Returning home: roots, community and science!

Irene Abril-Cabezas is a doctoral student at the University of Cambridge (United Kingdom). She holds a master’s degree in Astrophysics from that same university and a Physics degree from Universidad Complutense de Madrid (Spain). She has worked on several topics on Astrophysics & Cosmology, ranging from the movement of stars within the Milky Way and the birth of the first stars and galaxies. Her work is now focused on studying the afterglow light from the Big Bang to learn more about the very beginning of the Universe and the subsequent distribution of dark matter across cosmic time.

The first Soapbox Science event in Spain was fortunate enough to take place in Ponferrada. This town in the region of El Bierzo hosted the first ENDESA (Spain’s national electricity company) power plant. El Bierzo played a central role in mining exploitation and energy production in Spain during the 20th century. Now, after the dismantling of coal power plants in Spain, the region is transitioning towards new forms of economic development. Tourists come for Las Médulas, the most important Roman gold-mining site, or the Way of St. James pilgrimage. Ponferrada also hosts a public research institute and museum, in whose surroundings the first Soapbox Science event took place.

Moreover, I associate this region with my home and hometown. Although my grandparents emigrated to the Spanish capital in search of a better future, the connection to the region was not lost. My family reunites there during the summer months along with other families we also consider our own. Every 10th August, we celebrate St. Lawrence’s day, our patron Saint. This festivity coincides with the Perseids meteor shower, which is also known as “the tears of St. Lawrence”. Observing this astronomical event in the pure night skies of El Bierzo is breathtaking.

There is a poetry in the transformation of my life, from observing the skies with my fellow countrypeople to doing the same with fellow scientists. I am now a PhD student in Astrophysics & Cosmology. I am part of international collaborations who strive to unravel the Universe’s secrets. However, in this transformation, I left my community behind. The sense of connection was lost. I was confronted with lack of diversity in my research institutions, which still triggers feelings of alienation. The competitiveness, pressure and stress present on a day-to-day basis distance me from the central values of my hometown: mutual support, sharing, slow pacing.

Soapbox Science reconciled these two worlds. Speaking at the event gave me the opportunity to come back to my hometown and share with the people I love the science I love. I hope I shared with them the passion for what I do and the excitement that drives one forward despite far-from-ideal circumstances. I hope I made it clear how vast the cosmos is, and how there is space for everyone!

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