Since she was old enough to look to the skies, Grace Chesmore was fascinated with what lay beyond them.
A graduate student in the Department of Physics, Chesmore works on developing control systems for telescopes at the Simons Observatory, a Chile-based collaboration between U-M and 11 other universities and scientific organizations aimed at exploring some of the most foundational mysteries about the origins of the universe. Specifically, Chesmore’s work focuses on instruments capable of measuring the cosmic microwave background (CMB), faint electromagnetic radiation left over from one of the earliest periods in the history of the universe that permeates all space.
This summer, Chesmore had the opportunity to interact with an entirely different group of stars. She was chosen to attend the 69th Annual Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting in Lindau, Germany—a yearly gathering that provides 600 undergraduate students, Ph.D. students, and postdoctoral researchers from over 70 countries the opportunity to meet and exchange ideas with Nobel laureates. The focus of the meeting rotates each year between the three natural-science Nobel Prize disciplines—physiology and medicine, physics, and chemistry. This year’s meeting focused on physics, and more specifically cosmology, gravitational waves, and lasers.
“I’m a cosmologist, so the opportunity to hear from Nobel laureates who’ve worked in my field was too good to pass up,” Chesmore says. “Cosmology is an exciting field that thrives on international collaboration. Especially being early in my career, this seemed like a good time to meet people from around the world working on the same kinds of things I am.”
Space-Time and Face Time
In addition to hearing lectures from 2018 Nobel Prize in Physics winners Donna Strickland and Gerard Moreau, Chesmore had the opportunity to meet some of the key figures in her own specific field. She attended a walk through a vineyard with Adam Riess, an astrophysicist who won the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics along with Saul Perlmutter and Brian Schmidt for demonstrating that the universe is expanding at an accelerated rate—one of the most significant findings in modern cosmology. Even more significantly, Chesmore spoke with John Mather, who along with George Smoot won the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physics for discovering the CMB, the focus of her own research.
“It was incredible to see and hear from this group of scientists whose work I studied in school,” Chesmore says. “Being able to talk with them and share some of my own research with them was a great experience.”
Chesmore left the conference with a new career perspective, as well. During a panel discussion on academic careers comprised of both Nobel laureates and graduate students, 2001 Nobel laureate Wolfgang Ketterle encouraged students not to shame themselves for not having a perfect work-life balance. While they should be careful not to let things get out of control, he told them, life in science had peaks and valleys, with periods focused on their research, others on their families, and so on.
“It’s something I definitely feel is true in science, and it was good to hear that put into words,” Chesmore says. “It’s ok to feel like your life is not totally balanced at all times, so long as you’re focusing on the things you need to be focusing on in that moment.”
In a field that places a strong emphasis on collaboration and interdisciplinary study, the opportunity to meet a diverse new group of scientific colleagues from around the world was just as important to Chesmore as interacting with the Nobel laureates.
“The first day I was there, I noticed almost everyone I spoke with was from a different country,” Chesmore says. “The connections I made with people my own age, going through the same career path I am, only coming from somewhere else was so impactful. It was overwhelmingly good.”
How Rackham Helps
Chesmore was the recipient of a Rackham Conference Travel Grant, allowing her to attend a conference in the Netherlands hosted by the European Space Agency in December 2018. She gave a talk on her published research on silicon lenses she developed for use in the Simons Observatory CMB investigations.
“It was a very empowering experience, because I was one of the youngest scientists there, as well as one of the only women,” Chesmore says. “It was intimidating at first, but I was able to give my presentation and answer their questions, and I was able to represent myself as a scientist.