Meet Saeqa Dil Vrtilek: Astrophysicist and EducatorJuly 18, 2012
I have been eagerly awaiting my first opportunity to profile an AAUW fellowships and grants alumna, and I wasn’t disappointed when I spoke with Saeqa “Saku” Dil Vrtilek, a 1991–92 Marie Curie American Fellow. Vrtilek is a senior astrophysicist with the High Energy Astrophysics Division of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Such a lofty title seemed a bit intimidating, but once the interview began, I was fascinated by her amazing life story and her many accomplishments and honors. Vrtilek not only taught me a great deal about astrophysics by sharing her research interests and projects, she also showed me just how much her story overlaps with the mission of AAUW.
Vrtilek’s interest in math and science began when she was very young. When her 10th-grade biology paper focused more on nuclear reactors than on the effects of radiation on plant seeds, her teacher suggested that Vrtilek study physics. During her sophomore year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she took a seminar in astrophysics and became hooked.
Vrtilek was awarded her AAUW fellowship at an important time in her life. She was a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University and was conducting research at the school’s Center for Astrophysics, where she faced many obstacles as a woman in a male-dominated field. When she was a student in the 1970s, male professors and scientists were blatant in their discrimination against women in physics. Today, the number of women in science is rapidly increasing, and Vrtilek has continued to pursue research at the Center for Astrophysics. Although she doesn’t work there full time, she self-supports her research through numerous endowed grants — including a NASA grant and a National Science Foundation visiting professorship — and has taken several postdoctoral and graduate students under her wing.
It is this experience that has encouraged Vrtilek to be active not only in scientific research but also in educational guidance and outreach. In addition to supporting physics students, she assists non-native English speakers by giving presentations at Harvard summer programs. This year’s lecture, “What the Dickens? Women in Science,” tells the stories of women scientists in the Victorian era.
While her path has not been easy, Vrtilek’s interest in and passion for astrophysics is obvious. Her current projects focus mainly on X-ray binaries — looking at the gravitational potential energy that is released when matter falls onto a black hole or neutron star.. Her research covers tomography (mapping the geometrical characteristics of something you can’t see) and generating 3-D plots to identify classes of binaries.
All of Vrtilek’s knowledge and struggles came together when I asked what advice she has to offer. “If you really like what you’re doing, you can do anything. Persist!” she says. Her experience as a woman in a science, technology, engineering, and mathematics field is inspiring. “Young women today are more self-confident than in my day, and they know they have the right to be there, but it’s not enough,” she says. “It is much harder in the higher levels of education. That is the next step. I benefitted so much from the programs that are for women only, and there needs to be more of those opportunities!”
This post was written by AAUW Fellowships and Grants Intern Bianca Zhang.