Nobel Prize-winning professor pushes to prove every challenge is an opportunity

Andrea Ghez, a physics and astronomy professor, won the 2020 Nobel Prize for physics. She won the prize for her contributions toward the discovery of the black hole in the center of the Milky Way. (Courtesy of Elena Zhukova/UCLA Newsroom)

By Shruti Iyer

October 14, 2020 at 12:37 a.m.

Andrea Ghez thought she was dreaming.

It was 2 a.m. and she had just received a phone call from the Nobel Committee – congratulating her for winning the Nobel Prize in physics.

“I just couldn’t believe that I had actually gotten that phone call,” the physics and astronomy professor said. “I was delighted, thrilled.”

The Nobel Committee announced Oct. 6 that Ghez won the 2020 Nobel Prize in physics for her contributions to the discovery of the supermassive black hole in the center of our galaxy, the Milky Way. Ghez won alongside two other scientists – Reinhard Genzel, professor emeritus of physics at UC Berkeley, and Roger Penrose, professor emeritus of mathematics at the University of Oxford – who contributed to the discovery of the supermassive black hole and the theoretical proof of the existence of a black holes, respectively.

Ghez became the fourth woman, and the first woman in astrophysics, to win the Nobel Prize in physics.

Ghez said she first broke the news to her two kids – who were sleeping – who asked if they are going to Sweden soon. She then shared the news with her mother.

“They’ve been so much a part of this journey,” Ghez said. “So I really wanted to share the news with them.”

Living with Giants

When Ghez applied to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she was told she wouldn’t get in because she was a girl, she said. But when she shared this with her high school chemistry teacher, her teacher encouraged her to apply anyway.

“She just looked at me and said, ‘What’s the worst thing that they can tell you?’” Ghez said. “No?”

MIT said yes.

Looking back, Ghez said she first became interested in astrophysics after the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing. Ghez was four years old at the time, and when she first discussed the enormity of the universe, she was inspired but terrified, she said.

But even with her interest in astrophysics, she was still uncertain about her career path, Ghez said.

“I’m not one of those kids who knew exactly what I wanted to do,” Ghez said. “There were moments where I wanted to come out of school and become a ballet dancer because I loved to dance. Today that’s a hobby.”

Ghez said she first planned to graduate with a math degree, but ultimately found that physics and astrophysics resonated with her more after observing her mentor’s passion for astrophysics.

“I changed my majors as often as I changed my socks,” Ghez said.

Journey through UCLA

Mark Morris, a physics and astronomy professor, said that when he was the chair of astronomy, he was part of the group of decision-makers who hired Ghez to UCLA.

“Everybody was telling us, this is a no brainer, you really have to hire her, she’s brilliant and energetic and will do great things for you,” Morris said. “And that turned out to be true.”

When Ghez joined the faculty at UCLA in 1994, the W. M. Keck Observatory, created by the University of California in 1993 in partnership with the California Institute of Technology, had also recently opened. A Caltech graduate, Ghez wanted to work with the Keck Observatory and realized that the technology used at Keck was advanced enough to look for the possibility of a black hole in the center of our galaxy.

Morris, Ghez and Eric Becklin, professor emeritus of physics and astronomy, started the UCLA Galactic Center Group. In this group, Ghez was able to look for the black hole at the center of the galaxy using the Keck Observatory – the discovery of which would eventually win her the Nobel Prize.

Ghez said her first proposal for the project using the observatory was rejected. The faculty in charge of the observatory did not believe in the new technology she was trying to develop, she said.

“Part of being a successful scientist is learning how to deal with … face-plants,” Ghez said. “Life is gonna throw these things at you, professionally and otherwise, and part of growing up … is learning how to handle those roadblocks … and to persist.”

Ghez started writing a second proposal. And soon after, she was able to convince the right people that the technology worked, Morris said.

“Every challenge is an opportunity,” Ghez would always say.

The project was initially envisioned to last three years, Ghez said. But Ghez’s team soon realized that there was more to discover at the galactic center than what they previously thought.

