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Canadian women in physics and astronomy

By Pamela Freeman, April 6 2022—

The community of women professors in physics and astronomy can best be described as small and mighty. They are changing the landscape of research and research culture for the next generation of scientists. Here are three women making an impact in Canada.

Dr. Victoria Kaspi

As the Director of the McGill Space Institute and a Professor of Physics at McGill University, Dr. Victoria Kaspi studies neutron stars — collapsed cores of massive stars — by observing them through X-ray and radio emission.

Her graduate and early career work involved many studies of pulsars — rotating, magnetized neutron stars that emit beams of radiation, which to observers appears as periodic pulsations. The rotating magnetic field accelerates charged particles which emit radiation, observed in radio frequencies, while hot and high energy accreting material is observed at X-ray frequencies. Kaspi has also done pivotal work on magnetars, another type of magnetized neutron star.

Kaspi has worked with numerous ground- and space-based telescopes, and notably now works with The Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment (CHIME) in Penticton, BC. CHIME, a giant radio telescope that uses four half-pipes to collect radiation, was built to map the hydrogen density in the observable universe. Kaspi led the initiative to extend CHIME’s purpose to detect pulsars and fast radio bursts, which, as the name implies, are few millisecond long pulses of radio emission.

Through its ability to scan the entire sky with a large frequency bandwidth, and through sophisticated digital signal processing, CHIME can, and has, captured hundreds of fast radio bursts. Fast radio bursts have unknown origins, though one has been linked to a Milky Way magnetar by CHIME.

A recipient of Canada’s highest science award, the NSERC Gerhard Herzberg Gold Medal for Science and Engineering, Kaspi is leading Canadian research and infrastructure into a future filled with discoveries.

Dr. Shohini Ghose

Dr. Shohini Ghose is a professor of Physics and Computer Science and NSERC Chair for Women in Science and Engineering at Wilfred Laurier University, and the founding director of the Laurier Center for Women in Science. These positions provide the means for Ghose to research quantum computation and communication as well as address gender inequity in science.

Quantum computers rely on states of photons, atoms or electrons to carry information. These quantum bits, or qubits, are the equivalent of a classical bit representing 0 or 1, though a qubit can be 0, 1, or some combination or superposition of these states.

Qubits can become entangled with one another, connected in a way that scientists can describe the total state of the system, although not the individual parts themselves. The concept of entangled qubits is what allows quantum computers to surpass classical computers in power and speed.

Applications of quantum computers include improved simulations of molecules or secure voting, and Ghose uses this connection of information to explore opportunities for novel communication routes using quantum computers, such as teleportation.

Currently, there are difficulties with scaling entanglement up to a network size, and Ghose is working to generate and understand different types of entanglement. She has also made waves with experiments on how chaos —  extreme sensitivity to very small changes in initial conditions — applies to quantum systems, which theorists say may affect how parts become entangled.

Ghose has been an integral part of quantum information research and is also helping to change the culture to encourage anyone interested to take part, equitably.

Dr. Emma Spanswick

One of Calgary’s Top 40 Under 40 in 2020, Dr. Emma Spanswick is helping to improve our understanding of near-Earth space — an energetic zone filled with particles that could impact satellites, and thus our navigation, communication and security systems.

Spanswick, an assistant professor and the Canada Research Chair, Tier II, in Geospace Dynamics and Space Plasma Physics at the University of Calgary, is expanding the ways space weather is studied as well as providing internship and learning opportunities through her research group. She works on ground- and satellite-based instrumentation as well as the subsequent data analysis, illuminating how and when solar weather can impact our local space environment. 

Since her graduate studies, Spanswick has been instrumental with a particular radio receiver that studies radiation attenuation in the ionosphere, the riometer. The ionosphere is a region of the atmosphere hosting electrically charged particles and free electrons, whose numbers are subject to solar weather via incoming high-energy particles. 

When radiofrequency waves cross through the ionosphere, they cause oscillations in the electrons. A subsequent collision between this electron and a neutral atom causes the wave to lose energy. The riometer detects the signal strength, giving an indication of the electron population and thus revealing information about space weather.

As the co-director of the Auroral Imaging Group, Spanswick lends her creativity and ingenuity to many collaborative projects and keeps Calgary a world leader in space physics.

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