I was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1972. My mother Susan taught elementary school and my father John was a salesman. My childhood was filled with lots of love from my parents and sisters, Tara and Monica, who are two and five years younger. I was also very lucky to grow up with many close cousins, grandparents, aunts, and uncles.
I inherited my mother’s love of academics and my father’s passion for reading and frequently changing and intense interests, including the orange-winged amazon parrot named Noel I received at age 11 and still have today! I was considering careers as either a veterinarian or oboist when I happened upon Steven Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time” in 1988. The concepts of black holes, compact objects, and space-time completely captivated me, and my all-girls Catholic high school provided freedom to study “nerdy” subjects without worrying about gender norms.
I joined Penn State University as an astronomy and astrophysics major in 1990. Soon after, Prof. Alex Wolszczan discovered the first extrasolar planets through high-precision timing of a rapidly rotating, highly magnetized compact object known as a pulsar using the world’s largest radio telescope, the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. I became fascinated with pulsars and was overjoyed to work with him on data analysis on this “planet pulsar” and to travel to Arecibo to carry out observations. Coincidentally, one of my most encouraging and memorable moments as an undergraduate was when Alex said that I reminded him of Vicky Kaspi, an astronomer a few years older than me and who I have always admired greatly (and who won the Shaw Prize a few years ago!)
After visiting Arecibo, I was determined to study these unique astronomical physics laboratories in graduate school. At Cornell University, I had the excellent fortune to work with Prof. Jim Cordes, one of the most versatile and brilliant scientists I know. Like all of Jim’s students, my research spanned many topics, ranging from gamma-ray pulsar populations and searches, radio pulsar searches and timing, and interstellar scintillation, in collaboration with another influential mentor, Dan Stinebring at Oberlin College. One central goal for Jim and I was to discover pulsars in other galaxies. To achieve this, we developed algorithms and code to search for individual, bright pulses that could be detected at much larger distances than the time-averaged, periodic emission to which traditional pulsar searches were sensitive.
During graduate school, I met Duncan Lorimer at Arecibo, and I subsequently joined him at Jodrell Bank Observatory in the UK as an NSF-funded postdoc. My first project was a search for single pulses in the Parkes Multibeam Pulsar Survey, resulting in the unexpected discovery of a class of pulsars we called Rotating Radio Transients, only detectable through their sporadic individual pulses and not through traditional methods. I also worked on many other projects, including studies of the double pulsar system, a fantastic testbed for general relativity and pulsar physics. Prof. Andrew Lyne was an important mentor to me during that time, and I learned a lot from his thoughtful, careful, and creative approach to problem solving.
Duncan and I loved working at Jodrell, but I wanted to be closer to family. An opportunity to do that while building our own astronomy group brought us to West Virginia University in 2006. A bonus was proximity to the largest radio telescope in the continental US, the Green Bank Telescope. The first few years in West Virginia were a personal and professional whirlwind. We arrived with a baby (Callum, now 17) and soon had two more (Finlay and Owen, now 16 and 12). Duncan and I also built a new graduate program in astronomy and more than tripled the number of astronomy faculty over the next decade.
Soon after our arrival at WVU, we co-founded the Pulsar Search Collaboratory, with Sue Ann Heatherly at Green Bank, which has involved thousands of high-school students in pulsar searches. I have continued to work on radio transients, carrying out single-pulse searches such as the one leading to the first Fast Radio Burst, and studying the mysterious diversity of pulsar emission behaviors. My primary current research interest, however, is using high-precision pulsar timing for low-frequency gravitational-wave detection through the NANOGrav collaboration. I co-founded the collaboration in 2007 and have served as Co-Director of the NANOGrav Physics Frontiers Center since 2015.
I am grateful for the opportunity to work in a rich scientific field with a vast discovery space along with so many brilliant colleagues. I have also been fortunate to work with the most incredible students and postdocs, who are the reason that I am excited to come to work each day. I am also immeasurably thankful for my wonderful family and children, and a husband who is a supportive and inspiring partner both in life and in science.
12 November 2023 Hong Kong