Photography by Martin Lipman/Serc
Astrophysicist and Montreal native Victoria Kaspi heads up McGill University's Space Institute and is one of the luminaries in her field. Even more awesome: Last year, she became the first woman to win the most prestigious science award in Canada.
At just seven years old, Victoria Kaspi was already trying to solve the puzzles of the universe—or, at least, the elementary school versions of those great mysteries. Now director of the McGill Space Institute and a professor of physics, she remembers hanging out in her bedroom at home in the Montreal suburb of Côte Saint-Luc, tackling jigsaw puzzles and math riddles— she'd even create her own logic problems.
Today, that proclivity for solving mysteries takes place on a much grander stage. In fact, it's literally out of this world: Kaspi spends her workdays scanning the Milky Way for neutron stars (tiny but powerful remnants of larger stars).
Her career has been on a meteoric rise; last year, at 48, she became one of the youngest people, and the first woman, to win the biggest prize in Canadian science, the $1 million Gerhard Herzberg Canada Gold Medal for Science and Engineering. "I'm honoured, thrilled and delighted about this award, but I also think it's been a long time coming. There are so many brilliant women, and I hope I'm the first of many," says Kaspi.
She plans to use the grant to study a new phenomenon known as fast-radio bursts. These short, bright surges of radio waves are happening out in the cosmos, but their source is unclear. Kaspi, of course, is on the case to further understand this whodunit.
That's because, whether it's reconfiguring a Rubik's Cube, completing a Sudoku square or being the only person on the planet to understand a discovery, she finds relief in knowing that the universe makes sense. "I don't look at things as irrational; it's a puzzle that needs to be solved," she says. "That's what I live for, especially in these turbulent times. It's nice to have my place on campus where I can do my work. Maybe things don't make sense initially, but you have faith they will. It's all about seeing the final picture come together."
When Kaspi isn't staring at a computer or at stars, she's at home with her family in Montreal's Snowdon neighbourhood, where Saturday nights are ceremoniously booked for her beloved Montreal Canadiens. "I still fondly remember the Stanley Cup parades during the 1970s. I'm definitely a hockey fan. I find it relaxing—especially if it's been a stressful week. If I have work to do, I'll settle in with the game on, and everyone starts to congregate."
"Everyone" includes her three teens, two of them girls. She's thinking of her own experiences and wondering what her daughters might face when she admits being a woman in a male-dominated field hasn't been easy. "There's a vast landscape for women in science that really could use improvement; I'm just one tiny little speck," she says.
But with her unique understanding of how something can be both small and mighty, Kaspi's work hasn't just cracked the glass ceiling; it's also cleared a brighter path to the stars.