Texas Tech University

Texas Tech's Corsi Reaches for the Stars

Doug Hensley

March 2, 2023

Alessandra Corsi, physics and astronomy professor, has become one of the world’s top astrophysicists through her pioneering gravitational-wave research.

Every year, March is observed as Women's History Month. This year, we're telling the stories of extraordinary women at Texas Tech. They are making history through their research, discoveries, tenacity and scholarship. These Red Raiders not only help us commemorate the past, but they're blazing a trail toward the future.

Her office in the basement of the Science building gives little away about its resident. Random papers here. A few schematic photographs there. Computations and calculations about. The details suggest a person of accomplishment – someone who knows their stuff.

But there is much more. The somewhat secluded space belongs to Alessandra Corsi, a, pardon the pun, star, in astrophysics circles. That she is here, among the renowned in her field, may be a surprise, considering other early options that fleetingly grabbed her attention.

“There's an interesting story there,” Corsi says between a wide smile and easy recollection. “At first, I wanted to be a ballerina. Then I changed my mind, and I wanted to be an architect. Then I wanted to be an anthropologist, travel the world and learn really interesting things. But I settled for the stars.”

Settling is something of an understatement. Corsi, who was recruited to Texas Tech in 2014, is an associate professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy. During that time, she has emerged as a tour de force in her field, culminating in her winning the prestigious New Horizons in Physics Breakthrough Prize in 2022.

“I was chair of the search committee when we hired her, and I think that's the best thing we've done in the 10 years I've been here,” Tom Maccarone, who is also on the physics and astronomy faculty, said. “She has been a fantastic colleague both in terms of productivity and also in terms of how she interacts with everyone around the department. Anytime she does something, she does it right.”

A Passion for People

Corsi also explores new territory in other, equally important ways. As a woman in a field traditionally dominated by men, she sees what she does as having influence inside and beyond the research lab in terms of being an exemplar for others.

“I feel a responsibility that way,” she explains in answering the woman-in-science question. “I like to think the biggest contribution I can give is to be helpful to other minorities and women in general. The way I like to do that is through enthusiastic and supportive networking because it helps a lot to hear each other's stories. 

“That's one reason I'm not shy whenever I am asked to talk about my experience, the difficulties I've been through, and the support I've gotten. We have a responsibility, I think, to make sure we contribute by making science a better place for everyone.”

That may be part of Corsi's personal mission statement that flies under the radar. In addition to this passion for discovering knowledge is a penchant for supporting people. 

“I think she's aware she is a role model,” said her husband and fellow physicist Benjamin Owen, who has observed this firsthand during nearly a dozen years of marriage. “She has had young women working with her, not just in class, but in her research group, and many of them go on to grad school and further. A female physics or astronomy professor is not as rare as it used to be, but it is still not something that is terribly common. It's important for young women to see someone in this position. She's aware of that, and it's very valuable for us all.”

While success at the highest levels is enjoyable, it doesn't arrive in an instant. Rare is the so-called overnight success, especially in science, where experiences can be bumpy, demanding and challenging – sometimes all at once.

“Failures are important, even more, I would say, than success,” Corsi said. “They're part of everyday life. In science, it's how you learn and uncover new knowledge, so I like students to keep that in mind. I tell them whatever passion you have, go after it, and enjoy the journey because there will be times that are discouraging.”

The Power of Collaboration

For Corsi, the notoriety has been equal parts remarkable and humbling, drawing attention to Texas Tech and other scientists involved in groundbreaking research work on campus.

“My major reaction (to the Horizon Prize) was feeling so grateful for my community, that there would be people who would support me that way,” she said. “Seeing your work is recognized and there are people out there who didn't know about it and to be nominated for it, was amazing. I felt very grateful to the people I worked with.”

Collaboration is a thread that runs through the fabric of Corsi's professional life. She enjoys working with others, learning from them, teaching them and achieving fantastic things together such as what occurs at LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory).

“I work in a large collaboration, which is LIGO,” she said. “It's made up of like around 1,000 scientists but work also gets done in small groups. Being part of a team is a key to success. In any team there will be some who ask more questions and some who are quiet, but everyone is helping each other. Don't be shy to ask a question because you're helping me understand where the struggle is – and you're doing a service for everyone else.”

Encouraging questions and discussion are a few of the ways Corsi excels as a communicator. She can deliver complicated subject matter to any audience, making the message relatable in every instance.

“She sits at the intersection of several traditional fields and being able to talk to people who are novices in one field – knowledgeable about this but not that – puts her in a great position as a communicator,” Owen said. “She is able to go from the very big picture to very technical, detailed things as the situation demands. You can see that communication in the variety of classes she's taught. She has an unusual communication skill that is also crucial to her research and scientific success.”

Teaching and Making a Difference

For Corsi, scientific curiosity has been a primary driver as she leads the way in a new field.

“I like to study some of the weirdest things in the stellar graveyard,” she said. “Stars die, exploding in a really peculiar way. Neutron stars and black holes. There's extreme physics there, and there's fascinating astrophysical phenomena that we could talk about, but why should anyone care?”

