Mara Salvato

"The decisions must be yours!"

June 28, 2021

My name is Mara Salvato and I am italian. With a master in astronomy from the University of Padova I moved to Potsdam for my PhD in astrophysics. After a postdoc at MPE and one at Caltech, in the USA, I became junior research leader at the MP for Plasma Physics in 2009, here in Garching. Since 2012 I work at MPE where I am now member of the scientific permanent staff.

The motivation that drives my work has changed with time. Unlike many colleagues that knew they wanted to be astrophysicists “since ever”, I discovered astronomy and astrophysics at the end of high school, when I was actually studying for becoming a carpenter (!). I had no idea that astronomy as the topic even existed and for years my motivation has been driven by the need of placate a thirst for knowledge in the field that I did not know I had. With time the motivation changed and now I am driven by the recognition that with my work I am helping the advancement of knowledge by future generations of scientists.

I study AGN, i.e., galaxies that host an Active Black Hole in the center (most of the galaxies do host a Black Hole, but it is dormant). Back to 25-30 years ago this kind of galaxies where of interests to few astrophysicists while the majority removed them from their samples as much as they could. Now we know that this is the wrong approach because virtually every galaxy experienced or is experiencing (or will experience) a phase in which their BH is active. The AGN phase is longer than our life time so the only chance to study these events is to take a statistical approach: take a big samples of galaxies and try to sort them out from an evolutionary point of view. eROSITA is ideal for purpose because it detects the galaxies in which the BH is in the “AGN phase”. And because we are passing over the same part of the sky over and over, we are getting lucky and are identifying galaxies where the phase is just ending, or starting.

For eROSITA, in addition to be spokesperson, I am chair of the “Follow-up” working group. There we gather the photometry at various wavelengths for the point sources that eROSITA detects and with experts from Galactic and extragalactic astrophysics we try to agree first on what the source is. For the sources that we agree are probably AGN I then try to estimate their “distance” from us using a secondary method, called “photometric redshift”, the “spectroscopic redshift” being the primary. As soon this estimate of the distance is ready, I distribute it to the collaboration because any other scientist in the field needs this information in order to continue the research.

Future Projects
I am sure that eROSITA is going to be the main driver of my research for the next decade. eROSITA will be combined with all the upcoming surveys at other multiwavelength (like Euclid and LSST) and the “fun” will continue. Also because the sample of AGN will be huge and finally I will be able to apply to the analysis methods based on Artificial Intelligence, something that I am interested in since my time at the university. And after eROSITA there comes Athena, ESA’s next large X-ray observatory…

I bake bread (I started well before the pandemic made it a fashion) and I like to cook and eat with my husband. I do jewelry (with resin and beads and clay) and no day passes without reading few pages for fun (mostly fantasy books). In my role of equal opportunity officer at MPE I am engaged in activities that promote equal opportunities for women in general and in STEM in particular. It amazes me to see how girls and women in STEM are still considered an oddity rather than the norm! For contributing to the change in the narrative I try to create projects for young girls that through internships in our group learn about physics and astronomy in particular. I am happy to see that some of the pupils from the past are now earning their PhD. I wish them to be able to continue on this path.

After the PhD I got hired for working on Diva, a German mission that was a precursor of Gaia. So my destiny was to work on stars, not AGN. However, few days before the beginning of the postdoc, the mission was cancelled and suddenly I had no job and I really had no idea what to do. I was at loss. Following the suggestion of a friend of mine I sent an open application to a new group at MPE that had nothing to do with AGN, but at that point a job in the field was more important than “on what”. I got contacted few months later, and after the interview I got an offer. I could not believe it ! I printed the offer and I went to my colleagues at AIP and asked them to sign it, because only in that way I could believe that it was not a dream (I still have the document with the signatures, btw...). To make the story short it is what I have learned in this group that changed by professional profile and brought me where I am today

Who I am today is the results of all the other decisions that I took along the way. I like who I am and a change in the path would make me different, not necessarily better. One advice to young scientists? It does not matter what you do. The difficult part in life is to take a decision. And it is much easier to accept the consequences of any decision if the decision is your own and not taken because of your parents or family or because you are afraid of being different or because you are afraid of the amount of work ahead. I had to fight for my choices, I took probably twice as long as for some of my colleagues to be where I am today, but I am where I wanted to be.

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