By Libby Stille, Publicist
In honor of this week’s reveal of the first ever image of a black hole, we’re posting the profile of scientist Katie Bouman from Sara Latta’s Twenty-First Century Books title Black Holes: The Weird Science of the Most Mysterious Objects in the Universe. Dr. Bouman spearheaded the project to create an algorithm that helped capture the image of the black hole, which has been named Powehi.
Profile: Katie Bouman
Katie Bouman got her first real taste of the thrill of scientific research in sixth grade with her first science fair project at West Lafayette, Indiana. It was supposed to be a tiny project, she said. But instead, she baked three hundred loaves of bread to study the rising effects of yeast on dough. Her efforts paid off, and she won the gold medal in her category.
When she was a junior in high school, Bouman found herself with an empty slot in her class schedule. A friend urged her to take a programming class. Bouman balked. “Programming sounds boring and stupid,” she told her friend. But the friend persisted, convincing her that she could do some cool projects. “So I took it, and I feel like that was really the start of when I seriously got into research,” she said. “I got an offer to be a research assistant for the summer in an image processing lab [in her hometown at Purdue University].”
When she graduated from high school in 2007, she went to college at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor to study electrical engineering. She found that she really liked working with images. “You can see your results. I can visualize what’s going on, and I really enjoy that,” she said. She went to graduate school at MIT to continue her studies in image processing and electrical engineering.
Her research adviser at MIT told her about a project called the Event Horizon Telescope. She had a casual interest in astronomy as a girl, but she didn’t know a lot about it. She suspected, though, that this project just might offer her the image processing challenge she was looking for. “At first I was really working on the project alone,” she said. She took what she learned from textbooks and tried to come up with a new algorithm for imaging a black hole. “It’s difficult if you don’t know the details of the specific physics. . . . It’s a big learning curve.”
So she went to a meeting about black holes to try to learn more. “It was a really cool experience; I got to hear all these physicists debating about whether the black hole at the center of our galaxy has a jet or not, crazy things like that,” she said. “It was a very different world than the one I live in, engineering. It was kind of like something out of a movie. But I met a lot of good astronomers who really took me under their wing, and I’ve been working closely with them since.
“I’d like to continue with astronomy, but I’m not limited to it,” she continued. “I just really like the computational imaging problems where you pull out the hidden signal.”
You can watch Katie Bouman’s TEDx talk, “How to Take a Picture of a Black Hole,” here, and look inside Black Holes: The Weird Science of the Most Mysterious Objects in the Universe on lernerbooks.com.