Women of the Physics and Space Sciences Department

Here in the Physics and Spaces Sciences Department at Florida Tech, we have 14 faculty engaged in teaching and research. Only two of these positions are filled by women, reflecting the minority status of women in STEM fields.

I thought it would be interesting to find out more about Catherine Neish, Ph.D. and Véronique Petit, Ph.D. and their journeys that brought them both, coincidentally, from Canada to Florida Tech.

Neish started her degree in Physics and Astronomy at the University of British Columbia. She got her first job between her freshman and sophomore years at a job placement center. That was the only non-science job she ever had, receiving an Undergraduate Research Award the following summer.

Petit started her degree in Physics at the Université Laval in Québec City. She used to work in a grocery store before college, but then she was able to work in the astrophysics lab at her university the summer after her first year. Let’s hear about some of their undergraduate experiences!

What first got you interested in physics/space science?

Neish:  “I have been interested in space science since childhood and was a voracious reader of all types of science fiction. However, I did not become seriously interested in a career in the field until high school. In grade ten, I competed in a space settlement competition sponsored by NASA Ames, and my “Space Station Terra Nova” won first prize in my age category. That gave me an opportunity to visit the NASA center and experience the bustle surrounding the landing of Pathfinder on Mars. Two years later, I won an essay contest sponsored by the Canadian Space Agency and attended the International Space School in Houston, staying with astronaut Chris Hadfield and his family during my time in Houston.

By then, I was hooked, and decided to major in astronomy as an undergraduate. Fascinated by the movie and the novel Contact, I applied for a summer research internship at Arecibo Observatory. There, I had my first taste of planetary science, researching asteroids with radar. I was fascinated with radar – it was the first “active” astronomy I had ever seen. You could tweak the buttons and knobs and learn different things about the asteroids, instead of simply collecting what they reflected from the sun. During that summer, my advisor told me about her alma mater, the University of Arizona, and its strong planetary science program. I applied to their graduate program several months later, and the rest is history!”

Catherine at the Arecibo Telescope in Puerto Rico for a summer internship.
Catherine at the Arecibo Telescope in Puerto Rico for a summer internship.

Petit: “I always liked looking at the astronomy books at the public library. I had to ask my mum to check out the most advanced ones from the grown-up section. In Québec, we have a “Cégep” degree that goes in between high school and college, required for all science majors. I fell in love with the physics courses then, and decided to do astrophysics for a career. And of course, Star Wars.”

What is one of your favorite memories from your undergraduate years?

Neish: “One of my favorite memories was the night of the Leonid meteor shower in Nov. 2001.  It was late on a Saturday evening, and I was in my dorm room doing homework. My (non-astronomer) roommates stopped by to see if I wanted to go view the meteor shower from the campus observatory. I initially said no, thinking about all the work I had left to do, but eventually changed my mind. I realized that I was at school because I loved astronomy, and I would regret missing this event. And boy am I glad that I went! It was a rare cloudless night in Vancouver, and the meteor shower was by far the most spectacular thing that I’ve ever seen. Standing on the roof of the geophysics building, watching the celestial fireworks, I remembered why I was in school in the first place. This was also the same night I decided to take an extra semester to complete my degree. I wanted to make sure I enjoyed the work I was doing and not let it overwhelm me.”

Dr. Petit: “When I was in college, we had a well-knit group of students in the physics program. I really enjoyed the community feeling. There was a lot of activities, and even competitions, organized by the student organizations at the departmental level and college of science and engineering level. I have very fond memories of the whole group of students in my year working hard on a quantum homework at 2 a.m. in the science building cafeteria. Also working hard on our Egyptian-themed decorations for a contest during the week-long festival of Science and Engineering, for which we won first prize.”

Véronique and her friends’ Egyptian-themed decorations for a Science and Engineering festival.
Véronique and her friends’ Egyptian-themed decorations for the Science and Engineering festival.

What was your favorite class as an undergraduate and why? Least favorite?

