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Autobiography of Victoria M Kaspi

Victoria Kaspi

Victoria M Kaspi

I was born in Austin, Texas in 1967, to my Canadian mother Shirley and my Israeli father Joseph. Our family was in Austin as my father was working on his PhD in Hebrew Literature at the University of Texas. I was the youngest of 3 children: my brother Cyril (who unfortunately passed away in 1993) was 9 years my senior, and my sister Terry was 7 years older. We moved to Chicago, IL for 2 years after my father graduated, where he took on a college faculty position. But he missed his family in Israel, so we moved there in 1972. However, the combination of my mother’s diagnosis with Multiple Sclerosis and the surprise attack of Israel in the Yom Kippur war made her long for Canada, and so we returned to her home city of Montreal in 1973, where I spent the rest of my formative years. I loved school, finding it a respite from my challenging family circumstances given my mother’s debilitating illness. In particular, I loved math and science — though not to the exclusion of literature, music, and sports.


After high school I studied Pure & Applied Sciences at Marianopolis College, and then decided to pursue Physics at McGill University in Montreal. I received my BSc with Honours in Physics from McGill in 1989. During my McGill days, I did summer research in particle physics, and enjoyed a summer internship at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland. Subsequently I obtained a PhD in Physics specializing in astrophysics from Princeton University in 1993 where I worked under the supervision of Nobel Laureate Joseph Taylor, but was co-supervised by Richard Manchester of the Australia Telescope National Facility in Sydney, Australia, where I did an extended internship. My graduate work was on timing radio pulsars and its applications, primarily using the Green Bank, Parkes and Arecibo Observatories. Other notable mentors during my graduate days were Andrew Lyne and Dan Stinebring. 


After graduating from Princeton, I was awarded a Hubble Postdoctoral Fellowship which I took to the California Institute of Technology and Jet Propulsion Laboratory from 1994 to 1996. There I worked primarily with Shri Kulkarni and Tom Prince on a variety of pulsar-related topics. While still continuing radio work, I had already begun transitioning to X-ray astronomy, as there were impressive new X-ray missions being launched. 

In 1997, I moved to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where I joined the faculty. There I began monitoring magnetars, specifically Anomalous X-ray Pulsars (AXPs), routinely using the Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer (RXTE), but also using the Chandra and the XMM-Newton Observatories, working with colleague Deepto Chakrabarty. While at MIT I also began to supervise my own graduate students and postdocs, an endeavour which, over my career, has been perhaps the most rewarding. I chose to join the faculty of McGill University, my alma mater, in 1999, returning to Montreal where I had grown up. At McGill, I continued my radio and X-ray observational program of pulsars and magnetars. It was through the continued monitoring program with RXTE that my research group discovered bursting behaviour in AXPs, which cemented their identification as magnetars. The next decade involved developing a detailed understanding of AXP bursting behaviour using RXTE and subsequently the Neil Gehrels Swift X-ray Observatory.

It was also upon my return to McGill that I started a family together with my husband David Langleben, a cardiologist at the McGill-affiliated Jewish General Hospital in Montreal. Our son Ian was born in 2000, and daughters Julia and Hayley in 2002 and 2004, respectively. Raising a family while leading a research group was fun but challenging, and I am grateful to David and my sister Terry and my extended family and friends for their support over the years.

From 2013–2015 I was Associate Dean for Research in the McGill Faculty of Science, which taught me about how major infrastructure is funded. Simultaneously, the phenomenon of Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs) was being recognized and my research team, as part of the PALFA collaboration using Arecibo, had just discovered an FRB. Simultaneously, senior cosmologist colleagues in Canada, notably Matt Dobbs, Mark Halpern, Gary Hinshaw, Ue-Li Pen and Keith Vanderlinde, were building the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment (CHIME), which had the potential to revolutionize the FRB field. I led a major grant proposal with them to extend CHIME’s capabilities to FRB (and pulsar) detection, a project which has occupied most of my research time since 2015. Today, the CHIME/FRB project is making interesting discoveries, and we are building CHIME/FRB Outrigger telescopes for precision sky localization of our detections.

I am very grateful and proud to have been co-awarded the Shaw Prize with friend and colleague Chryssa Kouveliotou for work on magnetars. There is no greater honour than the respect of one's peers. However, I consider my greatest research accomplishment the training and development of my wonderful, hard-working students and postdocs without which so much in my career would not have been impossible. I dedicate this award to them. 



28 October 2021   Hong Kong