Ask me anything: Sally Oey – ‘Understanding the universe just a little bit better is the whole reason why I’m doing this’


Sally Oey is a professor of astronomy at the University of Michigan, US, where she studies massive stars and their effects on their host galaxies. She is especially interested in how ultraviolet ionizing radiation escapes from so-called “starburst” galaxies, which contain many bright, young stars that heat interstellar gas to millions of degrees.

Sally Oey

What skills do you use every day in your job?

Thinking is number one, and the reason I’m mentioning it is that with these new generative AI tools, I am very concerned that thinking is not going to be something that will be used as much in the future. I do a lot of thinking – just plain thinking.

Time management is another everyday skill – choosing what to prioritize, finishing things that need to be finished, trying to be efficient. And communication is also important. Both communicating ideas and communicating logistics are a part of teaching.

What do you like best and least about your job?

I love having the freedom to think about problems I find interesting. It’s an incredible luxury to be able to investigate these fascinating questions and hopefully solve them, or at least start making headway. For example, sometimes we observe massive stars all by themselves, far away from clusters. How they get there is a mystery I’ve been working on for the last 12 years or so, and over the last few years we’ve concluded that they’ve essentially all been ejected from clusters. A lot of these massive stars are binary stars, and they get ejected when the other star in the binary pair explodes in a supernova. Having some of those little pieces of the cosmic puzzle come together is very satisfying. Understanding the universe just a little bit better is the whole reason why I’m doing this.

I like my job a lot, but there are a bunch of things I don’t like. Failed grant proposals might be my least favourite thing because you spend so much time working on them and then you don’t get it. Another thing I don’t like is not having enough time. There’s just so many things that we’re expected to do, and that we want to do, and there aren’t enough hours in the day.

What do you know now that you wish you’d known when you started your career?

I worried about discrimination when I was young. I identify as LGBTQIA+, and I’m also a woman of colour, so I was worried that I would face a lot of issues. I’ve definitely encountered a bunch, but it hasn’t been as bad as I feared, at least in my personal experience. The scientific community – and the academic community in particular – is more welcoming than I expected. And that’s been wonderful. I wish I’d known that at the beginning because I wouldn’t have stressed about it as much.

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