10 questions with Kelly Holley-Bockelman, director of Fisk-Vanderbilt Bridge Program

The physics and astronomy assistant professor spoke with the Hustler about her experiences as a woman in STEM and how she's working to bring diverse perspectives to the field

Vanderbilt assistant professor in physics and astronomy Kelly Holley-Bockelman has spent much of her career working to increase the participation of women, minorities and first generation college students in STEM. She is the director of the Fisk-Vanderbilt Master’s to Ph.D. Bridge Program, which has produced 27 Ph.D. graduates since 2004 and allows Master’s students at Fisk University to access Vanderbilt professors, resources and support for doctoral applications at Vanderbilt and elsewhere. She will also serve as the keynote speaker at the Oct. 28 MTSU Expanding Your Horizons conference for middle and high school girls pursuing careers in STEM. The Hustler sat down with her to talk about her experience as a woman in STEM and her role in cross university partnerships.

Vanderbilt Hustler: As a Vanderbilt professor for a decade now, what initially drew you to campus and what has kept you here?

Kelly Holley-Bockelmann: So when I went on the interview there were two big things that made me realize that this was my place. I was pretty lucky in that I’d gotten interviews at several places and I had some choices, but when I came to this interview, first thing was, we went over to visit ACCRE, which is this big supercomputer center, and they gave me a tour and as far as the eye can see there were computers and computers and computers. And then I was like “I love!” That kind of meant that I could do the research that I wanted to do. But the other big thing was that they were just starting a program called the Fisk-Vanderbilt Master’s-to-PhD Bridge Program, and I really wanted to be a part of that group. So both of those things got me here and they kept me here but what really also kept me here was our astronomy group. We have four professors that are fantastic and they do awesome research and they’re really friendly and we’re of the similar mind about like how graduate education should go, our grad students and post-docs are really terrific, and so I just love the astronomy group.

VH: Over the past ten years, have you seen a change in the perception of women and minorities in scientific fields at Vanderbilt or beyond?

KHB: I have to confess, I still am often the only woman in a big group and most groups are still very white. But we, especially the astronomy community, recognize that that’s not ok and we’re doing active things to try and basically rectify some of the institutional structures that have caused this. So, for example, the astronomy community in general has done away or is trying to do away with the GRE because we know that there are some inequalities with the GRE in terms of race and gender and even socioeconomic class. And even more importantly it doesn’t correlate with your talent at all, so the astronomy community in general is trying to do away with that and we were one of the first groups that said we won’t look at your GRE scores when we consider admissions.

The rewards of doing the science is so so much more incredible than these occasional slings and arrows that you have to go through

VH: Expanding Your Horizons will bring together middle school and high school girls. What do you hope these girls take away from this conference?

KHB: Three things. I hope that they’ll be very excited about science and just understand that it’s amazing and that we live in such an awesome time to be a scientist. There are discoveries particularly in my field that are opening a whole new window to the universe and starting a whole new field and that’s so amazing to be part of that. So I hope that they fall in love with gravitational wave physics like I do—maybe they won’t, maybe they will! But I also want them to realize that—which is kind of a downer—they may feel like they don’t belong in the field, they may feel like they’re an imposter in the field and that that may not ever go away. I still feel a little bit that way, so they shouldn’t use that as a reason to not go into the field because it’s always going to be a little bit a part of being rare and that sometimes there will be people who will doubt your abilities. But I know that all sounds like a downer but the rewards of doing the science is so so much more incredible than these occasional slings and arrows that you have to go through. So I hope that they realize that it’s still a really great field to be in.

VH: What are you most looking forward to as the keynote speaker for this conference?

KHB: I am most looking forward to not puking or crying or screwing up majorly. So that is my big big big hope because you know, I don’t want to ruin the whole event. And I could, because I’m not very polished, so that is my hope. I want to try to be very real, which means I don’t practice a lot and that is always dangerous.

VH: How did you decide to pursue a career in STEM, and what influences encouraged or discouraged you along the way?

KHB: I never have a great answer for this because I always knew I wanted to be an astronomer and I always knew I wanted to be a scientist, way before I even knew what the word for astrophysicist was, so it’s just been a part of me. There was never one pivotal moment that I can point to that encouraged me to become an astronomer—it’s baked in. But there’s been a lot of encouragement and discouragement along the way and a lot of it just honestly came from me. I was a first generation college student so I didn’t know about academia at all and I really didn’t feel like I fit in. When I came to academia and, also because I was a super science geek, I kind of didn’t fit in with my family who were like, “what the heck is this scientist person coming out?” Although, they were really supportive—I don’t want to say that they weren’t. It’s just really been odd in both places. So any time that I didn’t score a perfect score on a test, I would think, “oh my God that’s a sign that I’m not supposed to be a scientist.” Or any time anyone was slightly discouraging I took it as, “oh my God I’m just not talented enough.” And then every time I did well I was like, “oh my God I’m clearly going to be the most awesome astronomer ever.”

