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Spotlight on Laura Sampson, Postdoctoral Fellow with CIERA

Modified: December 13, 2016
Laura Sampson

Laura Sampson, a postdoctoral fellow with the Center for Interdisciplinary Exploration and Research in Astrophysics (CIERA), came to Northwestern after completing her doctorate in physics at Montana State University. While always good at math and science, she didn’t settle on physics until the midway into her undergraduate education at University of Colorado.

“I was initially torn between physics and linguistics,” Laura explains. “Both subjects look at a complicated system and try to break it down into pieces. Ultimately, I went with physics because of the math component.” 

At Northwestern, Laura studies gravitational physics and general relativity: Einstein’s theory of gravity. Gravitational waves, one of the predictions from this theory, were not detected until recently. These involve a signal that is sent out when large objects, like black holes, move around each other in space. 

“The LIGO collaboration made the detection of gravitational waves about a year ago,” says Laura. “I work with that collaboration and other collaborations looking for gravitational waves and doing data analysis, trying to find the signal and the noise, and then determining how to get information out of the signal once it is detected.”

The CIERA fellowship offers a great deal of freedom, as well as many opportunities for collaboration. These aspects, combined with the connectedness of the physics department, are Laura’s favorite parts of Northwestern. Her work also allows her to travel often for collaborative conferences. This year, her favorite destination was South Africa for the International Pulsar Timing Array Collaboration.

“The conference itself was great, but I took an extra week beforehand to go on a safari,” Laura says. “South Africa was not initially on my list of destinations to visit, but it was incredible!”

Chicago has been an adjustment for Laura, who grew up in Colorado and spent most of her free time outdoors.

“It’s very different!” Laura laughs. “The biggest adjustment has been the lack of access to outdoor activities. I’ve shifted focus to city activities, like finding new restaurants and museums.”

When she finishes her fellowship, Laura hopes to work in data science, where she can continue doing the problem solving that she enjoys in her research. While she is enjoying her temporary Chicago home, she hopes to return soon to the mountainous west.