A gravitational wave astronomer at Northwestern University recently won the L’Oreal USA “For Women in Science” fellowship award.  

Laura Sampson, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in physics at Northwestern’s Center for Interdisciplinary Exploration and Research in Astrophysics (CIERA), is one of five postdoctoral scientists who won $60,000 grants for their contributions in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. Dr. Sampson develops data analysis algorithms to learn about the physical processes that lead to the systems that produce gravitational waves in the universe.

“I feel great,” says Dr. Sampson about receiving the award. “It’s nice to see a company doing so much to support women in STEM.” The grant will allow her to stay at Northwestern and continue her research into gravitational waves and black holes.

Gravitational waves drew international attention earlier this year after the two LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) instruments detected them for the first time since Albert Einstein predicted their existence a century ago. The powerful merger of two black holes – areas of intense gravity that cannot be seen through visual telescopes – generated the waves, which are described as ripples in the fabric of space and time.    

“Gravitational waves allow us to learn about objects in the universe that don’t emit any light,” explains Dr. Sampson, “in particular, black holes. Learning about black holes gives us insight into how stars and galaxies evolve.”  

Dr. Sampson analyzes data collected from LIGO and NANOGrav (the North American Nanohertz Observatory for Gravitational Waves) to characterize the sources of gravitational waves. LIGO listens for gravitational wave signals from merging black holes, exploding stars (called supernovae), and the collisions of neutron stars – small high-density stars that are leftover from supernovae. NANOGrav monitors rapidly rotating neutron stars called pulsars for signal changes caused by gravitational waves originating from supermassive black holes.   

“There are lots of different types of gravitational waves to detect,” she explains, “and for some of those we’ll need other types of detectors. For instance, we may be able to detect gravitational waves from the very earliest moments of the universe – farther back in time than we’ve ever been able to look before.”

Dr. Sampson graduated with a B.A. in Physics from the University of Colorado in her hometown of Boulder, and went on to get her Ph.D. in Physics from Montana State University. She lives in Evanston with her Australian Shepherd, Jax.  

L’Oreal USA fellowship winners must be committed to serving as role models for younger generations – a requirement that seems to come naturally to Dr. Sampson.  As a graduate student at MSU, she helped establish a chapter of Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) as well as a formal mentoring program in MSU’s physics department.  As part of a “Celebrating Einstein” outreach event, she gave talks on Einstein’s theory of General Relativity to elementary school-aged children in Bozeman, Montana.  Her mentoring at Northwestern has been more informal, but she tries to talk with the female graduate students as often as possible.

“Simply by being a woman in a more senior scientific role, I help to change the perception of who can and cannot be a scientist,” she explains. “It’s known that strong advising and mentoring relationships are important for everyone, but studies have shown that they are a stronger predictor of success for women than for men. This is true in science as in all fields.”