Neish: “Planetary science is a very interdisciplinary field, so as an undergraduate, I prepared myself by taking a suite of courses in biology and geology, along with my core physics and astronomy courses. One of my favorite classes was an introductory paleontology course that I took in my senior year, called “Earth and Life Through Time.” I found the instructor very engaging, and the subject matter fascinating. In general, if I had an instructor who was interested and engaged in the material, I enjoyed the course. If the opposite was true, I generally had to struggle more to understand the material, and correspondingly, enjoyed it less.”

Petit: “Without a doubt “Atomic and Molecular physics” — the professor was absolutely fabulous. I am not sure if there was any course I disliked. Some were harder than others, but the subjects were always fascinating.”

After receiving their undergraduate degrees, both went on to graduate school. Neish went on for a Ph.D. in Planetary Sciences at the University of Arizona, which she received in 2008. She now studies the geology of planetary surfaces using radar observations, particularly focusing on impact cratering. Petit stayed at the Université Laval for her Master’s and then her Doctorate in Physics. She is working with massive stars and uses spectroscopy to study their properties, especially those with magnetic fields.

Why did you want to be a professor at Florida Tech?

Neish: “One of the main reasons I applied for this job was for the opportunity to work with students.  My four years as a postdoctoral fellow were spent in major laboratories. Although I was surrounded by a diverse group of smart and active scientists, there were few undergraduate and graduate student interns to work with. At times, I felt this hindered the cross-generational discussions I had so enjoyed in graduate school. I wanted to continue my career in an academic environment, collaborating with students and young researchers.”

Petit:  “Apart from living in a tropical paradise? I think the combination of a small university feeling, with a large physics and space science department is ideal. I like the fact that there are many students that can form a community and help each other, but at the same time that I can know personally most of them, and that the students feel like they can just drop by my office for a chat anytime.”

What advice would you give to current or prospective physics/space science students?

Neish: “Physics and space science is a very broad field, with work ranging from laboratory analysis to computer modeling to remote sensing. My advice for students considering a career in physics or space sciences would be to “try out” as many of these sub-fields as possible through undergraduate internships to determine what it is that really excites them about the field. You’ll be the most successful if you really love what it is you’re doing.

My other advice would be exercise your communication skills whenever you get a chance; skills such as writing, public speaking and working in teams. These are things that are often not explicitly taught in school, but I would argue represent half of your work as a scientist.  You can find ways to practice these skills outside the classroom by getting involved in student government, participating in public outreach, writing for a newspaper or a blog and so on. In my own case, I spent many years as a member of the graduate and professional student council at the University of Arizona, learning how to articulate the needs of students to the university administration and negotiate solutions to those needs.”

Petit: “Study hard, get involved in research and make friends.”

Dr. Neish at Half Moon Island, South Shetland Islands, Antarctica (from https://planetneish.com/).
Neish at Half Moon Island, South Shetland Islands, Antarctica (from https://planetneish.com/).


Dr. Petit at the Mauna Kea Telescope in Hawaii.
Petit at the Mauna Kea Telescope in Hawaii.

 *All pictures courtesy of Neish and Petit.

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  1. I am feeling proud and glad that women’s are strongly present in space science and a long list of women as a successful astronaut. Being an Indian I know very well about two famous astronauts “Kalpna Chawla” and “Sunita Williams” belong to Indian origin. I think government must appreciate women to study physics and participate in development of science and technology.

    1. Agreed 🙂 It’s a great time for women to branch out and be recognized for their work in technical fields! Many employers are looking specifically for qualified women to fill positions to try to meet equal opportunity employer benefits (or so I’ve heard, anyway).

  2. I loved reading your stories. I hope to turn a childhood. Passion into work that benefits society one someday. Keep looking up- you’re inspiring!

    1. Thanks for reading! Dr. Petit and Dr. Neish are two very inspiring women to me, too 😀 And I can’t speak for Dr. Neish, who moved back to Canada (sadly for us), but it makes me super happy that Dr. Petit is willing to give undergraduates data that has never been studied so we can learn things for ourselves!

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