going to get worse and the rich countries are going to batten down the hatches and the poor countries are going to have disease and pestilence and World War Three? If I had to guess, that is what could easily happen. I don’t mean to be too pessimistic here. I think we will find it very difficult to keep our act together long enough to move to the next star. I think technologically we have the capability of sending people to the nearest star over the next 1000 years. It’s not that hard. It’s hard, but with nuclear reactors …you can really do amazing stuff. It would take a huge effort of the planet to do it, but my guess is we could do it.

AGL: Is there any element of scientific research, either right now or what we envision for the future, that scares the living day lights out of you?

BS: I’m scared about the whole idea of war. It’s the decision to kill people that’s the problem. So nuclear bombs scare me, [bio warfare] scares me…

AGL: Large scale war, like nuclear war and chemical warfare and that kind of thing?

BS: Chemical warfare…it’s actually harder to kill everyone. But having a runaway super anthrax that no one has a cure for…that could [kill] people pretty quickly. We can make things that will kill essentially a large fraction of the population, and what we forget is that we become very efficient, were very networked and how fragile is western civilization? I think it’s very fragile. Our democracies are fragile. The US is indicating on a daily basis just how fragile democracy is.

AGL: When you say fragile, do you mean vulnerable to cracks or breaking down?

BS: Vulnerable to breaking down and not being the democracy we’re used to. So science itself does not scare me, knowledge itself does not scare me. I’ll just be honest. It’s humanity’s ability to deal with that technology and the ethics of doing that, that bothers me.

AGL: It sounds like you’re saying that it’s not just humanity’s use of the technology and knowledge but in particular it’s the non-scientific population that’s using that knowledge.

BS: We’re very good at solving problems within the scientific confine. But we’re very bad at solving problems together politically.

AGL: And politicians who don’t necessarily have a scientific background or interest in the subject….

BS: They’re not goal oriented. They’re oriented at promoting whatever group of people they’re doing, in as unfair a way as possible. So one of my negotiating styles is I always negotiate for win-wins. I never, ever negotiate something where I get too good of a deal because I know that will be eventually realized with the other person not being fair, and then you’ve lost their trust, you’ve exploited the situation of asymmetric knowledge that you have for something and it’s just ultimately not fair. And some people get it. Women inevitably get it. And 30% of the men just say “are you insane?” [to approach negotiations this way].

AGL: Ok we’ve talked about some scary stuff. Let’s come back to the lighter side of life. You’re here at ESOF. Why is ESOF important to you and why did you want to come to this particular conference? Because after all, you have your choice of conferences worldwide to go and speak at.

BS: I’m passionate about astronomy and Europe is paving the way of strongly now. It’s very organized and I would like Australia to join ESO, the European Southern Observatory. Why? Because it’s a portfolio that I think would enable our country to continue to be a great astronomy nation that it is. Being able to come here and talk about astronomy is good for ESO because it reminds Europeans just how well they’ve done in this area and I want them to continue to do well. But I also want to listen to what they have to say, because in these big science areas, Europe is running rampant. They’re the leaders. They’re the ones setting the agenda for the world now. That wasn’t true 10 years ago but it is true now. And whether it’s in particle physics or astronomy, they’re really setting the agenda. They have a very comprehensive program and I want to listen to what they have to say and be part of it as best I can so that I can help get the science done that we all can do. So for me, that’s why I’m here.

Alaina G. Levine is a science and engineering writer, career consultant, and professional speaker and comedian. Networking for Nerds, her new book on networking strategies for scientists and engineers, will be published by Wiley in early 2015. She can be reached through her website or on Twitter at @AlainaGLevine.