Women in STEM: Dr Cora Uhlemann

Dr Cora Uhlemann is a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, where she studies the cosmic web: the ‘skeleton’ of matter in our Universe. Here, she talks about the Big Bang, spending time with Nobel Laureates, and presenting her research in a dirndl.

I am fascinated by the physics of the Universe across the largest scales. I am a theoretical physicist by training and specialise in theoretical and mathematical physics. I was awarded a PhD in Theoretical Cosmology from LMU Munich. I spent two years as a Research Associate at Utrecht University before moving to Cambridge, and am now a Research Associate at the Stephen Hawking Centre for Theoretical Cosmology and a Junior Research Fellow at Fitzwilliam College.

I am embedded in an active and diverse community – from applied mathematics to astrophysics and astronomy. Since I am applying methods from different fields of physics and mathematics to problems in cosmology, it’s invaluable to be among experts in all kind of areas. I also find it quite stimulating to be surrounded by so many smart and motivated young researchers.

My research aims at understanding the cosmic web – the skeleton of matter in our Universe. With large telescopes, we can see this cosmic web as an intricate pattern of galaxies on the sky. I’m trying to describe how those structures were formed. This is particularly interesting because we know that there were virtually no structures in the early universe. If we look at the afterglow of the Big Bang, the so-called cosmic microwave background, we observe that the matter was evenly distributed across the universe with tiny deviations of 10 parts in a million.

My research can feel a bit like detective work. We are trying to unveil what drives the evolution of our universe and determines its fate from a couple of key observations. I find it fascinating to look for models that can describe almost 13 billion years of cosmic history. Since I am a theorist, I spend a large part of my day thinking, reading and calculating. Thanks to the active scientific life at DAMTP, almost all of my days include listening to seminars or colloquia talks and chatting to my colleagues from a lot of different fields of theoretical physics. When I am not travelling, I usually work either in the Centre for Mathematical Sciences or in Fitzwilliam College.

My favourite project is describing galaxy clustering using number counts. What I find so fascinating is that there are certain clustering statistics that contain a lot of information and can still be predicted accurately. This situation is quite remarkable because in general, it is hard to make good predictions for gravitational clustering where initially small deviations from mean density are amplified (making the system highly nonlinear). As a theoretical physicist, I love to look for ‘smart’ observables that can be calculated from first principles and provide an accurate description of observations in the real world.

In 2016 I spent an incredibly inspiring week with more than 30 Nobel Laureates. This was the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting in Physics, attended by more than 400 young participants. And as if that wasn’t thrilling enough, I also had the opportunity to present part of my PhD research in a plenary talk at the Bavarian evening. It was certainly a dare to give a scientific talk in a dirndl in front of so many people, but it sparked great discussions and I am happy I got this chance.

My advice to everyone is to follow your interests and strive to achieve your own goals. Find people who don’t push you around but push you forward. Seize the opportunities and don’t give up too easily. Explore, enjoy and try to make yourself comfortable outside your current comfort zone.

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