In It For The Long Run
For the past 22 years, physicist Corey Gray has worked at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory in Hanford, Washington. He spoke to Tushna Commissariat about building LIGO, the big detection, inspiring the next generation of Indigenous physicists, and having a healthy work–life balance
Making waves Gray giving a talk at Humboldt State University’s Distinguished Alumni Speaker Series in 2019. (Courtey: Humboldt State University, Kellie Brown)
What sparked your interest in physics?
I was interested in science from a young age thanks to my dad, who was an engineer. He would do a lot of projects at home—work on the car and build things in the garage—so I always thought that was interesting. My dad was one of my first role models, but there were also some teachers who were a real inspiration. I enjoy a lot of TV and film too. When I was in high school there was a popular TV show, MacGyver. I religiously watched that every week, and I wanted to be an Indigenous MacGyver.
Tell me a bit about your educational background, and what your degree focused on
I grew up in southern California, and went to the local California State University (CSU), which was in San Bernardino. I didn’t know what I wanted to study yet, so I was undeclared for the first year. I then wanted a change of scenery, so in my sophomore year I applied for the furthest away CSU campus, which was Humboldt State, on the coast of northern California, just south of the Oregon border. That’s where I finished my undergrad, and I decided upon studying physics. I’m not going to lie, it was hard— the courses were tough, and being away from home was difficult. What helped me was finding a new family there, thanks to the Indian Natural Resources Science and Engineering Program (INRSEP). Right when I was homesick, crying in my dorm room and wanting to leave, that’s when I found INRSEP—it kept me going, and helped me stay at Humboldt State. I did two science-related internships towards the end of my degree, which were very valuable. One of them was at a blood lab at the University of California, San Francisco. I soon found out that that wasn’t for me. I once accidentally evacuated the lab by spilling something that smelled horrible! Years later, I received my bachelor’s of science (B.S.) degree in physics, and because there was so much math involved, I also received a B.S. in applied mathematics.
You began working at LIGO once you graduated—what was your first role?
Yes, it was my first job after undergrad. I took a few months’ break to look after my younger sisters while my mom did research overseas. I was applying for jobs, and spotted an ad in the LA Times—it was for a Caltech job, up in Washington State. The opportunity to move again was what caught my eye most, because I didn’t know anything about LIGO back then. But I applied anyway, and started in March 1998. Both of the LIGO observatories—at Hanford, and Livingston—had opened for operations the previous year. The instruments were at a point where the teams were getting ready to install and build the initial LIGO detectors.
The detector has many subsystems, and my team worked on the seismic isolation system. We’re the ones who installed the big optical tables that isolate the mirrors from any ground motion, so we have the biggest parts that were installed into the vacuum system. Once it was built, we learned what it meant to be an operator for a gravitational-wave detector—how to sit in the “driver’s seat” of the detector, operate it and eventually keep it running for data collection.
What was it like for you during the early years of the experiment, when no detections were made? Were you ever tempted to leave?
When I first joined LIGO, I thought like most other people do about their first jobs: “I’ll be here for my resume for maybe five years, then move on to something different.” But a few things made me stay. One of the big things is that this job is never boring, because we get to do a lot of different things. I also love living in the north-west—we’re surrounded by beautiful countryside, so I do a lot of hiking.
From 2002 to 2010 we collected data with the initial LIGO detectors, and no detections were made. Operations for iLIGO ended in 2010, and we spent the next five years removing the majority of the iLIGO equipment from the vacuum system and installing advanced LIGO (aLIGO), before getting it into an operational state. aLIGO began taking data in late 2015. But as far as the big picture, I didn’t really have that until we started building aLIGO. Even then, I still didn’t think we would ever make a detection, because we went eight years with nothing.
One day while on a hike, I asked my roommate how likely he thought it was that aLIGO would actually make a detection. This was in summer 2011, and without skipping a beat, he told me, “We’re going to make detections,” before going into the detection rates. That’s when I first thought it was a possibility. And then we actually made the first detection on 14 September 2015. As soon as that happened, it changed our lives in so many ways.
Since then, aLIGO has made many observations. I don’t want to say it’s been boring or normal, but especially with the latest observational run (03), we have roughly one detection a week. Itʼs become the new normal and that is such a good thing to be able to say. We are also working on upgrading the detectors all the time. But every time I get a message on my phone about a new detection, it’s still something I get excited about.
What has been your experience as an Indigenous physicist in the US?
