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Community Profile: Tessa Baker

Name: Tessa Baker

Current position: Faculty

Affiliation: Queen Mary University of London

Field of research: Cosmology and tests of gravity with gravitational waves and large-scale structure.


What is your career trajectory to date?

I did my PhD at Oxford University in the UK. After that, I was lucky to get a five-year fellowship at one of the Oxford colleges -- this provided me with a lot of time and independence to develop my own research program. I spent one of those years as a visitor at University of Pennsylvania in the USA, before finally moving to start a faculty position at Queen Mary University of London in 2019.

What are the most exciting open questions in your research area?

There are various tensions in the current cosmological data, some more serious than others. I think we're all waiting with bated breath to find out if these are all systematics (perhaps driven by the fact our experiments are now outstripping our modelling of the data), or are all connected signs hinting at some new physics.

What do you like and dislike about being a scientist?

I love that science is such an international endeavour. Looking around my research group, people are from all over the world -- much more so than in some other careers, I think. And though people relocate often, that means I have old friends and contacts in so many cities.

I dislike that being a scientist sometimes feels like seventeen jobs in one. We are not just researchers, we are teachers, paper editors, public speakers, administrators, financial managers, group leads, student supervisors, event coordinators, publicists...I swear in some other environments there would be a team of at least six people hired to do all these things!

Which of your skills are you most proud of, or find most useful?

As a PhD student I was really nervous about giving talks. After years of listening to talks, making myself give them, and really thinking hard about them -- I'd like to think I've pinned down how to make a pretty decent one. I might not get it right every single time, but I've had some good feedback on my seminars, and even learnt how to (mainly) enjoy presenting science. It's all about getting out of your own head, and into the audience's viewpoint instead.

What new skills would you like to learn in the next year?

Machine learning and AI has started to influence physics in many ways, and I'd like to implement some of that in my own work. It's easy to drop those buzzwords, though -- I'd like to find the time to develop a solid understanding and do the thing properly.

What advances or new results are you excited about or looking forward to?

I think the gravitational wave data we've collected to date is just the tip of the iceberg, and there is so much more to be discovered. One thing I've learnt in recent years is just how tangled together the astrophysics, cosmology, fundamental physics and instrument science is in this data -- if you're interested in one piece of that, you need to be interested in all of pieces. So although my background is on the cosmology/fundamental physics side, I'm also really interested for us to learn more about the formation channels and populations of compact objects in the universe. Are some galaxies more likely to host gravitational wave sources than others? No-one really knows right now!

What role do you think a community network like EuCAPT can play in developing theoretical astroparticle physics and cosmology in Europe?

After a few years of limited real-world interactions, I think EuCAPT can play a role in reconnecting people. This could mean organising face-to-face meetings, but perhaps also providing a platform for people to establish new collaborations and visit other institutes (how about some small travel grants?) This is particularly important for ECRs who may have only experienced scientific research during a global pandemic -- how about some events target exclusively at them?

What’s your favorite food?

I love all kinds of fish and seafood. But also you can't beat the classics -- chocolate and red wine.

How do you like to relax after a hard day of work?

I like to put on my headphones and walk all the way home, which takes around an hour. I need that physical and temporal separation between being at work and being at home for the evening. During the covid-19 pandemic that wasn't possible, and it felt like the day just blended into a morass of work.

If you were not a scientist, what do you think you would be doing?

I always get really over-excited about watching rocket launches, so I think I'd be working for SpaceX or some other space engineering company. Or if that failed, I'd be a walking guide in the Lake District (a beautiful part of the UK), and happily spend my every day climbing up and down hills.

What do you hope to see accomplished scientifically in the next 50 years?

I'd like to see the full potential of the current/upcoming galaxy surveys (Euclid, Rubin, DESI etc.) realised. I'm also waiting eagerly for gravitational wave science to transition from individual detections to a more statistical `observatory mode'. Please can we also resolve the H0 tension (one way or another...) and have some fresh new ways to extend gravity beyond GR?

What question would you have liked us to ask you, and what would you have responded?

How has your scientific life changed during the progression from PhD to postdoc to faculty?

I have in mind the transitions we go through regarding very detailed, hands-on work and working with other people. As a student you may spend hours on some very fiddly piece of code or calculation -- which can be frustrating, but all the details of the problem are right there in your brain at once. It's like reading a book cover to cover, word for word.

As a faculty member running a group, you can be involved in a *lot* of different pieces of science at once, not to mention having significant other demands on your time. It's challenging to hold all the information in your head all of the time. It's like standing in front of the whole self of books, being able one select one at random, quickly find the page you left off and continue the story, before you have to put that book away again for the day.

I'm not saying one mode of working is better than the other. Only that the change happens to a lot of us, it can take you by surprise, and it requires some readjustment!

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