Rising physics star says constructive criticism key to creativity

Sabrina Gonzalez Pasterski tells young scholars to focus on research and ignore ‘shitty job market’

September 11, 2019
Sabrina Gonzalez Pasterski speaks at the THE World Academic Summit
Source: ETH Zurich/Andreas Eggenberger
Sabrina Gonzalez Pasterski speaks at the THE World Academic Summit

Universities must create an environment of constructive but friendly criticism to nurture top talent and incentivise early career researchers to be mentors, according to a budding young scholar.

Sabrina Gonzalez Pasterski, a 26-year-old physicist at Princeton University’s Center for Theoretical Science, built and flew her own plane aged 14 and contributed to the 2014 discovery of the “spin memory effect”, which may be used to detect or verify the net effects of gravitational waves. A single-author paper that she wrote in 2015 was cited by Stephen Hawking the following year.

But in an interview with Brian Schmidt, vice-chancellor of the Australian National University and winner of the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics, Dr Pasterski said she was not immune to fears about the competitive and precarious nature of academic careers, noting that many talented peers have accepted roles at less prestigious institutions “because it’s a shitty job market”.

However, she said, it was “getting easier” for young scholars to “take advantage of the fact that there are openings at lots of universities” that are less established in certain disciplines and might not have any other academics working in the same field. These new recruits can then “use the funding” from their position to attend workshops and meet potential collaborators.

“You can imagine a situation where it’s not a big deal that you’re isolated as long as you’re not intellectually isolated,” she said.

Speaking at the Times Higher Education World Academic Summit at ETH Zurich, Dr Pasterski added that the academics she was most impressed by tended to be “only concerned about the problems that they’re working on” and did not care about the deadlines imposed by short-term employment contracts.

“That level of focus is hindered sometimes when you have these deadlines coming up. But if you can create a state of mind where you don’t think about that too much then the work should guide you,” she said.

When asked how universities can create an environment that enabled creativity, Dr Pasterski, whose research focuses on string theory, answered “coffee”, and colleagues who “know enough about [your field] to ask questions that make you second-guess yourself”.

“You want somebody who can be harder on you than you would be on yourself but nice enough that they don’t crush you,” she said.

Dr Pasterski also suggested that postdoctoral students should be given more incentives to mentor their junior peers.

“When I was a graduate student what would have been fun is if the postdocs thought that their chances of getting a permanent position relied more heavily on how much they mentor graduate students,” she said, adding that many advisers were overloaded with other commitments.

ellie.bothwell@timeshighereducation.com

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