VH: As a woman in STEM, what challenges have you dealt with over the years? Were there any instances that especially stood out?

KHB: There’ve definitely been lots of times when I’m the only woman in the room. One thing I’ve never really shared in an interview—but you’re asking really specifically so I guess I’ll tell you. One time I was at a conference giving a poster and someone said they wanted to talk more about my work. I was really flattered and excited to be part of the ‘science big leagues’, but it became—way after the fact—it became very clear that the person wasn’t actually interested in my science and I felt so stupid not to recognize that. I was in a bar with this person, telling myself:  ‘guys talk science in bars together so this is ok.’ Using that same logic, I somehow ended up in his hotel room. Nothing actually happened, thank God, but imagine actually being in this hotel room, realizing way after the fact that he was not actually interested in your science at all, and having to figure out a way to get out while also not burning any bridges in your career. That was kind of humiliating, and I spent some time not only feeling gullible, but also like my science was probably not that good either. I, and many other people, now look out for other young women in conferences and try to be allies to get them out of situations like that.

It never crossed my mind to actually give up even though the odds were actually really really against me

VH: How has being a first generation college graduate shaped your career path?

KHB: I think I went through an odd and naive career track. I had no idea how to apply for grad schools or what would be good grad schools to go to and there was really nobody to ask. So, I picked a bunch of scientific papers and I read through them and I figured out who I wanted to work with and wrote specifically to that person and applied to that person’s grad school, saying I want to work with that person, which now I know could be very hit or miss. Maybe that person is not accepting students anymore or doesn’t like you or is retiring—so you really kind of put all your eggs in one basket in that case. I got really personal and a little poetic towards the end [of my personal statements] and now that I read personal statements I don’t even know why some people took a chance on me. However, a good side of that is that I didn’t know how hard it was and it never crossed my mind to actually give up even though the odds were actually really really against me. It never crossed my mind that I wouldn’t be doing this. It crossed my mind that I wouldn’t be talented enough to do this, but not that I wouldn’t choose to keep trying.

VH: What research are you currently working on and what is your favorite part about research?

KHB: The best research ever! We’re doing a lot of stuff with gravitational waves now, trying to predict what the gravitational waves signal would be from black holes merging at the very earliest part of the universe, before we could even see electromagnetically what the universe was like because there was almost like a wall called the surface of last scattering. And so we call that era the dark ages, and in the dark ages I’m looking at what the gravitational waves’ signal would be from baby black holes assembling. There’s a lot of other research that we’re working on too like how galaxies fly by each other and distort each other in terms of star formation and shape and other things like that.

For my favorite part about research, it’s lots of things. I love the eureka moments, obviously, where you’ve got a problem and you’ve been banging your head against the problem for days on end and finally you figure out how to solve it and that feels so wonderful. But usually it’s that there’s a problem in your computer code and so that’s a small eureka moment but I love when you finally understand the results and you think the universe is telling me something and I can understand it.

It’s really neat that astronomy is now tackling questions that can’t be just solved or addressed by one person alone

VH: As the Co-Director of the Fisk-to-Vanderbilt Master’s-to-PhD Bridge Program, what do you see as the importance of trans-institutional partnerships?

KHB: I love the fact that we can work together toward a common goal to do better science by including people who are very talented at science but might otherwise be overlooked. That requires a partnership between two universities that are very different but are united in trying to pursue excellence in science.

I’m part of now, for example, this big astronomical survey called the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. We are targeting faculty at places that are usually minority serving institutions and we are giving the faculty the ability to join this survey, which is super expensive. So we let them join for free and then we fund them and their students to be kind of introduced into scientific research in the survey. I’m the head of that—it’s called FAST for Faculty and Student Teams—and we’ve funded a bunch of different universities to be part of the Sloan collaboration. It’s really cool seeing of course very talented faculty collaborating with people who are in this world class survey and seeing the students therefore kind of—you do a pay it forward kind of thing with the faculty, the faculty pays it forward to their students.

VH: In what ways have Vanderbilt professors worked with other universities in similar capacities?

KHB: So lots of my colleagues in this department—in this astronomy group—also work with the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and a bunch of other astronomical surveys, which require worldwide collaborations now. It’s really neat that astronomy is now tackling questions that can’t be just solved or addressed by one person alone, up on a telescope, or one person and their team. It requires basically the whole nation working together at different universities trying to attack these problems. And so it’s often true that we’re in big collaborations where Vanderbilt is one important part but there’s a bunch of other different universities helping as well.