Bela Abolfathi is a sixth year graduate student studying astrophysics (or more specifically, observational cosmology). She works on two ground-based experiments, the Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument (DESI) and the Vera Rubin Observatory (formerly known as LSST), which will map the Universe to help us better understand dark energy. This research is a natural continuation of work Bela did for her undergraduate thesis, using weak gravitational lensing to detect dark matter distributions. DESI and VRO will begin science operations within the next couple of years. Bela would either like to continue on this research as a post-doc, or possibly pursue something related to data science and machine learning outside of academia.

Recently, Bela was part of a WIRED video as part of a web series called 5LEVELS. The idea is to have an expert, in this case Sean Carroll,  try to explain a particular topic in their field to five people with different levels of familiarity with the topic: a child, a teen, a college student, a graduate student and another expert. Bela says that she didn’t know what the topic was or who the expert would be until the day before filming. She had never done a science video or been on camera before so she felt a bit nervous, but she was also really excited to get to talk about physics. The video topic was about dimensions. Dimensions, field theory and particle physics are not things Bela admits to think about every day, and after an hour of filming Bela felt like she had run a marathon. In the end, she says it was a great experience. She learned a lot about herself and about a really cool topic from one of her idols in science. In addition, Bela hopes that by agreeing to participate in the video she could set a similar example for other women; she says that growing up, women pursuing careers in physics wasn’t a reality until she took a class taught by a female physics professor during her freshman year of college. The experience of seeing a woman in physics was enough to make Bela believe that she could do it too. She admits that strangely, nearly every single follower or request she has received on social media since the video was released has been from males. Bela received only one email regarding a young woman who was interested in studying physics in college, and it was from a man who was reaching out for advice for his younger sister.

In academia, Bela is interested in a range of things — mostly everything that happens from the time a photon enters the telescope to how it gets imprinted into our cosmological parameter estimations — which is why she enjoys working in large collaborations. She enjoys playing on a team, and there are a variety of different teams to choose from in these collaborations. She is interested in working on technical projects like data systems, sensor characterization, and blending, to analyze groups like weak lensing and photometric redshifts. Most of her work now deals with mitigating systematics that can distort or mask the light we receive from galaxies. It involves writing software to test the electro-optical performance of the CCDs, studying pixel-level sensor effects, modeling the sky, developing and refining photometric redshift estimation techniques, and studying the effects of blending on redshift accuracy. Aside from developing testing and pipeline software infrastructure, Bela hopes to keep learning about what goes into actually acquiring the data. She feels lucky to have had the chance to observe at Kitt Peak National Observatory during the DESI targeting and commissioning phases. Bela says physically being at the telescope and learning about the incredible amount of engineering and patience that goes into capturing every photon has given her a much deeper appreciation of the science that will come out of these surveys, not to mention the extent to which we’re at the mercy of the almighty weather gods.

Outside of physics, Bela enjoys playing and watching sports, especially soccer. She participates in pickup on the weekends, intramural arena/futsal/outdoor soccer during the academic year, and boxes. She has been a Liverpool supporter since she was six years old, so she enjoys getting together with friends to watch games at a local bar (or, she says, at Liverpool’s home stadium at Anfield if she is lucky). Outside of sports, Bela loves playing music. She grew up playing classical violin, but within the past two years she admits to becoming kind of obsessed with fiddling, mostly Scottish/Irish tunes. She goes to fiddle workshops and jam sessions, but she is really into Balkan, Russian, and Middle Eastern folk music as well. She even recently played with her landlord’s Kirtan chanting circle. She also loves to read — mostly Russian literature (especially Chekhov and Dostoyevsky). When possible, she will spend time at the beach, usually diving, surfing, running, or taking her chess set to play on the sand. She watches Turkish television, such as shows about 12th century pre-Ottoman western Turkic tribes. In addition to learning history, she says she is also picking up on some Turkish, and as a Farsi speaker she finds it really fun to discover how similar Turkish and Farsi really are. Bela says the key to a good work/life balance is keeping your life very separate from work. In grad school it’s really easy to let your work follow you everywhere. You’re constantly thinking about a problem, whether it’s a bug in your code, an idea for a new project, or a talk you have to prepare. Bela’s rule is to always give her brain enough time to rest; she tries to do most of her work at her office and rarely takes her work home. She prioritizes sleep and tries to go to bed early, wake up early, and exercise every day. One of the best pieces of advice she says she ever got was from her advisor, who emphasized learning how to be productive and do good work while also relieving some of the guilt that comes with deciding to shut off her laptop at the end of the day.


The Student Spotlights are a series brought to you by a collaboration between the UCI Physics and Astronomy Blog Team and the Physics Graduate Caucus at UCI