Meet the Prof - Liliana Caballero

Posted on Thursday, September 28th, 2023

I'm very passionate about neutrinos and neutron stars. I'm curious about life, right? Science as well, so I think that it's nice to help students for me is a passion really. To help students to find what they like to do because I think ultimately I'm happy where I am because I follow that passion and so I want to help them. To help them with, I want to help them with finding that passion and going for it, to give them the skills so they can go for it.

I'm Liliana Caballero, Department of Physics at the University of Guelph. I was born in Bogota Colombia and that means I grew up being surrounded by mountains and salsa music and coffee. I've been in many places before coming to Guelph, one of them was being in the states in the United States in Indiana. I did my PhD there. And then I stayed in the states. I went to North Carolina to do a postdoc and then I moved to Washington to Seattle and I continued with a short position there was also a postdoc. Then I moved to Germany and I was there doing another postdoc and then I ended up coming here in Guelph after going through Michigan to do also a small position over there... so yeah... all over the place.

What I do is to study a nuclear astrophysics so I do theory and that means that I, all my work when people ask me about where is your lab... my lab is a computer. I love my job because it's just right at the intersection of a couple of fields. That is nuclear physics and gravity. I study how highly dense matter behaves and by highly dense matter I mean think about the mass of the Sun all cramped so dense that the radius is from going from Downtown Guelph to the Highway 401.

So that's quite dense. And that's one of the densest objects in the universe so the only thing that is as dense as this kind of object is a Neutron Star and the neutron star and the nucleus are very similar. So whatever we do, my colleagues do in a lab will inform me of how a neutron star behaves and similarly whatever I get from observations and interpret with my computer simulations that will inform the nuclear physicist about how the nucleus behave.

That's why I like my field of work so much because then I'm not an only person working in a field with only other theories trying to get who gets the better model, no I have to go and compare with people that really get data where you know things are happening in real life. Like if you do an experiment right in a nuclear physics lab... like many other colleagues here go to TRIUMF to do experiments... so then they get all this data that is how nature really behaves and then I get to compare with my predictions and then we'll see okay I think I have to tweak my model a little bit more and why do I need to change it? What is the fundamental part that I need to change?

So that is one part and the other part is about observational data because now there is a variety of different signals that we can get from one single event. For example we have gravitational waves, we have x-ray observations, we have neutrino observatory so all these kind of different um electromagnetic and particle emissions happening when two neutron stars merge so I find it fascinated how we can put really all the pieces of a puzzle together and make sense of it and that informed really from the big macro informs the little micro-models that we try to handle.

Working in my group I really care about mentoring my students. I really care about the students that I'm supervising. They learn a lot about nuclear physics because that's the main topic that I'm working, but they also learn from other areas like astrophysics or gravity and they also learn about computational physics as well... so it's a little bit of different skills inside the the field. I really want them to succeed in whatever they decide to do, right?

So the advantage of my field is that it really gives people skills that are appliable outside the academic world, right, because someone may want to have a startup... okay... then you learn critical thinking and problem solving skills and that goes fine. We have students that have gone to finances for example and they have pretty nice careers. I think because I was at some point in a situation in my life that I didn't know what I'm gonna do! I have all these skills! I love I'm so passionate about what I do as a physicist it really blows my mind to study this kind of object. I'm so curious about them. But at the same time we live in this world and the job market is out there so we need to have a skills that allow us to attack different problems in different ways.

There are many people that are under underrepresented and that this is not only for women but there's many other groups that uh you know they cannot shine the way they could be because there is still some systematic barrier. So I think that, I think Guelph is a good place to move forward because I think our Department is friendly in that regard and we are really creating a network of people that you know we can share stories, share how we overcame some challenges so I think I love that from Guelph!

Guelph is awesome because the University of Guelph and particularly the Department is very good for my research because I get top colleagues, right colleagues that are leading the world of nuclear physics and gravity and then I get to talk to them! It's nice to have these ideas back and forth. Also, well at the beginning when I just arrived to Guelph I was the only one doing nuclear astrophysics so I will say I'm happy to be able to attract the students that were interested in this field and the more people that come to this field and the stronger we get all together so it's awesome! It's fantastic to have conversations with my colleagues! So Guelph is a very nice place for me research-wise speaking. As a city life, I love it too! Not too small, not too big that I'm stuck in traffic, right? I love nature around Guelph. I just I think like I just like the city a lot as well.

And also I think one thing that I realized is that when I was young and I didn't know how to be a researcher I always felt 'Am I able to do this? I'm like am I good enough?' right? So that was... we call that imposter syndrome. So I think, I think what helped me at the time is to embrace my ignorance. Right? Okay, I don't know about this stuff but there is nothing that we have done as a human race that I cannot understand. Like our brain has overly developed to understand others people's work. So I think that being stubborn in that regard and embracing my own ignorance kind of helped me, so I want to kind of invite others to say 'Okay I don't know this but I'm okay with myself about that and I'm gonna just do this because it's fun! Not because I have to prove myself.' and that I think that kind of gives you a different energy and you know... enjoy the journey, no matter what. You have some goal but you enjoy the journey to get there.

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