Professor Susan Scott is on a mission to expand Einstein’s theory of relativity and create the next generation of stellar women in STEM.

Sitting in her year seven science class at Methodist Ladies’ College in Melbourne, Susan Scott had long been fascinated by science.

“I knew instinctively. I loved everything there was to learn about science and mathematics,” Scott, now a Distinguished Professor at the Centre for Gravitational Astrophysics at The Australian National University (ANU), says.

Scott’s early fascination fuelled her to become a world-leading mathematical physicist and pioneer in gravitational wave experiments.

She has made ground-breaking discoveries in the fields of general relativity and gravitational wave science and her theoretical work advances our understanding of both singularities and the global structure of space-time.

Despite her enthusiasm for science and maths, 13-year-old Scott was disheartened as she knew it wasn’t common for women to pursue careers in these fields. But the advice of her teachers gave her the courage to go after what she wanted to do with her life.

“They told me I could do anything I wanted to do,” Scott recalls.

After finishing school as dux in her favourite STEM subjects, Scott’s academic star continued to rise. She graduated with a Bachelor of Science and First Class Honours in pure mathematics from Monash University, completed a PhD in general relativity theory at the University of Adelaide and received a Rhodes Postdoctoral Fellowship, taking her to Oxford.

Distinguished Professor Susan Scott is on a mission to ensure more of the next generation of STEM superstars are women. Photo: Tracey Nearmy/ANU

For the next four years at the University of Oxford, Scott worked alongside mathematical physicist and Nobel Laureate Sir Roger Penrose in the relativity gravity group.

“It had always been a dream of mine to go and work with him,” she says. “It was during this time I realised I could make a difference in the world.”

One of the main areas of research Scott undertook while at Oxford was the cosmological singularity at the start of our universe. Essentially, she was probing the nature of the Big Bang – what were the properties and structure of this violent beginning to space and time which gave rise to the universe?

An invitation to join the mathematics department at ANU as a postdoctoral fellow brought Scott back to Australia in 1990. Equipped with an outstanding reputation, she continued to pursue the big questions in physics.

Asking the big questions

Scott’s research has two main streams.

The first is her ongoing quest to understand the fundamental nature of gravity and space-time.

“Albert Einstein presented his miraculous theory of general relativity to the world in 1915, and since that time it has led to many amazing predictions and discoveries,” Scott says.

“One of these predictions is that the universe must contain what we call singularities, which are places in space-time where the laws of physics break down.”

But what sort of objects are these singularities?

“A famous example of a singularity is the black hole, which has such phenomenally strong gravity that nothing, not even light, can escape from within its event horizon.

“My research aims to uncover the true nature of the singularities predicted by Einstein’s theory, including black holes.”

Scott’s research aims to uncover the true nature of singularities, including black holes. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The second stream of Scott’s research is about gravitational waves, which are also a prediction of Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

“Gravitational waves are minute perturbations in the fabric of space-time created by cataclysmic events happening out in the universe, such as two black holes smashing together, and they travel outwards from the event at the speed of light.

“Since gravitational waves are so incredibly small, many people, including Einstein, thought that we would never be able to detect them.”

When Scott arrived back in Australia from Oxford there were research activities underway to develop components of the planned gravitational wave detectors, called the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory or LIGO, located in the United States.

But there was no Australian research effort to explore gravitational wave science.

“That’s why in 1998 I initiated and led the Australian effort in gravitational wave theory and data analysis,” Scott says.

“My ANU group contributed key components to the LIGO Data Analysis System through which the detection signal was processed in 2015. So, it took 17 years from the time I started working in this field until the first detection of gravitational waves in 2015!”

A pathway at last

Scott has seen first-hand how few women there are working in science academia. She has often been the only woman in her field of work.

She passionately believes that society needs to go to greater lengths to expose school children, particularly girls, to the value and wonder of modern science.

“Science is the key to helping ensure our future and we simply don’t have enough people going into STEM disciplines,” she says.

It’s “alarming” to see that female students are rare, and sometimes entirely absent, in her third-year course on general relativity theory at ANU, she says.

However, Scott is aware that “the problem is starting much, much further down the system”, with evidence suggesting that girls often face obstacles in pursuing STEM subjects at school.

Scott says society needs to go to greater lengths to expose girls to the value and wonder of modern science. Photo: astrosystem/stock.adobe.com

“I firmly believe that, if we are going to reap the benefits of getting women into STEM disciplines and going out into the workforce to make a difference in those areas, then we really need to address the situation at primary school.”

To better support young women in STEM, Scott is a part of the team behind Einstein-First. This national project teaches the fundamental concepts of modern physics from year three to year 10 students and works to improve STEM involvement in the classroom.

“We believe in the longer term that the Einstein-First curriculum will bring more women into STEM disciplines and careers.”

Scott is also part of Quantum Girls, a collaboration with the University of Western Australia and Pawsey Quantum Computing, which is creating a national education program to enhance female participation in the modern quantum science that underpins the STEM economy.

“I’m so proud of the work we’ve done with Einstein-First and Quantum Girls as there’s now a pathway for women to progress through the education system and undertake tertiary studies in STEM,” Scott says.

“Above all, I want to improve the image of science for women and children around Australia.”

Now at the height of her career, Scott insists it was the self-belief she formed as a young student at high school that ultimately gave her the confidence to become one of the world’s leading mathematical physicists. And she’s determined to grow that confidence in the next generation of stellar women in STEM.

Einstein-First and Quantum Girls were launched nationally by Australia’s Chief Scientist, Dr Cathy Foley, in Canberra on 13 June 2023.

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