Published 21 May 2019 by Ulrike Böhm

Women in Research at #LINO19: Savanna Starko from the USA

This interview is part of a series of the “Women in Research” blog that features young female scientists participating in the 69th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting to increase the visibility of women in research (find more information on Facebook and Twitter).

#LINO19 young scientist Savanna Starko from the USA is a PhD student at the Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.

As a particle physicist, Savanna seeks to understand the ways in which particles interact and how those interactions influence the way the universe has evolved to what we observe today. She works on the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) experiment of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN. Savanna and her colleagues analyse large amounts of data from the collisions accelerated protons and utilise what they find in striving to make more connections between particle physics and cosmology. Enjoy the interview with Savanna and get inspired:


Savanna will be part of the US delegation at #LINO19. © Savanna Starko

What inspired you to pursue a career in science?

For me, I’ve always been addicted to learning. Knowledge is something that is free, meant to be shared, and unable to be taken away from us. In my opinion, knowledge is one of life’s greatest gifts. I was inspired to pursue a career in physics by the late Dr. Mike Pettersen. He was the chair of the physics department at Washington & Jefferson College, my undergraduate institution, prior to his passing. I took Dr. Pettersen’s introductory physics course, and despite his incomparable intellect, he had a way of making each and every student feel comfortable and empowered. I began facing significant health issues the year I started at W&J, and Dr. Pettersen assured me that physics would open my eyes and allow me to see the world a bit differently during this difficult time in my life. I soon discovered just how right he was, and I was captivated by physics from that point onward.

Who are your role models?

My parents are my primary role models first and foremost. They are strong and supportive. They remain grounded, and they have never led me to believe that there’s anything I can’t do. As I’ve gotten older, my younger brother has been a role model for me as well. He owns who he is and makes no apologies for staying true to himself, and I have great admiration for that. My undergraduate advisor from Washington & Jefferson College, Mike McCracken, has been a guide and a listening ear for several years now, and I am grateful for his patient kindness. I appreciate the time and effort that my thesis advisor at Vanderbilt, Alfredo Gurrola, puts into managing our group and keeping us all tight-knit, too.

How did you get to where you are in your career path?

I entered Washington & Jefferson in the fall of 2012 with the intention of becoming a high school mathematics teacher. During my first semester, I had to have a total thyroidectomy, and it was discovered that I had thyroid cancer. Needless to say, my beginnings at W&J were hectic, but I dove headfirst into my coursework as a welcomed distraction. Among my courses, I took introductory physics with Dr. Pettersen, and I was draw to the idea that physicists seek to understand how the universe was intended to function. I could look for answers in physics to big questions, and this comforted me because doctors weren’t often able to give me the answers that I wanted regarding my illness. By the end of my first year of undergrad, I was doing much better with my health and had no evidence of disease. As my second year began, I met Mike McCracken, who would later become my physics advisor. He saw potential in me that I did not see in myself, and for that, I am forever grateful. He encouraged me in his courses and was always willing to discuss my conceptual questions at length. I declared my physics major with him in my second year.
Mike suggested that I apply for the ‘National Science Foundation’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates’ for the summer after my sophomore year. I earned the opportunity to participate that summer in the program at Cornell University, studying the vacuum systems of their electron storage ring. My third year courses were challenging, but consistently, I dove deeper and deeper into the material, welcoming diffcult problems as they presented themselves. Mike taught me aspects of medium energy physics in his off time, and I became interested in particle physics in general. This is an interest I continued to pursue for the remainder of my time at W&J. I earned a second research opportunity at the University of Washington in the summer of 2015, working for an ion trapping experiment there.

By the time senior year rolled around, I applied to eleven graduate programmes, ultimately selecting to go to Vanderbilt University. I was beyond excited, but my move to Nashville, TN, came with a few curveballs. I relapsed with thyroid cancer in August 2016, and this is something I have been dealing with since then. Even so, my outlook and prognosis are both good. I understand that time is something that is precious and something to be spent wisely. My time at Vanderbilt has been spent working for the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) experiment of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). I am nearing the final stages of an analysis looking for the dark matter particle. I’ve been fortunate to travel to the European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN) several times, as well as to many domestic and international conferences for high energy physics researchers. The most rewarding aspect of my job has been mentoring undergraduate students. This has kept me focused, grounded, and positive, and I would venture to say that this is my own personal secret to career success.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?

