Laleh Sadeghian: From Gravitational Waves Nobel Prize to Newsfeed
An Astrophysicist Approach to Productivity in Everyday Life
“I’ve always imagined our Earth is not the only place to live.”
Ever since she was a little girl, Laleh Sadeghian has been dreaming about life beyond her current reality. “When I was 8 years old I got a series of Isaac Asimov books about planets. I began thinking about how to actually check if those planets existed and that was when I first thought about becoming an astronaut.” That dream evolved into studying dark matter and black holes, and she earned her bachelor’s and master’s degree in Physics from University of Tehran, Iran.
She was intrigued with deciphering dark matter and “how quantum mechanics can help us understand dark energy.” At 25 she received a fellowship to pursue her PhD in Astrophysics at Washington University in St. Louis. It wasn’t a smooth journey though — “I actually got rejected the first time I applied for a visa. There is no US embassy in Iran so you have to go to another country to apply. Thankfully the university let me defer until the spring and luckily I received a visa.”
The fellowship offered her more than just the opportunity to dig into Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. “I wanted to experience life outside of Iran and I really wanted to be financially independent. With the fellowship I could live on my own and be independent, work on my research and not have a side job.”
The fellowship also happened at an opportune time. “Coming to the US as an Iranian has never been easy, even before the current political climate. After this administration, it has gotten worse. While before it would take at least several months for students’ parents to get visa to come to visit their children, now it’s not even possible. I hadn’t seen my family in 5 years, and had planned a trip, however after the election I had to cancel it.” While it was upsetting, she tried not to think about it too much. “Luckily I was able to go back to Iran and visit them this past March because I had received my green card as a distinguished researcher. However, I don’t think any student would risk going back and not finishing their school because there is a high chance that they don’t get a visa to come back.”
Laleh still feels fortunate compared to her Iranian friends who have been affected in more personal ways. “My very close friends — I see how they are affected. They have built their lives here, so they can’t just move back and start over. During grad school you build relationships. Their parents cannot travel here to attend their weddings. It has affected so many people on a personal level.”
When asked what brings her the most pride, she immediately describes her contribution to the team at Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO) that won the 2017 Nobel Prize for Physics. “The discovery of gravitational waves. We were the first people to see the signal. That signal left its source more than 2 million years ago. And then it reached the earth in September 2015.”
As thrilling as it was to be a part of that team, she also had a desire to put her research and analysis skills to use in more practical ways. “I wanted to step outside academia, into the tech world. Becoming faculty in a physics department was not very appealing to me. Because I had a data analysis background, I went to Insight Data Science, which was a great bridge from academia to tech.”
For the past 1.5 years she’s been a data scientist at Facebook, working on the newsfeed in emerging markets, specifically user experience in India. “At Facebook things happen much faster than in academia.” She describes academia as an, “easier more relaxed environment, you can go slow and be precise. Here the practical side is more appreciated. Doesn’t matter if it’s super precise but rather if it will have an impact.”
I’ve also learned that asking the right questions is a more important step than even finding the right answers.
Her advice for others is that “you should find what excites you. Also know that probably everyone suffers from imposter syndrome. People need to be patient about learning. It’s not going to happen overnight. It’s important to remember that you have the power to build your own personality and your own life.”