The Black Hole at the Center of the Galaxy

Ghez won the Nobel Prize for discovering the black hole at the center of the Milky Way using a new technique that enhanced telescope observations.

Morris said Ghez had a new technique for obtaining high spacial resolution images, something he and Becklin thought would work well to clearly observe the center of the galaxy.

“Even though the techniques didn’t exist for what she wanted to do,” said David Saltzberg, the department chair of physics and astronomy. “She made them exist.”

The technique worked, which enabled the Galactic Center Group to observe the motions of the stars orbiting at the center of the galaxy, Morris said.

Alice Shapley, the vice chair of astronomy and astrophysics, said that according to elementary physics, if an object moved in an elliptical path, one would expect there to be a mass at the center of that orbit. The mass can then be figured out by using the speed at which the object moved, Shapley added.

Morris said stars were moving at fractions of the speed of light, which suggested that there could be a very large mass at the center of the stars’ orbits. This let them hypothesize a location for the black hole, he said.

In the early 2000s, Morris said they had a breakthrough which let them see the matter around the black hole.

“We don’t really see the black hole,” Morris said. “What we see is matter falling into the black hole and before (the matter) falls through the (black hole), it heats up and radiates electromagnetic radiation.”

Morris said they are now beginning to test Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity using Ghez’s observations.

“People should understand, this is what genius looks like,” Saltzberg said. “I wish I knew how she did it. This is a scientific result that will last in perpetuity.”

Beyond the Nobel

Smadar Naoz, a physics and astronomy associate professor, said many scientists who receive prizes and recognitions are often problematic “to say the least.”

Ghez, she said, is different.

“It seems like for a long time, people just said, ‘Oh this is how it is.’” Naoz said. “But the truth is, this is not how it’s supposed to be at all, you can be a decent human being, you can be nice to people, you can be a pleasant person to talk to and yet be an awesome scientist.”

Ghez said she is happy to be a role model for the future generations of scientists and realized that she can share her passion for science by teaching undergraduate classes. She said that just by being in class she can show young students, both male and female, that women can be scientists.

“I’ve always felt that it’s an effective way of convincing people that they have the opportunity and right to be there,” Ghez said.

Ghez said she enjoys working with undergraduate students because their questions about her research help her learn, she said.

Kelly Kosmo O’Neil, a UCLA graduate student in physics and astronomy, said her experience taking Ghez’s introductory astrophysics class as an undergraduate at UCLA convinced her to pursue a career in astrophysics. Kosmo O’Neil said she would join Ghez on ocean swims during which she would get to know Ghez as a person.

Shapley said she first saw Ghez giving a talk at Caltech and was blown away by the video of the orbiting stars in the presentation.

“What I remember was Professor Ghez’s intensity and her enthusiasm and her magnetism and how she had the audience just completely captivated,” Shapley said. “it was just such an amazing presentation and it’s such a beautiful analysis that they’re doing in a beautiful experiment.”

Naoz said she remembered her interview with Ghez and how Ghez’s enthusiasm was contagious. They ended up discussing the research instead of conducting the interview.

“Immediately I had all kinds of thoughts and she had all kinds of thoughts and we were talking and then she said, ‘Wait, wait, wait. We should also do the interview’,” Naoz said.

Michael Jura, an astronomy professor who passed away, taught Ghez important lessons on being an effective professor, Ghez said. One lesson was how effective being both positive and constructive can be, she said.

“He said, ‘Write the angry letter, tear it up and then write the letter that helps people do their jobs better,’” Ghez said.

Ghez said she found her first female mentor in Anneila Sargent, an astronomy professor at Caltech, something Ghez said she hadn’t had through college and graduate school.

Ghez said she would attend many conferences while she was a first year graduate student at Caltech. Senior conference members would often ask her to dinner at those conferences and she would leave feeling indignant, she said.

“I didn’t really believe that these guys were interested in my work, and (Sargent) gave me a wonderful piece of advice,” Ghez said. “She said, ‘When you’re giving your talk, people are too busy looking at your legs to listen to what you have to say, so make it lunch, bring your papers and make sure they never forget what you work on.’”

Read more stories like this: