Swept along by a historical wave

Nutsinee Kijbunchoo

Nutsinee Kijbunchoo was right there as history was made - but she had no idea.

Nutsinee was working as an operator at LIGO Hanford as the first-ever-detected gravitational waves set the mirrors of the behemoth experiment ringing, around 4 am on the 14th September 2015.

She was the only person onsite, monitoring the experiment to ensure it was behaving OK, but was left none the wiser that she'd lived through "the moment that will be remembered for a thousand years" - as her now-supervisor Professor David McClelland called it.

"The alerts went to some scientists in Hannover, Germany - I was just sitting there making sure the thing was running! But once I worked out I was on shift at that historic moment, I realised I can draw about this forever!" laughs the physics student and cartoonist.

It was a moment that cemented the career choice of Nutsinee, who'd loved both black holes and art as a kid, and had succeeded only by taking control of lifelong depression.

The path has led to ANU, where she is about to complete a PhD on gravitational wave detection.

"The lab here is the bigger than I expected - the biggest I've ever seen!" she says.

Nutsinee's lab work is on quantum squeezing, a small but crucial element of the LIGO experiment. Beginning as a too-good-to-be-true abstract mathematical concept, ANU researchers have spent decades turning squeezing into a practical subsystem that uses lasers to stabilise the mirrors and filter out quantum noise, to increase LIGO's sensitivity.

In another moment of lucky timing. Nutsinee began her PhD as the ANU system was about to be installed on the twin LIGO experiments, at either end of the United States.

So she spent much of her PhD back at LIGO Hanford, in the US northwest, in a team installing the squeezing system and getting it to work, while another team installed a similar system at LIGO Livingston, 3000 kilometres away in the US southeast.

When the system finally went live it increased the sensitivity by 40 to 50 percent.

"When the squeezer was successfully integrated and turned on for the first time, the binary neutron star range improvement was jaw dropping," says Nutsinee.

"That moment was when I first realized how important my work was."

Nutsinee's love affair with black holes began young. As a high school student in Thailand, she got hold of a Thai translation of Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time, which she devoured.

"I've always been interested in black holes. Hawking's book was really intriguing."

Moving to the US to follow her love of physics, she ended up at Louisiana State University for her undergraduate studies, initially unaware that it ran one of the twin LIGO labs, Livingston.

She took art as well - which she aced - but continued into physics.

It was a choice that surprised her art teachers, who could see her obvious talent in that subject, and urged her to pursue it.

"I've drawn for as long as I remember," says Nutsinee. "I always got an A in art, but I wasn't the best physics student."

"I did physics because it's hard. Hard stuff is more fun!"

But physics was not the only hard thing she encountered at University, as she suffered a bout of depression.

"Maybe I'd had it all my life, but never knew - people in Thailand are not very aware of mental health issues."

It was then that art became more than a hobby, as Nutsinee began drawing cartoons that featured her emotions as characters.

"I draw out depression as a shadowy dude, that sits on top of me, and says things that bring me down."

"When I give it a character, it becomes real, and becomes a problem I can manage.

"Depression used to be an issue that was part of me, but if I separate it out, I see it clearly for what it is, and I can deal with it better."

On her site (www.antimatterwebcomics.com) she now has a significant following of people who appreciate both the science and the emotional honesty.

"I get comments from readers that I have helped them, because they also struggle. It makes me happy that I have helped people, people I don't even know," Nutsinee says.

As a mental break from undergraduate physics she dabbled in antique dealing on eBay. But she was drawn back into physics when she went to a talk by gravitational wave researcher at Louisiana State University, Professor Gabrielle Gonzalez (who would later become a rock-star physicist as the spokesperson for the 1000-strong LIGO collaboration).

"Apparently I asked good questions, so I got offered a place," she says.

Now, seven years later, as she finishes the PhD, Nutsinee sees plenty of opportunities to apply her skills, not just in gravitational wave research.

"Every time I look at a job - Google, Amazon and so on - they're mad for people who know about quantum sensors," she says.

Related profiles

Updated:  25 September 2021/ Responsible Officer:  Director, RSPhys/ Page Contact:  Physics Webmaster