Profile with Renee Hlozek
Renée Hlozek (South Africa-at-Large & Christ Church 2008) is currently a Lyman Spitzer Jr. Fellow of Theoretical Astrophysics at Princeton University, and the Spitzer-Cotsen Fellow in the Princeton Society of Fellows in the Humanties. She is also a 2013 TED fellow, and was named one of 200 Young South Africans for 2012 by the Mail and Guardian. She holds a DPhil in Astrophysics from the University of Oxford, MSc and BSc(Hons) degrees in Applied Mathematics from the University of Cape Town, and a BSc in Applied Mathematics from the University of Pretoria.
Rhodes Project: What is your favorite science or tech blog?
Renée Hlozek: There are two blogs that I read quite a bit. One is called Cosmic Variance, and it’s a blog that combines posts from different astronomers. It’s very good because it has a lot of commentary on different fields, and everyone is an expert in their own field, but it’s centered around astronomy. I really enjoy it. There’s another one called Résonaances. What’s really good about that one is, it’s a particle physics blog—my field is not really particle physics, I’m more of an outsider—but it’s explained in a really great way. The person writing it explains why you care about each result.
Rhodes Project: What is currently playing on your iPod?
Renée Hlozek: At the moment I’m completely obsessed with Hot Chip. They’re a UK-based group. I only just discovered them. I’m always 5 years too late with music. I’ve really been enjoying them. And a friend of mine put Andrew Bird on my iPod, which is much more folky.
Rhodes Project: When did you know you wanted to be a scientist?
Renée Hlozek: I get asked this question a lot. A lot of people have really specific stories that they were given some book by a friend and they realized when they were nine that they really wanted to do this. For me, I guess it was a little more practical. When I was growing up I loved maths and physics. I knew I wanted to do something related to that, something mathematical, because I really enjoyed it. I was always interested in the “big things”. Growing up in South Africa, astronomy is something that’s much more tangible, I think, than if you grow up in a big city in the northern hemisphere. We had really good skies, so I just thought it would be fun if I could understand astronomy. I think I made the decision that I was going to do this as a career when I was about 15. I started a program with my university where you did extra science once a month for three years and then they helped cover your tuition. That exposed me to a bunch of different science courses – physics and chemistry, geology, that sort of thing. And I realized that astronomy seemed like a great option.
Rhodes Project: What inspires you?
Renée Hlozek: I am greatly moved by passion in other people—enthusiasm and passion. It sounds strange, but I am inspired to think that I can be part of a change. If I enter a situation and someone says “there’s nothing you can do here, nothing will make the situation better,” it’s easy for me to get de-motivated. But if I feel that in some way my actions can affect change, then I find that very inspiring. So when I meet people that have a passion for changing the status quo or doing something to better a situation, I respond quite strongly to that.
Rhodes Project: What distracts you?
Renée Hlozek: What’s distracting is that I then want to change everything. I find I have many different interests. When I was younger it was difficult for me to pick one sport to do or one subject to like, and that has followed me my whole life. I’m interested in a lot of science and science outreach, and I’m interested in art and music and it’s easy to jump around from bit to bit without becoming really grounded. So I have to try and focus.
Rhodes Project: What is the best part of doing research?
Renée Hlozek: People will tell you that it’s the “aha” moment when you have a great success. I have started to realize I don’t think that that can be the reason why we do it, because those moments are relatively few and far between. I actually think what I love about science is that you’re faced with a problem and you spend your efforts unraveling it slowly, trying to understand where the problem could have happened. Is it in your understanding? Is it in your assumptions? It’s at times like solving a mystery. I think the action of solving it is actually the reward, rather than just figuring it out, because if someone tells you the answer it doesn’t feel the same. I think it’s that process of unraveling a problem.
Rhodes Project: What would you say is the most challenging part?
Renée Hlozek: The most challenging part is that you spend a large fraction of your time hitting your head against problems, and you have to try to be creative. It’s kind of like this: you tell me that you have a problem and I come up with ten potential solutions, and then they all fail. And then tomorrow I have to come up with ten new solutions, even though I thought that yesterday the ten I gave you were the only possibilities. So in that sense, you have to have the patience to come back to a problem even though it seems hopeless. You have to remind yourself that you’ve solved these problems before and you just need to be a bit more creative.
Rhodes Project: Who are some of your role models?
Renée Hlozek: I’ve worked with a bunch of passionate and dedicated people in my field already. I’m really lucky. It’s a small enough field that there are many role models around me. If I have to think historically about role models, I guess I would think of people like Lisa Meitner. She did a bunch of really great work and really wasn’t acknowledged for it initially, but she continued to do science not because she was getting a job or because she was getting prestige, but because she loved it. And I think that because there are a lot more career scientists now than there used to be, it can be easy to forget that it’s a real privilege rather than just a job that we do. I like thinking of people who do it for the love of it.
Rhodes Project: What would readers on our site be surprised to learn about you?
Renée Hlozek: I guess one of the things that people often think I’m making up when I tell them that I’m quite clumsy and I do strange things. I once met somebody and asked them for their phone number again because I’d thrown my phone in the river. This is actually my partner at the moment. I told him I’d thrown my phone in the river, and he thought I just actually had thrown his number away and didn’t care. And then after he’d known me for about six months he understood that kind of thing actually does happen to me a lot. Random things like dropping a phone, breaking things—I broke both my arms last year falling off a bicycle. And those things happen a lot!
Rhodes Project: What brings you the most joy in your life?
Renée Hlozek: I think what brings me joy is being around people that I care about and love, and being able to share ideas with people. I have a real passion for communicating science to the public and to schoolchildren, and that’s one example of that. Being able to communicate what I love, whether it be about science or not, brings me a lot of joy because it’s the sharing of ideas that brings people together.
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