Thaisa Storchi Bergmann’s (61) head is literally in the clouds or rather in the Milky Way. As a renowned astro physicist and winner of the 2015 Women in Science Award, her name had become synonymous with breakthrough work on supermassive black holes.
With a successful career spanning more than 30 years, Storchi-Bermann is an active member of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) with a string of affiliations to her name, among them member of the High Energy Phenomena and Fundamental Physics, the Inter-Division Commission Galaxy Spectral Energy Distributions and the Galactic Centre. She probably pioneered the Star ship Enterprise and knows Dr Spock himself. While she had never been asked these questions, it would surprise no one if this brilliant Brazilian astro physicist played a leading part in creation itself!
She almost became an architect, this full professor at the Federal University Rio Grande do Sul State, had the mega structures of black holes in the galaxy pulled her in as well, just as they do all matter around them and she is considered as one of the world’s foremost specialists on supermassive black holes and the source of the gravitational waves as predicted by Albert Einstein.
Prof Storchi-Bergmann published a study in the early Nineties on black holes with active nuclei in the galaxy. She became known for this and the sky literally became the limit. Her researched proved that protons and free electrons revolved at speeds of 10 000km per second around a centre point, showing that black holes existed not only around radio galaxies. This work and first discovery ensured her win as one of only five global winners of the International L’Oréal-UNESCO awards for Women in Science.
Whereas many other female STEM scientists bemoan the fact that women battle to break through the male-dominated glass ceiling, Prof Storchi did just that while being married and raising three children.
She completed her first post-doctorate degree in America in 1991 while working on projects at the Inter-American Observatory in Chile. These included studying and measuring the wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation emitted by celestial objects. Despite other earlier studies on this phenomenon by an American male scientist in the Eighties, the Professor calls herself lucky after “going where no man has ever gone before,” to record a transient, infrequent phenomenon such as gas spinning around the black hole before disappearing into it.
This STEM scientific leader from a country in South America, considered to be third-world, had been involved in various other studies involving the Hubble Space Telescope and the International Ultraviolet Explorer (IUE) satellite. Her studies as co-author, undertaken with other female STEM scientists in Hawaii and America, involved how much observation time was needed to obtain a desired spectrum from a galaxy to prepare observation proposals sent to observatories. These are still the main templates used today, despite originating in the early Nineties. The papers had been cited more than a thousand times by those wishing to follow in the Professors hallowed footsteps.
Being the only one in the family to be interested in science, she was quoted as saying she had always been a diligent learner, earning top grades at a private, religious school in Brazil. Her father, who studied accounting and was a partner in a lumber company and her mother, a primary school teacher, ensured that from a young age, Thaisa received the birthday presents she wanted – chemistry sets and microscopes. She created her first laboratory in the attic of their house, where she and a friend played with test tubes when other girls their age, preferred dolls.
Switching from architecture to physics was much easier then she says and after starting along her future career path in 1974, she graduated in physics three years later. She remembers the work of those in whose footsteps she followed, one of them the first Latin American women to do research in astrophysics, emeritus professor Miriani Pastoriza who played a major role in Thaisa’s rise to the top. Her interest in black holes was stirred while doing a master’s degree in Rio de Janeiro.
Prof Storchi Bergmann told an international platform that while she is noticing more women than before in STEM, there were still too few in top positions at institutes. She also said she only experienced very subtle prejudice, but mostly felt respected and well-treated.
And yes, being a respected scientist from Brazil always made her somewhat of an enigma, especially while being married and raising three children and even working during her pregnancies on high-level projects. When she had to travel, she took a nanny with and often would quickly slip away to breastfeed a baby.
Since winning the UNESCO prize, the Professor receives weekly requests for lectures or interviews. She even travelled to Paris with two children to receive her award. Today, her extended family understands how important her job is, but in retrospect, Storchi admitted that if she had to do it again, she would not overdo it as she did and would have done less with less stress and not missed so much of her children’s’ childhood. Having said that, the world and the galaxy would have missed out on a great mind and despite trying to slow down a bit, this exceptional woman still collaborates with a Chilean researcher, using the ALMA (Atacama Large millimetre/sub-millimetre Array) radio telescope to study how the accretion disk captures matter in active galaxies. If that is not enough, she is participating in the ALMA proposal screening process and is involved in a survey of the spectra of 10,000 galaxies, part of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey.