Meet Dr. Hsin Cynthia Chiang an astrophysicist

On a research expedition to the Subantarctic, I had the pleasure of sharing a room with Hsin Cynthia Chiang aboard the R/V SA Agulhas II. She struck me as shy, but extremely intelligent and as we introduced ourselves to each other I immediately knew that I had to feature her in my women in science blog. Cynthia was born in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois in the United States of America. In her undergraduate, she majored in Physics at the University of Illinois, soldiered on with her studies and obtained a Ph.D. in Physics from California Institute of Technology.  After completing her Ph.D., Dr. Chiang took on a 3 year postdoctoral fellow at Princeton University. When that contract ended an opportunity to winter over as a scientist at the Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station came up and she grabbed it with both hands. In 2013, Dr. Chiang was offered a position as senior lecturer at the University of KwaZulu Natal (UKZN) in Durban, South Africa. She chose UKZN because South Africa absolutely intrigued her and the astronomy opportunities in the country were growing exponentially each year. Chiang mentioned the Square Kilometre Array (SKA- SA)  which she refers to as “the largest radio telescope array in the entire world” and will be hosted in South Africa. She made it known that when she was applying for her position at UKNZ, SKA- SA was a significant driver of her willingness to move to South Africa. Chiang additionally mentioned the tremendous investments by the South African government towards astronomy leading to numerous opportunities being made available in the country, opportunities that are not accessible anywhere else in the world. She reiterated that her current position as senior lecturer at UKZN has been life changing with multiple doors opening for her, allowing her to grow as a woman astrophysicist.

When Cynthia was growing up she always knew that she did not want to be like her parents. Her parents are both academics, her mother is an astronomer and her father does experimental condensed matter physics and somehow her research led her to exactly where she did not want to be in life. Through her research, she ended up being at the precise halfway point between having her day to day work similar to her father’s while the overall science goals are more like her mother’s, how perfect! Well, even though this was not consciously where Cynthia wanted to end up, she always enjoyed tinkering and playing with puzzles as a young girl and eventually was somehow led towards her current direction and career. “I cannot imagine doing anything else”, she sentimentally comments. Dr. Chiang’s mission is not to convert everyone on the planet to become a scientist, however, she believes that each and every person needs to have the basic scientific knowledge in order to understand what is happening around them and additionally be able to interpret majority of what they see on the internet and on the media in general. While conducting fundamental research, Cynthia mentions that they as astrophysicists always get asked the question “What is your stuff good for? Will it make our cars drive faster and will it make our computers run faster?”. The answer is that no, not directly, but for example, the internet was developed as part of high energy research at CERN,  general relativity was developed by Albert Einstein and if anyone would have asked him at the time what his stuff was good for and whether it was going to better lives, he would have probably said the same thing that no, not directly. When we fast forward to the present day, relativity is needed for GPS to work, proving that we never really know when these fundamental research studies will become useful.

Dr. Hsin Cynthia Chiang’s experience as a woman in her field has been good so far and she has never faced any direct discrimination, but in fact, quite the opposite has been the case. She has received abundant encouragement to further her studies and pursue everything she wishes to in her field and beyond. However, she did point out that at times she does wonder if she were male and more outspoken would she be thought of and received in a different way. Her advice to other women out there in the world aspiring to be like her and better is that they should never give up because “if you want something badly enough and keep chasing after it, it will eventually happen”.

Photo credit: PhysicsChic

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