My tribe is Blackfoot, and I’m a member of the Siksika Nation from southern Alberta, Canada. Humboldt State is a small university, and I don’t know if there have been other Indigenous undergrads or Indigenous students from the physics department—there might have been in the last couple of years. But for sure when I was there, there weren’t any. Being alone was difficult, especially combined with the tough courses. It would’ve been nice to have role models who are like me. There was sometimes one other Indigenous physicist who I would see at national conferences. That’s definitely changing, but it’s still a pretty small number.
As far as work, the LIGO Scientific Collaboration (LSC) has around 1000–1200 people, and for the most part I was the only Indigenous person. In 2015, before the detection, an Indigenous grad student (Ron Tso, Navajo Nation) started at Caltech and joined the LSC. As soon as I heard, I contacted him, just to let him know that there’s another Native person in the project. We’ve met a few times and given a few talks together, and it’s been really cool to have him be part of the team. I’ve since learned there are two other awesome Indigenous physicists in the LSC: Brittany Kamai (Caltech) and Mario Díaz (University of Texas at Rio Grande Valley).
There’s really not many Indigenous people in physics, and because of that I get a lot of requests for speaking engagements. Whenever there’s a chance for me to speak to Indigenous youth, or any other underrepresented groups, those are the ones that I prioritize. For example, I spoke at the 2020 conference of the American Physical Society’s National Mentoring Community—which offers support to African American, Hispanic American and Native American students. This event sounded amazing, and I was honored to have the opportunity to share my story and inspire other underrepresented people in physics. I also attend a few other national conferences such as the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science and the American Indian Science and Engineering Society. So I’ve been able to network and meet other underrepresented people in the sciences.
Beyond your work at LIGO, you do a lot of science communication. Is this something you wanted to do from the start, or did you feel like you had to?
When I joined LIGO in 1998, I was fresh out of college. I just wanted to do my job building the machine, but I was asked by the head of the observatory to do some outreach work. He encouraged me to give talks, but I was shy and newly graduated—I had no idea about giving presentations or talks, and I really didn’t want to do it. So I was a reluctant science communicator at the start. But with lots of practice over the years and also LIGO’s first detection, everything changed—we had a huge story to tell.
I’m also aware that I do have a responsibility doing outreach activities with underrepresented groups. But it can be tough to do that as well as your day job and have a personal life as well. I get a lot of requests, and have to turn some down. I’m still learning how to sometimes say no. But most of the time, if it’s an underrepresented community, I will always say yes.
When I give talks to Indigenous communities, I talk about how science is already in our blood. Our peoples have always been observers of nature and the sky, and I believe that physics and science are a natural fit for us. It’s important just to have representation. You don’t have to do science communication. You don’t have to be on TV. You don’t have to do interviews all the time. Just do the work that you’re doing; the young ones will see you, and that is so important.
Family ties Gray with his mother, Sharon Yellowfly, at LIGO Hanford, 2017. They translated LIGO literature into Blackfoot. (Courtesy: Russell Barber)
You also had a special project, working with your mother to translate some of the LIGO press releases into Blackfoot. Tell me a bit about that
It all came about a few weeks before we announced the first detection, in February 2016. We wanted to share this discovery with the world, so we wanted to get our press release translated into as many languages as possible. I asked for permission to translate it into Blackfoot. This would mean sharing the news of the discovery with someone outside of the collaboration—my mom. Thankfully my fellow collaborators thought it was a great idea, and I had permission within an hour.
My mom was so surprised and overwhelmed by the request, and she had only two weeks to work on it. She had a dictionary of Blackfoot words that she’s been putting together since she was in her 20s, so she used that along with tapes that she recorded of her parents, as well as reaching out to other family up north. Two weeks later, her translation was ready and went live with all the other 16 or 17 translations. She’s done five press release translations now. For some discoveries, she has also translated the technical science summaries. I’m very proud of the work we’ve done together.
What’s your advice for today’s students?
Don’t be intimidated by the job. When you start a new role, you are hopefully in a place that has good management—you should be able to read documentation, be mentored, and be taught how to do the work, to be able to succeed. It’s also really important to have a personal life, and give yourself time to recharge at the end of the day. Take vacations, have hobbies and do things that keep your sanity. Sometimes work can be stressful and hard, and you could get burned out if you don’t take care of these other aspects of your life.
Corey Gray works at the NSF-funded LIGO Scientific Collaboration, part of the land-based gravitational-wave detector network including Virgo and KAGRA. Tushna Commissariat is a features editor for Physics World