By: Don Mock email@example.com
For Associate Professor Dr. Katia Matcheva, researcher in atmospheric wave phenomena and the Physics Department’s undergraduate student coordinator, striving towards a happy work-life balance has been a consistent goal. As a mother of two and spouse of another professor, reaching that enviable goal was ultimately achieved upon joining the faculty at the University of Florida.
Dr. Matcheva grew up in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, the daughter of two telecommunications engineers. At an early age, she showed great aptitude in mathematics. A “fabulous” physics teacher in high school got her hooked on the science. She participated in a series of math/physics Olympiads sponsored by her hometown physics club and went on to win a national science competition. After four years at the University of Plovdiv, she had an undergraduate degree in physics. She had also married a fellow student, two years her senior, who had gone to the U.S. to begin his doctoral program at John Hopkins University. (Now what?)
Arriving in Baltimore to be with her husband, but with no job, little knowledge of English, and suffering a bit of culture shock, Katia was determined that she would continue her physics career. She spent a year learning the language – no Bulgarian to be spoken at home! She took the GRE and TOEFL and started applying for graduate school in physics, chemistry, earth and planetary sciences, and various fields of engineering. She was accepted into the planetary science program at Johns Hopkins under Dr. Darrell Strobel, a leading expert in planetary atmospheres. At the time, NASA’s Galileo mission, with its atmospheric probe, was returning new and intriguing data about the structure and composition of the Jovian atmosphere. In 2000, Dr. Matcheva received her doctorate “on the heating of Jupiter’s thermosphere by the dissipation of gravity waves”. Her husband, who had graduated three years earlier, was now back in Europe as a research fellow at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland. (Now what?)
Dr. Matcheva became a Marie Curie Fellow at the Observatoire de Paris. Time to learn French! After two years, her husband was offered a tenure-track faculty position in the Physics Department at the University of Florida. She was able to get a research scientist position at Cornell University in upstate New York. At least it was on the same continent. Time to start a family? Yes, but the 1000-mile commute up and down I-95 to see each other was rather painful, to say the least. Something had to be done, and the University of Florida offered a solution in the form of a second tenure-track faculty position. Finally, in 2005, after more than a decade of living life in a state of flux, she and her husband could settle down, focus on their research interests, and raise a family – together.
At UF, Dr. Matcheva’s research on planetary atmospheres has expanded from Jupiter to include Saturn, Titan, and Mars. Each new NASA mission provides a trove of data to exploit to better understand how these alien atmospheres really work, and by extension, how our own atmosphere works. For example, scientists are learning that wave phenomena in the atmosphere of Mars transfer energy from lower to higher altitudes and can contribute to individual gaseous molecules achieving escape velocity. Thus, a planet slowly loses its atmosphere and, given billions of years to work with, will completely transform the surface. In the case of Mars, it lost its oceans. How long before the same thing happens to us? Even improving a forecast model of Jupiter’s red spot can increase the accuracy of our own long-range weather predictions by providing better insight on how Earth’s troposphere is linked to its mesosphere. As Dr. Matcheva notes: “You may not be able to grow tomatoes with that, but in the long run our lives are improved by the insights gleaned by understanding these other worlds.”
Given her background, Dr. Matcheva can definitely sympathize with those who take the very brave step of moving to another country to pursue their dreams. Her advice to all new students, foreign and domestic, is “to become part of the physics community, join clubs, like the Society of Physics Students, and benefit from the other students’ collective experience. Finding that right work-life balance is very important. And if you are lucky, you will also find that your work is your hobby.” Dr. Matcheva is an example of how that goal can be achieved.