Feb. 11, 2020

Dr. Sarah offers tips on self-care, Irish dancing, and finding life on distant planets

UCalgary alumna and astrophysicist chosen to deliver TED Talk in Vancouver

Where most mortals would be gasping for air on the summit of Mt. Aconcagua (6,959 metres), Sarah Rugheimer, BSc’07, broke into dance — a spicy Argentine tango peppered with a few bouncy Irish steps. There’s not a lot that is “typical” about this 36-year-old astrophysicist, who was on this April’s roster of TED Talks, now bumped until July.

Mountain climbing may well be a passion for this University of Calgary alumna, who has also summited Chimborazo (6,268 m), Kilimanjaro (5,895 m) and Cayambe (5,790 m), but that’s not what she’ll be discussing in Vancouver during her 18 minutes of TED fame. Alongside 19 other visionary TED speakers, Rugheimer will illuminate her audience with her primary research question: How can we detect signs of life, or biosignatures, on distant planets?

And yes, with the potential to reach millions of viewers, this Oxford postdoc, who is driven to discover whether we are alone in the universe, is nervous.

Sarah Rugheimer on Cayambe in Ecuador

Sara Rugheimer climbs the Ecuadorian volcano Cayambe (5,790 m -18,996 ft.).

Courtesy Sarah Rugheimer

“She shouldn’t be,” says Dr. David Hobill, PhD, with a laugh. He’s a shameless fan who remembers Rugheimer as “outgoing, very bright, observant, disciplined, very personable.

“Plus, she knows her subject,” adds Hobill, associate professor in UCalgary's Faculty of Science. Years ago, Hobill taught classic mechanics and mathematical physics to Rugheimer. Like Rugheimer, Hobill is a mountaineer and likes to perform. He’s acted in Waiting for Godot and The Homecoming.

“When you’re an actor, you have to know your script and learn to roll with the punches. Sarah can do that, so she’ll be fine. And her area of research is so exciting,” he says. “She’s been exploring the universe in a different way that no one else has ever done. It’s not like doing a homework problem where someone tells you the answer; you have to figure it out yourself. That’s what she’s been doing.”

Rugheimer is a Glasstone Research Fellow at the University of Oxford and a Hugh Price Fellow at Jesus College, Oxford. She co-hosts a podcast with fellow exoplanet astronomer Dr. Sarah Ballard called Self-Care With Drs. Sarah about navigating life’s challenges by putting your mental and physical well-being first.

And with those endorsements, here’s a quick cut to Sarah Rugheimer, who’s now living in Oxford, England.

Sarah Rugheimer

Sarah Rugheimer's TED Talk is slated for April 20 in Vancouver, B.C.

Q: Before we get to the TED Talks, let’s back up: You’re originally from Montana — so why did you decide to take your undergrad degree at the University Calgary?

A: As a teenager, I was part of an Irish dance school in Calgary — the Irwin School of Irish Dancing. I wanted to continue my dance career and so I only applied to UCalgary. I knew all Canadian universities were good, and I am very thankful for my education there.

Q: How did you go from dance to astrophysics? And why?

A: I went to a conference where there was an astrobiology session on how to detect life on an exoplanet. I remember being shocked that this was possible in my lifetime. After that conference, I read more about origins and astrobiology research and thus started my path to astrophysics.

Q: When it comes to your research area, what is your elevator pitch?

A: I am an astronomer studying extrasolar planets; those are planets orbiting other stars than our sun. In particular, I am interested in how can we detect signs of life, or biosignatures, on those worlds. When I talk about life, though, I mean microbial life, not necessarily complex life. My research speciality is the impact of the host star’s radiation on our ability to detect features in the atmosphere, in particular on our ability to interpret biosignatures.

Q: What are two memories you have about your undergrad experience at UCalgary?

A: I remember taking a physics final exam with Dr. David Feder in statistical mechanics. I was 100-per-cent sure that I failed since I only answered around half of the questions. Turns out no one else answered that many so I ended up doing very well.

Coming from a small community college in Montana, I felt like everyone at UCalgary must be smarter than me. But after doing well in my first semester and in subsequent years — indeed, graduating at the top of my physics class — those feelings subsided. However, when I went to Harvard for my master’s and PhD, the feelings of being an impostor came back in full force. I struggled with them to the point of nearly dropping out before realizing so many high-achieving people feel this way. This is in part why my friend, Dr. Sarah Ballard, and I started our podcast, Self-care with Drs. Sarah, to openly discuss things like the impostor syndrome and self-care in academia.

Q: How long have you wanted to do a TED Talk?

A: I applied three years in row for TED. I didn’t hear anything the first time. The second time I was interviewed but not selected. The third time I was selected. My message here is to apply, apply, apply. Similarly, I almost didn’t apply to Harvard for my PhD since I figured there was zero chance of getting in. I am so glad I did, since I ended up going there. I find we often self-select ourselves out of opportunities. My advice — let someone else make that hard decision for you. You should apply. And apply again. When it comes to fellowships and awards, I probably get rejected 10 to 15 times more than I ever get. But you wouldn’t expect that from seeing the list of awards I’ve received.

Q: What are you doing to prepare for April’s talk?

A: I admit I am nervous about the stage. It is in the main TED conference so there will be a lot of high-profile people there and TED fellows go first to start the conference. It will be by far the highest profile talk I’ve ever given.

Q: What are three top tips you’ve received from the TED enterprise that will help you?

A: This isn’t from TED, but the single biggest paradigm shift I’ve had in public speaking was to treat it as a voice and body performance, like theatre. As academics, I think we often focus too much on our slides. People pay the most attention when you are delivering your science well, and those skills come from theatre, not from academia or conference talks.

Q: What are six things you’d like the world to know?      

A: 1. The James Webb Space Telescope launching in 2021 will be the first telescope in human history that might be able to detect signs of life in an exoplanet atmosphere. How exciting to be alive now!

2. I have a 10-part series called Searching for Extraterrestrial Life that will be available on Amazon’s Audible in June or July.

3. I also have my competitive Irish dance teacher certification — it’s always been my back-up plan if academia fails! I’d like to find a way to teach dance again, regardless.

4. In my free time I like high-altitude mountaineering. I climbed my first high altitude mountain, Kilimanjaro, in 2011 shortly after my dad passed away. I loved the meditative aspect of walking at low oxygen and went on to climb others. As training for these expeditions, I enjoy carrying heavy rocks in a backpack, uphill, for no other good reason.

5. I don’t have Instagram, Snapchat, nor do I really even use Twitter, but what surprises people most is I don’t have Spotify. I still collect mp3s on my device and curate my playlists in an extremely inefficient manner.

6. I met President Obama on the golf course while at work one day at St. Andrews and we had a two-topic, 60-second conversation, about astrophysics and health care.

If you want to hear one of Rugheimer’s podcasts, tune in to Self-Care With Drs. Sarah, or to see one of her talks, watch this.

Sarah Rugheimer’s TED Talk is slated for July (TBD) in Vancouver, B.C.