I hardly ever check my department mailbox. All of the information I need comes through e-mail, and although I pass through the mail enclave almost every day, I’m rarely motivated enough to find the stepstool and peer into my box, high up on the right side. Recently, I left my overshirt in my advisor’s office and wasn’t able to retrieve it the same day, so he put it in my mailbox. When I retrieved it, I found a small piece of card, a child’s valentine with a cheerful green dinosaur on it. The back of it read, “Sorry I missed you. Dick.”
I met Dick Gustafson in the summer of 2007, when I had my first undergraduate research position at the LIGO Hanford Observatory in southeastern Washington. Although he’s a University of Michigan research scientist, he lives near the observatory and rarely returns to Ann Arbor. I didn’t work with him my first summer, but evidently he saw something promising in me, and convinced me to work with him on an optics project the following year. He calls me “the girl scientist,” in the same way he refers to himself as “the boy scientist.” He advocates for that kind of childlike curiosity and joy in work, which is pretty exceptional as we worked in a cleanroom most days, and it’s hard to feel joy when breathing through a facemask and tripping over shoe covers.
We still meet up when he comes back to Ann Arbor, although that seems to be getting less frequent as the work on upgrading the observatory gets more involved. We talk about my progress in grad school, the applications of the prototype I built, the upgrades to the detector, and his strange ideas of how to detect dark matter in the laboratory using an ordinary laser. Hopefully I’ll be going out to the observatory in the next year or two, and I’ll get to work with him more.
I’m glad that Dick isn’t my advisor, because most of the time his original research ideas are pretty far-fetched, and I’d like to get my Ph.D. before the sun starts burning helium. However, I appreciate having him as a mentor. He encourages me to think about my field from new angles, he reminds me that I’m here because deep down I’m curious about how the world works, and he never lets me take scientific ideas at face value. That’s a valuable thing to have, and it’s something that helps me look up from my work and actually see the stars.