That approach also informs her teaching, especially with non-science majors largely unfamiliar with many of the everyday concepts that populate the astrophysics vernacular.

“I try to focus on explaining concepts like I would to the general public, people who have never dealt with the topic,” she said. “I try not to assume that everyone is interested in what I do. It's my job to make it interesting and to show them why they should care. I boil it down to simple, simple pieces to start. If we can all be set on the fundamentals, that's what they will remember in 10 years.”

Teaching makes a difference in the lives of students, not only in the information imparted, but also in the manner it is taught, and Corsi devotes time and effort in striving for everyday excellence.

“Dr. Corsi is one of those people in a specialty area, and the thing she brings in terms of collaboration is helping mentor junior faculty and working with people as to how to be collaborative,” said John Zak, professor of biological sciences, and dean of research in the College of Arts and Sciences when Corsi was hired. “Her research and her teaching are exceptional.”

Focus on the Positive

Corsi sees life as a long learning curve in which everyone will deal with professional upheaval and milestone accomplishments. The important thing is possessing the right attitude to be ready for either.

“I've been advised, especially in the rough times that I went through, to never assume the worst,” she said. “I like that positive way of thinking, especially when I'm in a challenging situation. That has helped me a lot, and being positive is contagious, so if you can be one that starts with a positive reaction, it can only be productive.”

Making sure optimism is a regular companion has served her well in both her professional and personal life.

“She has really done a remarkable amount in a pretty short amount of time,” Owen said. “Look at the level of stuff she has done, and she's not even a full professor yet. It's really amazing. Being elected an APS (American Physical Society) Fellow is a rare thing that happens usually with very senior big shots, and she's much younger. She's really awesome – and a really awesome mom too.”

Yet another perspective from which she can learn is seeing the world through the eyes of her curious child. It's a view of which Corsi never grows weary.

“I enjoy looking at how and what my 3-year-old comes up with in her way of exploring the world,” she said. “It's really fascinating because children can discover things that you wouldn't or things you have forgotten about. Simple things … I like doing simple things.”

While her research and contributions to science are anything but simple, her ability to appreciate everyday moments and connect with others in everyday ways help to distinguish her as someone special among the campus community.

To Texas Tech…and Beyond

Corsi was born in Rome, Italy, earning her doctorate from the University of Rome in 2007. Soon after, she explored options around the world and eventually took a post-doctoral position with the California Institute of Technology in 2010 before accepting a professorship at George Washington University. That is where she was when Texas Tech came calling, recruiting both Corsi and her Owen.

“My field is gravitational-wave astronomy,” she said. “It didn't really boom until 2015, and really a little later on in 2017. But Texas Tech hired me in 2014. So they were able to see ahead in a field where others weren't really hiring that much.”

One year after hiring her, Texas Tech knew it had made the right decision – and then some.

The big moment occurred Sept. 14, 2015, with the first detection of gravitational waves in the far reaches of space. This confirmed a theory-of-relativity prediction made by Albert Einstein in 1915 and opened a new field of study, gravitational-wave astronomy, with Corsi at the forefront. Gravitational waves are ripples produced as a result of violent collisions in the deepest reaches of space.

“In scientific circles, it takes foresight and courage to really do something novel,” said Owen, whose own research focuses on gravitational waves and theoretical physics. “There are people who make careers doing the safe thing, but she took a risk and did something really new and really cool that was awesome.”

The monumental breakthrough thrust Corsi into the brightest lights of the scientific community. She was selected as one of the 10 “Scientists to Watch” by Science News in 2020 and received the O'Donnell Award from the Texas Academy of Medicine, Engineering, Science and Technology. The year before, Corsi had been named an APS Fellow.

“There were no direct detections of gravitational waves until 2015 when the first pair of black holes smashed into each other and gave off gravitational radiation,” she said. “Then in 2017, the first smashup of two neutron stars that gave off light and gravitational waves. Many people argued there would be nothing to see, but Texas Tech did not have that attitude.”

It's just one of many reasons she feels right at home here in West Texas.

Dreaming No Little Dreams

“She is one of the premier scientists at Texas Tech,” Zak said. “The more we can recruit people like that and the more she can help bring people to Texas Tech, as we start our next 100 years, we'll be in good shape.”

Other colleagues have reached similar conclusions.

“She is a really rare person in the sense that she has strengths in all the things you look for in someone to work with,” Maccarone said. “A lot of people are creative, but they're not good with details. A lot of people are good with details, but just not very creative. She's both, and she's also very pleasant to work with.”

Her work will continue apace in the future, and her hope is the gravitational-wave field attracts a diverse array of talented scientists to unlock additional secrets the universe might be keeping.

“My biggest dream is in the next five years we'll be making plans for what comes after the current facilities I'm using right now,” she said. “The next five years are key to make sure that scientists come together and make the case for making things happen in a competitive and challenging funding situation. My hope is we can push our facilities forward.”

Moving forward seems to be the only direction Corsi knows. 

“She had the foresight to see something would become really cool before other people did,” Owen said. “Other people jumped on the bandwagon, but she was the one out there pioneering before there was a bandwagon. She was one of the few people working on making it happen, and when it happened, she was in a place to jump on it and do even greater things.”