Astrophysics, Loving Science, and Inspiring: An Interview with Dr. Storchi Bergmann

Dr. Thaisa Storchi Bergmann is a Brazilian female astrophysicist whose work on LINER-type galaxies is shaping the way we currently look at space. My team, Hidden Figures, decided to do a youtube video about her life and her accomplishments as a scientist, to spread awareness on prominent women scientists in their field.

When the Hidden Figures team sent Dr. Storchi Bergmann sent an email disclosing the video we made for her, we were not expecting to receive such a response back. We were actually able to set up a time and date to interview her to pick this Astrophycisist’s mind over a video call. We had three interviewers: Maria Del Rosario Garcia-Chilla, Kyungsoo “Kevin” Kim, and myself: Isabella Beeco.


Beeco: “In past interviews, you mentioned liking science since you were a kid, but what made you interested in science while growing up? Did it come from a family or role model, or was it a love you discovered on your own?”


Storchi Bergmann: “I think I discovered more on my own and maybe I also was lucky to have good teachers. My science teachers were always good, and then I think this had an influence on why I like to do science. I think you guys mentioned in the video already that I had a small lab that I assembled with the help of my father. My father was an accountant and saw that I liked science, so he helped me build a small lab. He would buy my microscopes and solutions for chemical reactions. He would support me and buy materials for me. He was very supportive, but it was more my own desire and my good science teachers.” 


Garcia-Chinchilla: “Your article on Galaxy NGC 1097 in 1993 marks an important discovery of a black hole in a LINER-type galaxy. Can you take us back to that day and tell us about what you saw and your work life?”


Storchi Bergmann: “By the time that I began to work on active galaxies, actually I did my thesis on active galaxies, and at that time it was the late 80s. I finished my Ph.D. in 1987. At that time, we had the idea that these active galaxies that had bright emission lights from the nucleus were the ones that had the black hole. So I was interested in those galaxies, partially because I wanted to understand and observe the black holes. And over the years, with the launch of the space telescope it became more clear that not only the active galaxies have black holes, but most galaxies that had a center concentration of mass, because there are a few galaxies that are very diffused and don’t have a central bulge. For example, the milky way has a bulge so it has a black hole because it has a dense structure of stars. But for example, the Magellanic clouds that are neighbors to our galaxy, are diffused or irregular galaxies, and these ones, we don’t see evidence of black holes, so far. So it looks like most of these big galaxies, like the Milky Way and M87 Galaxy, that we looked at had a black hole in the center. I used a different method in my research paper than the Hubble uses. Hubble looks at the gas and the monument of stars. The Hubble would be able to see more because the view of the Hubble is much better at spatial resolution. So one point over the surface of the earth, because you are above the atmosphere, instead of seeing one point you see many many points, so you can see a structure inside the points that you see in a round base telescope. The resolution points .05 while the telescope without the new optics we have now is 1. So, it is 20 times better now. Inside this one second, the Hubble had 400 points (400 times more). They could see the velocity of the stars when you observe inside these regions increases much more than you would expect if there wasn’t anything there. If it was only stars, then you would expect a small increase in the velocity. But with a black hole, there is a high increase in the velocity in the stars due to the gravitational pull of the black hole. In order to see the pull of this black hole, you have to be very very close to the black hole. When the Hubble was launched, it could observe nearby galaxies that were not active and saw blackholes in those inactive galaxies.


By 1990, this idea was getting more clear that not only the active galaxies had black holes, but also other inactive galaxies. So, when I published my paper, Galaxy NGC 1097 had a LINER nucleus that was something that people were not sure if it was a black hole or an inactive nucleus. SO when I showed the broad emission lines from the doppler effect, it showed that there was gas rotating at velocities at 1000 rotations per second, the only option was that it could be a black hole pulling this gas down. So I saw gas emission, I could calculate the velocity, and the only explanation was that it was a black hole. Still, there was this idea that only active galaxies had black holes, so I showed that they didn’t need to be active. It was interesting because it was a transient event, because people had observed it before, but didn’t see this. So I observed it at the moment where the nucleus captured a star and disrupted it.”


Beeco: “What has been the focus of your research recently?” 


