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Career Profile

Katie Mack (she/her)

Hawking Chair in Cosmology and Science Communication
Perimeter Institute
Katie Mack headshot
Katie Mack headshot
Location Now
Education Pathway

I study of the fundamental physics of the universe.

About me

I was born/grew up in: Long Beach, California, USA

I now live in: Kitchener, Ontario

I completed my training/education at: I have a Bachelors (Physics) from Caltech and both my Masters and PhD (Astrophysical Sciences) from Princeton.

What I do at work

I do research in cosmology. This is the study of the fundamental physics of the universe. I also spend part of my time communicating to the public about physics and astronomy. My research work is theoretical (rather than experimental or observational). This means I don't use laboratory equipment or telescopes. Instead, my work involves doing calculations to try to understand various things in the universe. Sometimes this means writing computer code to solve equations.  Sometimes it's more pen-and-paper work. The basic process is that I read papers, go to presentations and talk to colleagues. These things help me find out what kinds of theories are being discussed and what kinds of experiments or observations are planned. Then I try to find ways to connect those theories to the data that will be collected by experiments and observations.

Dark matter is my main area of expertise. This is the mysterious invisible stuff that holds galaxies together. So at the start of a research project, I might ask: "If this new theory proposing that dark matter works this way is correct, what special features should we see when we look at the data coming down from that new telescope?" Then it's a matter of working through the theory and learning about the telescope's capabilities, and calculating the specifics of what might be seen. My calculations are really predictions about how future observations could support or point to problems with a current theory or model. Sometimes my work is actually building a case for more investigation. For example, I might make the case that a certain type of telescope should be built so it will give us more information. Sometimes the case I make is that certain observations should be made as those would help us refine a theory or model.

My career path is

I've wanted to be a scientist since I was a little kid. I was always tinkering -- taking things apart and putting them back together. I wanted to understand how everything worked. That curiosity naturally expanded to include the workings of the universe itself!

As for my career path, it's been mostly straightforward.  I majored in physics in college and then got my PhD in astrophysics. Then I went on to do some postdoctoral fellowships. Here I did independent research at different institutions. Following this, I got a position at a university where I taught physics and did research. This led to my current position, at the Perimeter Institute. The biggest twist in my career path has been my current job. This role is a combination of research and outreach. Those kinds of joint appointments are very rare. I feel fortunate to have found such a position. Check out my website for more information.

I am motivated by

I'm motivated by the desire to understand the universe! The most exciting part of my job is learning new things about the cosmos. It is exciting to be part of learning how fundamental physics works and about how we can apply our knowledge to learn more in the future.

While a lot of my work is reading papers and writing code, most of those calculations start from discussions. In these discussions, my colleagues and I are thinking through interesting new possibilities. We trying to come up with creative ways to solve problems. Every once in a while, we come up with something really exciting -- something no one has thought of before. But that's rare. The more common exciting thing is to learn something new that I didn't know before, even if someone else already discovered it. I'm learning all the time!

How I affect peoples’ lives

My work is basic research. This means there are no immediate applications to technology, health, etc. from what I discover. The payoff for the work my colleagues and I do might not be clear for many years or even decades. That doesn't mean it doesn't have an impact. Basic research is vital to the advancement of science and technology. It helps us to better understand our universe. As someone who also does communication, I can be part of helping non-scientists to gain a deeper understanding of the world around them.

Outside of work I

My biggest hobby right now is flying airplanes. I started taking flying lessons in 2020. I have my private pilot license and am working on improving my skills in aviation. It's nice to have something to do that is fun and challenging. Flying takes so much concentration that I can't possibly be thinking about work! I also enjoy traveling and keeping active (running and cycling, mostly).

My advice to others

I have a page on my website called "Advice for Aspiring Astrophysicists" with a ton of advice. 

When I was a student, I enjoyed:
  • Foreign Languages
  • Literature and Language arts
  • Math
  • Physical Education/Health
  • Science
  • Technology
  • Computer Science
When I was a student, I would have described myself as someone who:
  • Enjoyed doing things on my own
  • Played on a sports team
  • Enjoyed working with my hands
  • Was motivated by success
  • Liked reading
  • Was really creative
  • Liked to take things apart to see how they worked
  • Liked to design or build things

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