The coolest project I’ve worked on culminated in an undergraduate honours thesis for a woman I’ve mentored. I met her in her second year of undergraduate education at Vanderbilt. She was timid and unsure of herself, but what she knew for certain is that she wanted to explore the realm of particle physics. Over the course of our time together, I got to know her personally and professionally, and I became invested in her success. She gained greater confidence as time passed, and I was able to see her present her phenomenological work with my group at an American Physical Society section meeting last fall. We are co-authors on a paper covering her work on a search for the heavy graviton, and in April, I saw her present her undergraduate honours thesis. I felt immense pride and I am blessed to have had the opportunity to watch this woman evolve into a stronger, more condent, and beautiful person inside and out.

What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself/your work?

I am a graduate research fellow for the National Science Foundation. I received this fellowship via e-mail in the early morning hours when myself and three other High Energy Physics graduate students were going through security in a German airport. We were all stressed and tired, but in the moment that I opened my e-mail and told my friends, we all hugged in the security line together. I called my mom and dad shortly thereafter, and those phone calls were some of my favorite I have ever made. That morning is one I will never forget.

What is a ‘day in the life’ of Savanna like?

I like to wake up early and get in an early morning run if I can. I walk most places in Nashville, so I can use my walk to work to center myself for the day. I go through my to-do list in my head so that by the time I sit down with a coffee in the office, I’m ready to hit the ground running. I write that to-do list down on one of my many options of coloured post-it notes, and I take care of many e-mails from the night prior. (This is because our experiment operates on European times.) I work on my analysis projects and a hardware project off-and-on throughout the day as I fit meetings with the undergraduate students into my schedule. I meet with at least one undergraduate student daily. A lesser-known but important aspect of our work is on documentation. Great importance lies in our keeping accurate record of our analysis and hardware work, so I’ll spend some time toward the end of the day working on documents to be shared with collaborators or on my own lab notebook. I spend eight or nine hours in the office before heading home for either some more cardio or a yoga class. After exercising and having dinner, I might go back to work on a few loose ends from the day, or I’ll catch a little Netflix or a few chapters of whatever novel I happen to be reading at the time.


Savanna during a presentation of her research on dark matter. © Savanna Starko

What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?

From the very early years of my life, my parents have always impressed upon me that no matter what I do, it’s important that I’m a good person who cares about people. For that reason, in my career in physics, I seek to mentor young scientists, advocate actively for greater diversity in the field, and remain a good person who cares about other people.

What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?

When I’m not doing research, I love to run and do yoga. This past April, I ran the St. Jude Rock n’ Roll half marathon in Nashville, and this was my first half marathon. I do yoga at the Small World Yoga Community Studio, which is the only non-prot yoga studio of its kind in Nashville. You can often find me in my off time baking a fun, creative dessert to share with my research group on group meeting days.

What advice do you have for other women interested in science?

The biggest advice that I share with other women is to get out of their own way. I spoke with a student once about the high standards to which she was holding herself. She was running herself ragged trying to meet expectations that would be lofty for even a superhero. I’m not sure she could’ve accomplished her to-do list without introducing an extra six hours into her day (what a feat in particle physics that would be!). When we had this discussion about giving herself grace and getting out of her own way, tears of self-awareness began to stream down her face. I think it’s a Voltaire quote that says we shouldn’t let perfect be the enemy of good. We are good enough, and sometimes, we have to be reminded to realise that.

In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in physics?

There are many potential breakthroughs in physics on the horizon, and while I’m not sure what the greatest of those will be, my hope is that it involves collaboration among diverse scientists all striving for the same goal: coming closer to understanding how the universe was divinely intended to function.

What should be done to increase the number of female scientists and female professors?

There are many ways to approach this issue. First, I am a huge proponent for open, honest communication in all of life’s aspects. Women solidly in the field should actively work to share their thoughts, opinions, advice, and experiences with newer female scientists. Whether at the university level or larger, we should create more matched mentorship programs to give younger, early-career scientists an additional resource in a mentor with whom to navigate the field. We should examine university recruitment and hiring practices to ensure that women are being given a fair shake at those levels. In an ideal world, we would have the hard-hitting conversations with men and women about what it means to value diversity and how it is that diversity and inclusion lead to advancement in any field. This is a conversation I’ve been known to have with anybody who will listen and will continue to have for years to come.

Ulrike Böhm

Ulrike Boehm is a physicist and science enthusiast. She works as an optical scientist at ZEISS in Oberkochen, Germany. Previously, she did her Ph.D. studies at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen in the Department of NanoBiophotonics of Nobel Laureate Stefan Hell, followed by research stays in the US at the National Institutes of Health and HHMI’s Janelia Research Campus, developing tools for biomedical research. She is generally passionate about designing and building (optical) instruments to image, probe, and manipulate (biological) structures. Furthermore, she is passionate about science communication and open science and is a huge advocate for women in science.