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Popular science: U of T’s new astronomer-astrophysicist brings science to the people

On subways or in prisons, new professor reaches out to share excitement of discovery

Photo of Renee Hlozek

Astronomer-astrophysicist Renée Hložek holding the observable universe in her hand. The beach ball’s surface represents the furthest we can see in microwave light, the oldest visible light in the universe. Photo: Diana Tyszko.

You’re on the subway. But you forgot to bring your book or tablet. Don’t panic — maybe you can find a discarded newspaper. Nope. In desperation you look around to read the titles of the books being held by commuters around you, only to get weird stares in return. Uncomfortable.

Instead, imagine a subway car with a real-life scientist on board who is ready to answer some of the most fundamental questions of the universe like: What is the universe made of? How did it start? And how is it going to end?

That’s the idea behind the Science Train project. Renée Hložek, an assistant professor who joined U of T in January, rode the New York subway to talk with commuters about the origin and development of the universe.

“I really am passionate about bringing science to people who don’t normally engage with science content — or scientists for that matter,” said Hložek who is appointed to the Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics and the Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics in the Faculty of Arts & Science. “If I think of the amazing power of science to take you out of your own thoughts, to give you a perspective on the world that is wholly different — I want everyone to be able to experience that.”

“Share science with everyone in the world,” could be Hložek’s mantra.

As a TED fellow, she reaches large audiences through her videos: the one on the death of the universe has been viewed over 400,000 times.

Through the Prison Teaching Initiative in New Jersey, Hložek brought cosmology to inmates who might never have encountered it in their lifetime.

“Just showing them that their brains and knowledge mattered was really transformative,” Hložek said. “They are some of the best students I’ve ever encountered.”

Hložek also works very hard to inspire and support women in the sciences. She created a mentorship program for South African women scientists called the Hope-Princeton exchange to bring science students from Africa to Princeton to work on astrophysics projects.

“I think we need to encourage women to see themselves as scientists too,” said Hložek. “I wanted them to realize that they are part of an international cohort of young researchers.”

“As an African scientist, it is easy to feel isolated from the rest of the world,” said Hložek. “My desire is to bring these women to visit for a while so that they can invigorate their respective fields when they return home.”

Hložek hopes she can start a similar exchange program here at U of T. “One of my main reasons for coming to U of T was that I could leverage interests here in developing the next generation of scientists, from Canada, Africa, and around the world.

“I also want to challenge the perception people have about who scientists should be and who is allowed to participate in scientific inquiry – which is why I speak out about my career as well as the content that I study.”

Hložek’s own scientific journey began in South Africa, has taken her to Oxford to study as a Rhodes Scholar for her PhD, and then to Princeton as a postdoctoral research fellow.

At U of T, she will continue to research supernovae and work in the area of cosmic microwave background. Sometimes called the afterglow of the Big Bang, this light has been travelling to us for over 13 billion years. By measuring the differences in temperature and polarization in different parts of the sky, cosmologists can discern information about the conditions at the beginning of the universe

Hložek is also looking forward to teaching a small group of undergraduates in a course on the Physical and Mathematical Universes, one of the Faculty of Arts & Science’s First-Year Seminars.

“I’m excited to engage students on a variety of levels about my field and why I think it is an amazing time to be an astrophysicist,” she said.

Hložek says she was drawn to the University by the combination of “excellent theoretical minds and incredible instrument builders.”  She also wanted to be in a place “committed to new telescopes, new projects and the cutting edge of observations. “

“As someone who works with data, this includes not only the telescopes but the methodology too, and so I’m excited to be around like-minded scientists trying new things!”

Speaking of new things, Hložek is hoping to bring the Science Train to the TTC.

“I need to apply for permits to do so.” So one day soon, you might just be lucky enough to ask Hložek some of the biggest questions about the origins of universe, all while you ride the subway.