An Interview with Dr. Brad Gibson

by Rhea Sekhon

Dr. Brad Gibson, image courtesy of the University of Hull

Dr. Brad Gibson is the Head of the Department of Math and Physics and the Director of the E.A. Milne Centre for Astrophysics at the University of Hull. Gibson completed his BSc degree with Honours in Physics at the University of Waterloo. He later completed his MSc degree in Astronomical Instrumentation and PhD degree in Theoretical Astrophysics at the University of British Columbia. Dr. Gibson and his peer, Paul Hickson, are credited with the creation of the world’s first Liquid Mirror Telescope Observatory. In addition to this, Gibson has won multiple awards, including the Gruber Prize in Cosmology.

As an influential figure in STEM, Dr. Gibson has used his influence to advocate for women in STEM, resulting in his “Changing Face of Physics” campaign. This campaign doubled the number of women entering physics at the University of Hull and led to the department’s Athena Swan award. Gibson’s efforts are also focused on Widening Participation across socio-economic boundaries.

Hamilton RASC was able to interview Dr. Gibson to learn more about his career and accomplishments.

Q: What inspired you to pursue astrophysics?

A: I think there are two things that I can point to that took me down this route and I think the first one was Star Trek. I loved it. From a young age I absolutely loved it. I got into science fiction as a whole but I do think it was Star Trek, exploring new worlds. I loved the science aspect of Mr. Spock and all of these things. I think that was one of the [reasons] , even if I wasn’t aware of it at the time it seemed to plant the seed. Around the same time, when I was in Grade 5 in Ajax, my Grade 5 teacher was fantastic. While she didn’t install a love of space and astrophysics, just education and asking questions and being curious.

Both my Grade 4 and Grade 5 teachers had a huge impact. It’s one of those neat things that, through Facebook, I’m friends with both of my Grade 4 and Grade 5 teachers who have now retired. Both of them in Grade 4 and Grade 5, because I didn’t have that sort of educational role model in Grades 6, 7, 8, not even through high school, but they did plant the seed of education and, like I said, asking questions and being curious.

From a space sense, it was Star Trek but the pursuit of lifetime learning and education and the love of asking questions and learning was really these two teachers that ultimately took me down that road. The initial seeds [were] Star Trek, Grade 4 and Grade 5, but as I went through my early to mid-teenage years we lived pretty close to the science center. Almost everyday in the summer I went to the science center. It was touching things, learning things and I was usually there by myself, but I loved going to the science center.

Q: When did you decide to become a professor?

A: I didn’t really fully understand the whole career pathway to get into academia. It never was explained. When I was in high school, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do until Grade 13. I probably had science and math in the back of my head but I didn’t really have a clue what I wanted to do. I didn’t really fully understand, even at that point, what university fully entailed.

I got to Grade 13, didn’t like chemistry and biology, [I] was doing okay in physics and I kind of fell into it in some sense. So I went off to [the University of] Waterloo to do my undergrad and it wasn’t really until the beginning of my final year when I was talking to my final year project supervisor, my astrophysics professor and he explained the process of how to go on and do graduate work, a PhD and what that entails. So I thought, I really enjoy doing the final year project.

Spending a year doing the research project made me realize I wanted to keep doing this so I put out a few applications for a PhD and UBC was really the one I wanted to go to. There were some exciting things happening in the search for extrasolar planets. The techniques that were first invented were invented at UBC and so I thought that was what I wanted to do so I went to UBC to do exoplanet work. I got there and thought it was the most boring thing in the world so I swapped over to do instrumentation for a while. Once I got stuck in the research for the PhD a few years in, I realized that this is what I like to do and, many decades later, I continued on with that.

Q: Were there any other careers you considered pursuing?

A: I think there was some time when I was in Grade 3 when I wanted to be a lawyer. I had nothing to point to that would suggest why I wanted to do that but I remember thinking for sometime that I would like to be a lawyer. As I got into my PhD, I loved making lists, categorizing things and ranking things. I think that if I had gone into actuarial science, doing the statistics associated with that, I probably would have liked doing that. I love taking big data sets and correlating them, even if the science goal at the end is less important it’s just the manipulation, ranking, categorizing and classifying [that is more important].

Q: Is there a specific subject or research topic that you are most interested in?

A: I think it’s evolved with time. A lot of senior established people would tell me to find one thing and become the expert in that field and that’s never been my interest. I couldn’t maintain my interest level for that long so my interests have evolved as time has gone by.

I started in Vancouver, I was doing an instrumentation project and then I moved into theory and modeling colours and how galaxies evolve. Then, I moved into some observational work on the expansion rate of the universe.

I guess there is something of a thread that runs through all of it which is the origin of the chemical elements. Whether it’s elements that form during the Big Bang or all the other elements that form in exploding stars or merging black holes. So understanding the origin of these elements, but specifically taking those elements and putting them inside a computer to model how they disperse around a galaxy. [Answering] why there are fewer elements on the outskirts of a galaxy, why there are more in the center of a galaxy, why is the shape of how the oxygen is distributed different than the shape of carbon and using those signatures to discover the formation and evolution of galaxies. My interest is using those chemical fingerprints, how those chemical elements are distributed, and different components of the galaxy to discover the hidden history of how galaxies form and evolve.

Q: In your TED Talk, “Will We Ever Live on Mars”, you described Mars as an incredibly hostile planet. Why do you think people believe that colonizing Mars is a proper solution to Earth’s climate crisis?

A: Some of it is the fault of science fiction, authors and films, and some of it is the fault of people like Elon Musk and billionaires who have painted this picture of this being some kind of panacea and that it is going to fix all of our problems. My TED Talk captures the essence of why it’s not as simple but I think a lot of it is marketing. Marketing of science fiction but also marketing of competing billionaires who want to be the first ones to put their foot on the ground and have swept a lot of the challenges under the rug.

Probably in 10 years, someone will put their foot on the ground there but we are not going to be living on Mars. We haven’t even bothered to live on the Moon yet. The fact that we haven’t done it when it’s next door and much easier to communicate and travel, the fact that it has been more than 50 years since we have been back, it shows how these things don’t happen overnight. It’s almost sweeping responsibility and ignoring the damage that we have done and are doing, rather than trying to seriously address what we are doing to the planet. There is also a moral element that I don’t completely agree with.

Q: Do you find that your job allows for more of a flexible schedule compared to other jobs?

A: You might argue that you don’t get paid as much in academia as you do in industry but it is so much more flexible. September to May, you have teaching commitments, but even then you might only be teaching 2 or 3 days a week. As long as you are doing your work it is infinitely more flexible. If I want to take off for a week or Friday to Monday, I can do that. So that is one of the perks, the degree of flexibility is much easier to accommodate than industry.

Rhea Sekon is a Grade 11 student who interned with Hamilton RASC for the month of June. We’d like to thank Rhea for her time working with us, and for her taking the time to interview Dr. Gibson.

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