A Conversation with Professor Anna Sajina
When asked what she does, Professor Anna Sajina answers matter-of-factly, “I study galaxies.” Sajina, who teaches in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, continues, underscoring that her focus area is unlike any experimental science on earth. We cannot set up experiments in a lab to investigate galaxies—no trials with controls, no manipulation of variables. All we can do is observe.
An eminent astrophysicist, Sajina currently balances her research with teaching and has a course of her own in development, entitled The Invisible Universe. How, in a world of inquiry and scientific research drawing on all five senses, do we approach galaxies with the solitary sense of sight? The galaxies in question “are fantastic laboratories for a whole slew of interesting processes,” she explains with great enthusiasm, and the key to unlocking them is not to retest relentlessly what we already see but rather to identify new senses with which to interact with the cosmos, such as leveraging gravitational waves to “hear” the universe. Sajina keeps her eyes locked on the big questions: How do galaxies form and evolve? How have those interstellar processes led to our existence? Easy questions to state, harder to answer, but these innovative research tactics are bringing us closer than ever. Professor Sajina is now celebrating her eighth year at Tufts with a groundbreaking research opportunity.
The Prime Focus Spectrograph (PFS) Survey has been funded by Tufts in conjunction with donors to glean data about the universe in more detail than we have ever been able to access before. In collaboration with her colleague, Professor Danilo Marchesini, Sajina will assemble a team of post-docs, graduate students, and undergraduates as young as first-years to get hands-on access to this world-class data. “We’re all thirsty for information,” says Sajina, “and all a student must do is find a professor whose research they enjoy and ask to join.” She loves having underclassmen in her lab; it gives them a longer window to grow together, potentially culminating in a thesis. Professor Sajina asserts that there is nothing more rewarding than being drawn in by a life-changing research opportunity that alters one’s trajectory.
And this assertion is experimentally supported through and through—Sajina herself was one of those students. Growing up in Bulgaria and emigrating to Canada at age fifteen, she’d always harbored a deep passion for puzzles—one that she maintains to this day—which spurred her to pursue mathematics and ultimately engineering, on account of its practical reputation. As a sophomore, after taking an astronomy class, she transferred her major to physics. Following a research stint modeling galaxies the summer of her junior year, she knew she wanted to pursue graduate studies in astronomy and forge her career in the field.
Now, having dedicated her life to advancing the state of galaxy research, teaching remains the highlight of her career, as she can often see herself in her students. “You must remember professors are just people who love to learn,” she says with a smile. As 5,500 students venture with starry-eyed wonder through a microcosm like Tufts, Professor Sajina serves as a reminder to seek out all the unknowns, drink up all the knowledge, and embrace it with all their senses.
—JACOB SHAW ’21
Read the original version of this feature, and discover more stories, in the fall issue of JUMBO Magazine!