Unique Scientist: Sofia Z. Sheikh

A new #UniqueScientist takes the spotlight! Say hi to Sofia Z. Sheikh (She/Her)! Sofia is a PhD candidate in astronomy in the USA at Penn State University.

What kind of scientist are you?
I’m a PhD Candidate studying astronomy and astrobiology at Penn State. In my research, I look for technosignatures a.k.a. signs of alien technology! I’m a radio astronomer at heart: I point giant radio dishes at various places in the galaxy and then comb through the data to look for artificial signals. I love communicating all of the facets of the search for life in space – exoplanets and their atmospheres, potential artifacts from other intelligences, the ocean worlds of the outer solar system, you name it!

What made you want to become a scientist?
I’ve always had a fascination with the natural world. I grew up in South Carolina and loved catching bugs and reading about marine life and (of course) daydreaming about dinosaurs. When I was in middle school, my dad and I started watching Star Trek together, and my love of physics, astronomy, and astrobiology followed naturally from there!

“I wouldn’t be where I am without Jenny Presgraves (my high school science teacher), Jason Wright (my current advisor), and of course my awesomely supportive parents”

Sofia Z. Sheikh

What makes you a #UniqueScientist?
I am a half-white half-Pakistani woman, which is a pretty unusual combination in radio astronomy! You’re far more likely to find me in a band t-shirt and cargo pants than a lab coat and slacks.

What’s something cool you do outside of work?
I’m a multidimensional music nerd. I played drums and flute in the band Ultimatum Project, I love buying CDs for my car and discussing the intricacies of albums, I regularly go to concerts and music festivals, and I am always down for karaoke! If you ever run into me at a conference, tell me what you’ve been listening to lately 🙂

If you had one wish and could change anything in science, what would it be?
So, so many things, but if I had to pick one, I would want to instantly create a diverse and thriving technosignature community. Technosignature research is a very small and underfunded field right now, and there’s so much room for it to grow – especially after the recent blooming of exoplanet research and astrobiology! We have a special opportunity for a “do-over” in how we approach inclusivity and our community. Especially in technosignature research, where we have to step out of our own brains and imagine what an entirely non-human intelligence might do, we need to shed ourselves of cultural biases by including everyone’s voices in the search.

“I am a half-white half-Pakistani woman, which is a pretty unusual combination in radio astronomy!”

Sofia Z. Sheikh

Who has inspired you the most in your journey to where you are now?
I wouldn’t be where I am without Jenny Presgraves (my high school science teacher), Jason Wright (my current advisor), and of course my awesomely supportive parents. As a professional scientist, I have been most inspired by SETI scientist Jill Tarter, the real-life Ellie Arroway. The first time I met Jill, she walked into a meeting room full of all men (and me), and proceeded to completely fill the room with her knowledge, leadership, and wisdom. I am extremely grateful to have such an amazing woman to look up to in my own field.

Let’s end on a high note! What’s something you’ve done this week that you’re proud of?
This week I went through some radio observations of Mars that we took with the Green Bank Telescope, and I found a signal from one of the Mars orbiters in my data. It was a really exciting moment, and reminded me that you will never know what’s out there until you take a look.


#WomenInSTEM, #BrownInSTEM

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