Dr Claudia Ratti

Pictures: (Left) Dr Ratti with a high school girl that did an internship in her group. (Right) Dr Ratti giving a talk at a career fair.

November 24, 2021: Interviewed by Anjaly S Menon, Ananya Mondal, Jamie Karthein.

Ananya: Can you introduce yourself to our readers and the area of physics you work in?

Hello, my name is Claudia Ratti. I am associate professor of Physics at the University of Houston. I work in the field of theoretical nuclear physics. In particular, I study the phase of strongly interacting matter that existed just a few microseconds after the big bang. This phase, called quark-gluon plasma, is the most ideal fluid ever observed and today it is created in ultrarelativistic heavy-ion collisions taking place at CERN and at Brookhaven Lab.

Ananya: The American Physical Society has elected you as a 2021 APS Fellow. Congratulations! The APS Fellowship Program was created to recognize members who have made advances in physics through original research and publication or made significant innovative contributions in the application of physics to science and technology. How do you feel about this big honor? Where do you see your field of research in the next decade and how do you think your contributions will help advance the knowledge in your field?

It was an incredible honor for me to be elected APS Fellow. I would like to thank my colleagues who supported me and made it happen. I have been working hard to make progress in my field and I am very excited to see new connections being made with other fields such as astrophysics or quantum information. The phase diagram of strongly interacting matter is a very complex field of study and in ten years from now I expect that physicists from theoretical and experimental nuclear physics, astrophysics, gravitational wave physics and quantum simulations will work together to finally map it out.

Anjaly: If you did not become a physicist, what career would you have chosen?

I used to play the cello semi-professionally. When I started my Ph.D. I had to make a choice and I chose physics. I would probably be a musician if I wasn’t a physicist.

Ananya: What is your earliest memory of thinking about STEM research as a career option? How can we make efforts to train the next generation so that they can realize too that research can be very rewarding?

Already as a little girl I was fascinated by scientific and technical toys. I played with cars and robots when I was 3-year-old, I wanted a microscope in elementary school and the little chemist in middle school. I always knew I will do something scientific in my career: I was interested in science and my school math and physics teachers were encouraging me in that direction. I think it is important that we talk to the next generation, we show them our enthusiasm and we make them aware of how exciting and rewarding physics is. Role models are crucial for young students and it is important that they feel represented and they can identify themselves with the physics professionals.

Ananya: You were one of the founders of the women in physics (WiP) group in the UH physics department and are currently serving as the Faculty Advisor for the APS WiP group at UH. What motivated you to take the initiative and where does your vision lay for the future of this group?

As a woman in physics, I know that I would have liked to have a support group when I was a student or a young postdoc. For this reason, I wanted to make this happen for the UH female students. Being a minority in physics, it is important that women get together, help each other, find strength in each other and make their voice heard. I am very excited to work with a team of young, energetic and smart women who have great ideas to build a sense of community and share personal and professional experience. I hope this community will keep growing steadily in the future and shape a network of WiPS groups across the Country.

Jamie: What is your favorite memory/experience from an outreach event?

I love being a judge in science fairs for middle and high schools. It is exciting to see the experiments these young scientists have come up with, discuss the scientific method and results, and talk to them about their motivation and future dreams.

Anjaly: Being in academia, did you have a hard time maintaining a work-life balance? If you are easily balancing it, how do you do that?

My family complains that I work too much. I try my best not to waste a single minute while I am at work, so that I can finish everything and not bring my work at home. With the pandemic, the boundaries between office and home have become blurrier and sometimes it is unavoidable to continue working after hours or on the weekend. I try my best to limit that to times when I have an upcoming deadline, but it is not easy.

Anjaly: It is a common perception that for staying in academia, you put in more hours compared to industry for the same pay. Why do you think this is the case, if it is?

I think one of the reasons is that we have a very cerebral job, and we cannot just switch off our brain when we come home. Sometimes I have an idea in mind for a new paper, and I cannot stop working on it just because the workday is over. We are passionate about our job and we tend to pursue our idea or work to get some results even beyond the standard 9-to-5 time.

Anjaly: Which work do you consider as your best research till now or do you think it is yet to come?

Some of the papers I wrote, about the transition temperature between hadrons and the quark-gluon plasma or the equation of state of strongly interacting matter from first principles, have become classics in my field. However, I like to think that the best is yet to come, and I think this is natural for a scientist, and what gives us the motivation to continue working hard.

Ananya: Do you have any messages for the two different spectrum of students – 1. The high school students who are thinking about taking up a higher education in physics and 2. The graduate/postdoc students who may doubt their abilities time and again to become a physicist?

To the high school students: Physics is the most fundamental science, the basis to understand the laws of nature. To me there is nothing more exciting than contributing to the advancement of mankind through knowledge and through educating the next generation. There are a variety of jobs that you can do with a physics degree. You should come and talk to physicists to learn more, so that you can make an informed decision.
To the graduate/postdocs: You have come a long way already and you have hopefully found a field that makes you passionate. If being a physicist is what you want, you should invest all your energies into this. This is the time for you to shine, to go out there, make connections, make yourselves known, look for opportunities, reach out to people, give talks and presentations. You have reached a level in which you are your own mentor, and you have to take the steps that will give you the job of your dreams.