Storchi Bergmann: “Now we have this idea, that most systems have black holes, and models of galaxy evolutions show that if you only use gravity, dark matter, and bionic matter that you see, you would build an even expansion of the mini-verse, you would have galaxies that would be too big. The conclusion is, how do we avoid making galaxies bigger than what we see. When we look at the galaxies we see that there is a limit to the size of a galaxy, but this limit is not well explained. So we had to put some feedback, and this feedback then attributed to a black hole in the center would capture matter, then become an active nucleus, then the black hole when the matter is captured it produces Slite when the disk gets hot and out force, which is a forceful ejection of matter. So you see some energy coming from the surrounding region of the black hole, and this energy pushes mass away and a galaxy grows by adding more mass. If you have some feedback effect that pushes some matter away, you can avoid making the galaxy too big. The idea is that in the evolution of a galaxy the black holes form together at the beginning of the universe, and eventually there are some phases when the galaxies are active when the gas is captured by the black hole, making an accretion disk and shines and pushes gas. The evolution of the galaxies at the beginning of the universe 13.7 billion years ago, the galaxies were born 13.4 billion years ago, and apparently, the black holes were formed with the universe. There is a feedback effect for when the black hole captures matter, and then the galaxies become so big. This feedback is predicted by the models but is also seen in nature. A few years ago, I was more worried about how the gas arrives at the center, which\ is an important physical problem because it has to lose some momentum to go into the black hole. So I worked a bit on this, and now I am working on the feedback processes. Can we see this feedback? Because the models see some feedback is coming to visualize the galaxies as they are. I am calculating this feedback. But right now, I am seeing a little less feedback than we need. On the other hand, I am doing only optical studies and maybe I need to do other methods, like other wavelengths. Optical studies only show you ionized gas, but we should also look at neutral and molecular gas. We are interested in looking at molecular gas because lots of galaxies have an abundance of this in the center of their galaxy. This molecular gas is best observed by radio wavelengths like with the Alma Telescope. I am trying to map these feedbacks because we need the feedback to reproduce the galaxies as it is. Does nature support these recipes? I am looking to see if the observations replicate what these models need. On the other hand, we need to look at other gas phases and look at the changes of the accretion disks. 

I am also doing the same things with other objects as well. The other project is what is the effect of the black hole when it is active in the evolution of the galaxy: the feedback effect.”


Beeco: “Was there a moment in your career where you realized that this was the perfect job for you?”


Storchi Bergmann: “It was when I was a teenager preparing to go to college, I was not sure what I was going to be in my profession. So I chose architecture, actually, and took the exams. I was lucky that the physics institute was near the architecture institute, and we had a physics course for architects, and we would go to the physics institute for classes. Every Time I went there I would look at the labs, and then my love for science from my childhood and teenage years came back to my mind, and I was like ‘What am I doing in architecture? I want to be a scientist.’ I think that was an enlightening moment. I never had much of a role model in science; I just did it because I liked it. My role model was actually a cousin, two years older, who loved architecture so I chased after hers. But then I realized that that was her dream and not mine. I thankfully realized it soon enough and changed majors after 6 months at the architecture institute. I think that was the moment.”


Garcia-Chinchilla: “Are there any women you worked with that you think deserve more recognition? If so, who?”


Storchi Bergmann: “Well I would say that my advisor is one of them, Miriani Pastoriza. She is an Argentinian woman who came to Brazil and founded the Extragalactic Astronomy group. She began the group. When I arrived at my institute for my Ph.D., she was the only one who could advise me on astronomy, which was interesting and she arrived one year before me. She had some political issues; she was almost arrested in Argentina, and she came to Brazil and found this job before she did her Ph.D., using her largest telescope at the time in Argentina, the big 2.5m telescopes in Argentina Cordoba Observatory (before Chile). So she would go even with her baby girl, and she would take her to the telescope because they couldn’t afford any care. She receives some recognition in Argentina and South America, but she deserves worldwide recognition.


Beeco: “How has changing technology impacted your research?”


Storchi Bergmann: “I think that the main impact in my research was the beginning of the integral fumes spectrographs. When I began you could either do imaging or spectroscopy, which would isolate a part of the galaxy, but then around 2000 the integral fumes spectrographs came along which combined the ability of imaging and spectrographs. Each pixel of the image had a spectrum graph, it is like 3d. You have a data cube instead of a 2d image. We use it to study the image and take spectrographs of the image, and get it all together. This technology is revolutionizing the study I do, especially for studying the gas flows in space. This is one example that is important. Programming and big databases are now more accessible to look at other observatories’ public data. Your research in the database and see a large enough sample of the data you would use. Of course, technology is always improving, and it is revolutionizing our discoveries. Also, adaptive optics, which the Nobel prize winners used, which shoots lasers that make an image which distorts in the atmosphere they can tell how the deformation should be.”


Garcia-Chinchilla: “As a teacher and a mother, do you have suggestions that we should implement in schools and universities to increase or maintain interest in science?”


Storchi Bergmann:  “I think that the kids are already interested in science. We shouldn’t make them lose interest, because it is amazing that when I have given talks at schools, mainly my kid’s schools, I realize that kids from 10 -12 years old are the most interested in science. In terms of interaction and questions, they want to know everything. They ask and ask and ask and ask, and I would get exhausted. For example, I would go to school and give classes to kids in that age range, but 13-14 was a totally different story. Many are looking at themselves and doing other things, and only a couple of them are interested, but when they were ten years old, all of them were interested. So I don’t know what makes them lose this. I don’t have the statistics, but I think that 80% of the kids are interested in science and when they are older it is like 20%. I don’t know if the schools are not interesting enough or they aren’t showing science as if it is not joyful. So I think we have to maybe work better during this age to keep them interested.


