Searching for Tiny Pieces of the Answers to the Very Biggest Questions

December 9, 2019

Professor K. E. Saavik Ford, astrophysicist, is casting light on black holes.

Professor K.E. Saavik Ford (©AMNH/R. Mickens)
Professor K.E. Saavik Ford (©AMNH/R. Mickens)

When Professor K. E. Saavik Ford (GC/BMCC, Physics/Astronomy) was growing up in Queens, she would often visit the American Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium with her father or her uncle, who lived just a few blocks away. Now, in addition to her work at The Graduate Center, she is a researcher in the museum’s astrophysics department, where she is searching for answers about the supermassive black holes that are at the center of every galaxy.
More specifically, she is studying the collections of black holes that sometimes orbit supermassive black holes. Recently, with her husband, Professor Barry McKernan (GC/BMCC, Astrophysics/Astronomy), she published a paper that shows how the merger of two of these smaller black holes can produce a light signature that can pinpoint the specific galaxy where the merger occurred — information that scientists can’t currently detect.
“I like to say there are only two questions in astrophysics: How did we get here, and are we alone?” Ford explains. “What we’re really trying to do is answer a tiny piece of one of those questions.” Having spent the early part of her career on the second, she has in recent years turned to the first.
An Early Start
As a child fascinated by big questions, Ford found plenty of inspiration, and not just at the planetarium. She recalls seeing a photo of the astronaut Sally Ride on the cover of a magazine in the checkout line, yet being shocked by the headline. “I asked my mom, There’s never been an American woman in space before? Are you joking?”
Ride had earned her Ph.D. in physics, and Ford decided she would do the same. “I had this love of exploration,” she says, noting — not surprisingly — “I also loved Star Trek.” She absorbed everything she could about physics, astronomy, and space. “I thought I would love to be out there, exploring the universe, and understanding and making sense of it for myself.”
By Ford’s teens, her family had moved to the small town of New Paltz, New York, where, as she puts it, “there weren’t a lot of opportunities for a student who had a capacity to plow through material very quickly.” She skipped two grades, but had what she calls a “pretty normal high school experience,” including running track. Yet she did everything a little faster, and earlier, than normal. She enrolled at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute when she was 16, and went on to earn her Ph.D., in just five years, from Johns Hopkins the age of 25.
It was at Hopkins that she met Barry McKernan. After they both graduated and completed postdocs — his third and her first — he started applying for faculty jobs and received an offer from Coastal Carolina University in Conway, South Carolina. “I had to make a decision,” Ford says. “There wasn’t a second tenure-track faculty job at Coastal Carolina University.”
She decided to go with him, and started a new job as a curator of science at the Ingram Planetarium, with a cross appointment at the university. Soon they heard that the Borough of Manhattan Community College was hiring two tenure-track professors in astronomy. They wrote a joint cover letter and were hired at same time.
Shared Interests
Ford and McKernan had heavy teaching loads in their first years. They realized that consolidating their work would enable both to do more, and began devising ways to share mentoring, teaching, and research. “We made a conscious decision to move both our research programs to a place where we were working in the same direction,” Ford says. At the time, she was researching extra-solar planetary systems and their formation. McKernan was working on black holes.
Ford realized her work on planet formation, and how matter forms a disk that circles a star, could be applied to McKernan’s work on black holes, which are also circled by disks of matter. Now they are both focused on black holes, specifically on active galactic nuclei. A small fraction of galaxies, she explains, have a tiny shining source at their center, and the light emitted by this source is equal to that of 100 billon stars. These centers are called “active” because of their brightness.
“[Astronomers] believe that every galaxy goes through a period where it is active,” Ford says. “And that activity actually sets up conditions like star formation rates throughout the galaxy. We don’t understand how or why, but there seems to be relationships between what kind of black hole you have, how active it is or has been, and what the rest of your galaxy looks like — and how that galaxy evolved and got us to what we see today.”
Fighting Her Way In
In her two decades in the field, Ford has noticed a considerable increase in the percentage of women in astrophysics. When she started going to conferences, she was often one of just a few women waiting in line at the bathroom; now she estimates that women account for almost 40 percent of conference attendees. “So many things change when that threshold is crossed,” she says. Some subfields, however, have seen more of an increase than others. “One thing that matters is if the field is new: If there’s no power structure, women will rush in. With more established fields, women have to fight their way forward.”
In subfields where hard work is seen as the deciding factor, women are able to advance more easily, she says. But in particular subfields — like black holes — where a perception of brilliance is often valued above anything else, women have faced greater barriers. “The responsibility should not be on women to change the field, but realistically, the fields won’t change without action by women,” she says. “I strongly urge women to find collaborations, mentors, and allies.” She also fights against the idea that astrophysics is a realm of study where only geniuses can thrive. At one point, describing the workings of the universe, she helpfully explains that “medium is a fancy science word for stuff.”
“The Greater Community”
Both Ford and McKernan have the unusual experience of working with Graduate Center students and with students who just starting out at community college. “Our best community college students are a match for anyone,” she says. She is happy to be back in her hometown, and also to be a part of New York’s growing astrophysics community. She belongs to CUNY Astro, a consortium across the University of professors and students, and has worked on collaborations and co-authored papers with researchers from many CUNY colleges.
And what about being back in her old childhood stomping grounds, the museum where she spent so many afternoons? After she started her position there, she took her father for a visit, just as he had often taken her. “It was freaking amazing,” she says. “I don’t think about it every day, but when I do, I feel incredibly grateful to the universe that I can work here.”


More Cool Facts About Professor Ford

  • Ford and her husband, Professor Barry McKernan, made a YouTube video that explains black holes in a way that is both accessible and in depth.
  • They named their son after three scientists, and his initials form the acronym WIGM, for warm intergalactic medium — the material (or stuff) that exists between galaxies.
  • She is a fan of the STARtorialist blog, co-authored by Professor Emily Rice (GC/Macaulay, Physics and Astrophysics), and considers herself part of the “astro-fashion community.” On a recent day, she wore a skirt decorated with rocket equations from Svaha — a clothing site for everyone who wants to be an astrophysicist, or just look like one.