Clarion Masthead

BMCC Astronomer Goes Where Light Cannot

By John Tarleton
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Katherine Saavik Ford, faculty member at BMCC and the Graduate Center, stands in front of the Willamette Meteorite, a 15-ton "lump of iron and nickel" at the American Museum of Natural History, that spurred her interest in outer space as a young child. Today Ford works at the museum as a research associate in astrophysics.
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When Katherine Saavik Ford was a young child, one of her favorite places was the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History. Today, she works there.

Ford, 33, is an associate professor of astronomy at BMCC, a member of CUNY’s doctoral faculty in physics and a research associate in the department of astrophysics at the museum. Ford and her husband, fellow astronomer Barry McKernan, work together on the study of supermassive black holes.

Ford’s interest in the stars was inspired by those regular trips to the planetarium from her home in Flushing, Queens, checking out models of the planets or gazing up at projections of the night sky on the planetarium’s curved ceiling.

“It was a window onto the universe,” she recalls. “I wanted to know more.” Clarion spoke with Ford about where that curiosity has led.
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What are some things you remember from your planetarium visits as a girl?

The planetarium had these scales that would allow you to see how much you would weigh if you were visiting another planet, like how much you’d weigh on Jupiter. The idea that you could be somewhere so far away that you could weigh differently, that amazed me.

And there was the Willamette Meteorite. It’s the largest meteorite ever found in North America, a 15-ton lump of iron and nickel from the core of a protoplanet that shattered in the early days of the solar system. I remember touching it when I was five years old – my dad lifted me up when the guards weren’t looking. The idea that you could touch it, that rocks could fall out of space and you could study them, was so cool.

So, enlighten us on the subject of black holes.

Black holes are collapsed stars whose gravitational pull is so strong that not even light can escape. They are formed at the end point of a massive star’s life. Supermassive black holes, which probably result from the glomming together of many smaller black holes, are found in the center of almost all known galaxies. They contain the mass, of one million to ten billion suns all compressed into a single point not even one nanometer across.

Barry and I studied 245 supermassive black holes, and worked to analyze the light coming from material falling into the black hole. The generally accepted picture is that there’ll be a very flat, thin disk of material directly feeding the black hole – very hot stuff. The hot stuff shines, just because it’s hot.

Outside of that, the material gets cooler and is puffed up, forming a kind of doughnut around the hole. There are some serious theoretical problems with this picture of the structure and it’s probably too simplistic. But the main point of our study is that no matter what you think the structure is, it has to be very, very consistent, because the ratio of energetic light (X-rays) to less energetic light (infrared) is very consistent. That means the ratio of hot to cool stuff should also be very consistent.

Where is this research headed?

Astronomers have traditionally studied and cataloged supermassive black holes on a case-by-case basis. We call it ‘stamp collecting.’ There wasn’t enough cross talk between theory and observation. I think that’s beginning to change.

In our own work, our last few papers have focused on comparing the planet-forming disks around young stars and the accretion disks around supermassive black holes, with the smaller black holes playing the role of planets. Some of the findings come from the model for planet-forming disks, which probably can be “imported” into our work almost wholesale. My former field of study was strongly related to planets and planet formation. You could say this synthesis is in part the result of our romantic and scientific marriage.

What are you working on now?

We are mostly focused on developing instruments that will be placed on the James Webb Space Telescope, which will be stationed 900,000 miles from the Earth starting in 2018. This telescope will make it possible to see faint objects next to very bright objects at great distances. It will be like being able to see a firefly next to a lighthouse. This will enable us to see structures near supermassive black holes and help us understand how these things feed.

Why is it important to study black holes?

It gives a better understanding of gravity, which will yield a better understanding of the physics of the universe. It could, for instance, lead to new developments in fields of energy. In 1850, we had no idea what the benefit from the theory of electricity would be.

And knowledge is valuable for its own sake. It’s good to wonder, to be curious and able to explore. Everything we do doesn’t have to be quantifiable down to the last penny. The value of studying English will someday help you write the memo the boss wants, but that’s not what English is for.

I don’t know what’s behind my interest to explore – and that is how I think of it – but I think if I’d been born in a different time and place (and probably of a different gender) I might have been a sailor or other type of explorer.

I did have aspirations to be an astronaut, and I’m not sure I’d turn them down today if someone offered me a slot. I’d have a hard time saying yes to a Mars mission, with a three-and-a-half-year-old kid. Two-and-a-half years’ minimum duration, very high risk – talk about work-family problems! But maybe when he’s off to college....

If, God forbid, I were to be diagnosed with a terminal illness tomorrow, I would strongly consider cashing out my retirement account to buy a ticket [for a space flight] on Virgin Galactic.

Does the fact that you and your husband are in the same department affect the balance between work and the rest of your life?

Barry and I like teaching in the same department a lot. It makes our workload a little lighter as we share materials and notes. We also have collaborative conversations on our subway rides home to Astoria at the end of the day. When we get off the subway, we switch to talking about dinner. Only later, after our son has been put to bed, do we talk about work again.

To relax I like to knit and do some gardening. We live in a ground floor rental, so I have a little patch out back. I also try to go to the gym regularly.

Where did you study, and when did you come to CUNY?

I started at BMCC when I was 28.

I enrolled at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute when I was 16, and was 20 when I graduated from RPI. I completed my PhD at Johns Hopkins at 25, and I was a Carnegie Fellow in Washington, DC, for a year and a half.

I like teaching at CUNY because you feel like you are helping people who really need it and aren’t going to get it anywhere else. I can’t count the number of students who have said at the end of a semester, “This wasn’t the class I expected – it was so much better.”

How and why did you first become active in the union?

I started my faculty life at a public university in South Carolina, where I was an affiliate professor while being curator at Ingram Planetarium. It was a right-to-work state and I felt constantly under pressure, in fear of the whims of administration. Requests for raises were routinely met with a flat “no,” even for so-called star professors. Also, my mother had been a shop steward as a social worker at her county mental health clinic.

When I arrived at CUNY and found out that we had a union, I signed my card right away and started coming to meetings. I’m busy with many responsibilities, but if I don’t step up, if I’m not active in the union, before too long we might not have one. I’ve worked under that system and I never want to have to do that again.

What has it been like as a female scientist entering a mostly male field?

I was often the only female in the classroom during my junior or senior year in college. When I was at RPI, there was an emeritus professor who would say women should not be allowed in laboratories because it would damage their ovaries.

When I started in the physics program at RPI, some of my classmates told me that I got in only because the school was trying to increase its diversity. I got a 4.0 that semester, which shut them up.

The biggest gender issue today is the effect of childbearing on women in STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics] fields. Maternity issues are a big part of the problem of why we have such a gender imbalance in the natural sciences.

There is going to have to be some sort of big structural change, because the time when women scientists are biologically best able to have kids is the time in their lives when their careers are least stable. The first year after I had my son was tough. Sometimes I would consult behind closed doors with female colleagues and get tips about how to get through it.

What’s it like being a scholar at a place you visited so often as a girl?

There are times I stop and say, “Oh my God, I work here!”

On nights when I work late at the planetarium, I sometimes take our son on a walk down the spiral ramp, looking at the displays of the planets. Realizing I have this space to myself and with the infectious energy of a three-and-a-half-year-old beside me, it’s like being a kid in a candy store.