I have a colleague here named Daniela Povoni who is the director of our planetarium, and she has special programs for high school girls. And she is very successful, she makes astronomy activities for everyone to do together. I think there are some interesting activities that are out there that we could work better on.”


Beeco:  “As someone who is an inspiration to many students in astrophysics, what is some advice you have for them moving forward in their careers?”


Storchi Bergmann: “If they like and are ready for the subject, well I think it is wonderful. I still love it and there are so many topics that we don’t know about, and those new students could expand the knowledge of astrophysics. The most interesting thing about science to me is that every day you make a new discovery. You are discovering new things and adding knowledge into the world. For me, this is very appealing. So if you want a life of discovery, do research. Astrophysics is very exciting because we leave our little planet earth and look at the universe and the big picture. There are so many things to be discovered out there.


Another thing is that if you want to be a successful astrophysicist, you have to be good at computing and math. It’s important for you to try to develop this ability even if you don’t have a natural talent. Don’t give up too soon before persevering. Practice practice practice, and you will become good at those things.


Sometimes, in the past, parents have talked to me because they were worried that their kids were going into fields without many opportunities. They were worried their kids would have to become professors at some universities. And nowadays, some researchers that left the Ph.D. went to work in different fields, a friend of mine went to work at an oil company. Because the major teaches you useful computing skills and mathematics, you can apply yourself to many different fields. Another girl that I know now works in a computing company that works with databases. So I think that in science, you develop so many skills that are desirable in other areas, like big data and computing, and critical thinking. If you want to be a researcher, which I love, you can. But if you change your mind, you can use the things you learned for different careers. This is what I say to calm the parents. Their kids aren’t losing time; they are developing practical skills. Some of my students went to work in the university, to research, or to different industries. I didn’t have a student of mine who didn’t have a good job to go into.”

Garcia-Chinchilla: “Since you were just talking about your field going into other fields, do you get to collaborate with other professionals, like engineers or chemists? If so, do both fields benefit from working together?”


Storchi Bergmann: “I, myself, didn’t do this much, but a colleague of mine wanted to do some research and she needed equipment to do this research. She hired some engineers and project scientists to create a group to build things. So, I am more into observing and interpreting data and models, but some people like my colleague enjoy building things and collaborating. And actually, when I visited her and her institute, I got to know a lot of astronomers and a few engineers socially. When I learned about their life and how much they earned, I discovered that engineers earned more than the astronomers at the institute who were in charge, because they had to make all of the equipment the astronomers used. There are some interactions that interact a lot, especially when building instruments and testing them. I think it is common, mainly in institutes. Since I work at a university, I do less of it because the university is more teaching and researching and advising students whereas institutes here don’t teach and they develop infrastructure.”


Kim: “Since you are now in the leading position in your field of study, and have a lot of students and colleagues. Who was the most unique connection you have made in your profession?”


Storchi Bergmann: “That is a difficult question. Earlier I mentioned my advisor who I admire very much, but I also admire a lot of my other colleagues. I did, however, have two outstanding students. One was a guy who had a very very large capacity of work. He was the database guy, and he would analyze everything in such a short time. He would finish a problem I gave him within one night and come the next day with it solved. He was my first Ph.D. student, actually. He did so much work, that when he finished the work I gave him, he would work with other professors. Another one was a student I advised in observations. He also wanted to do some modeling. He was really clever in a sense, and he wanted to do some modeling, so he learned by himself how to model. He is now a professor in San Paulo and is still doing his models. These two students really impressed me with their efforts and dedication. I say that I had two outstanding students and my advisor, who faced a lot of adversities. My advisors wouldn’t take excuses from students and were really tough because of what she went through and she is a model to follow. The close collaborators I have worked with are also very admirable. I do not have any idols however, I just recognize clever people.”


 Kim: “Last question: when you switched to astrophysics did you have any moments of doubt? If so, how did you overcome this hesitation.”


Storchi Bergmann: “I switched from architecture to astrophysics, because I didn’t really think too much into what I wanted to do and ended up picking architecture because my cousin also did. I didn’t research in advance. In our university, we have an astrophysics major and a physics major. The astrophysics major is very similar to the physics one except you take one astrophysics course per semester. So, by the end of 8 semesters, you have 8 disciplines of astrophysics. Some students arrive in astrophysics thinking they will just romanticize astronomy and telescopes but then realize it’s physics and lots of work. Like I would go to the observatory once a semester because I was working so much. Some students think they will just look at the sky every night. You have to read a lot and be informed about the major you want to join and decide if this is what you want. If you don’t read, you will be disappointed. Now we have google, this information is at your fingertips.”