At nine years old, she was obsessed with horses and science fiction. Now she conducts research focused on horses and astrophysics. Maria Sundin, associate professor of theoretical physics at University of Gothenburg, turned her passions into a job. She has also opened the door to the world of physics for many who didn’t even know they were looking for it.
“My astronomy courses attract people from 19 to 90. That’s pretty awesome. Sometimes I get phone calls from previous students who tell me how much my course meant to them – sometimes it led them to study something they never would have dared to try before. That’s truly one of the best things about my job,” Sundin says.
Enormous interest for equine welfare research
It took many years before her interest in horses worked its way into her professional life. It all started with a little advert in a newspaper offering funding for research in equine sciences. In a meeting at work, she happened to sit next to her colleague Magnus Karlsteen, who works with experimental physics, and the two began brainstorming on what kind of equestrian research could be done in the framework of physics. Needs and opportunities coincided, and the result was a joint research initiative between University of Gothenburg and Chalmers University of Technology to enhance equine welfare.
“When we arranged the first workshop in 2012 to see what kind of interest there was, it turned out to be enormous. We had no idea the amount of enthusiasm we’d encounter. We also discovered a lot of interest from the general public and the business world.”
Today a large number of equine research projects are underway, studying everything from hoof health to bit design to smart textiles that monitor ECG, breathing and pulse. Popular horse cafes attract big crowds, and specially designed obstacles at international equestrian competitions turn a spotlight on Sundin’s research. There’s also a brand-new university course. Sundin is the course coordinator of Equestrian Sports and Physics – and suddenly the male-dominated subject of physics has almost solely female students.
“It’s really great that a love of horses becomes such a good gateway to physics.”
Most anything can be combined with physics
Over the years, many people have appreciated Sundin’s knack of explaining advanced theoretical physics in a comprehensible way. Fruits become stand-ins for planets as she explains how it may very well be possible to bring horses to Mars in the future. Maria Sundin has received Gothenburg University’s pedagogical award and she is often featured in radio studios, television talk shows and newspaper and magazine articles.
“Any time you get the chance to talk about science in the media, you should take it. There’s so much quasi-science and fake, actually harmful things out there. I want to show how exciting and important science is.”
She poses for the camera just as naturally in the paddock as she does in the lab. She even manages to position her cream-coloured (palomino) gelding, Angels Fly High, at just the right angle so viewers can't see the evidence of his joyous little roll in the mud earlier. It will take some time to groom him, but that’s all right – Sundin loves being in the stables on the west-coast island of Hisingen, where her daughter also has a pony.
“I think we physicists are a bit like children who never grew up,” she says. “I’m still doing the things I loved as a little girl. And if I can combine outer space and horses with physics, then obviously others can just as easily combine their passions with physics. Most anything is possible! There’s so much we don’t know and that we want to find out, and I’m also interested in basic research. So I’m still not sure what I’m going to be when I grow up.”
More about Maria Sundin
Born: 1965 in Gothenburg.
Lives: In Torslanda.
Family: Husband and two children.
Job: Associate professor of theoretical physics at University of Gothenburg.
Career in brief:
Completed upper-secondary school at Lundbygymnasiet in 1983 and then began studying engineering physics at Chalmers University of Technology. After two years and a few failed exams, she took a sabbatical year in which she drove a forklift at Volvo and travelled the world. Then she went back to her studies and completed her MSc in 1989. Her degree project was about computer simulations of galaxies. When she learned that it was possible to get a PhD in her field, she began her research career, earning her doctorate in 1994. She became a senior lecturer in 1996 and began holding introductory courses in astronomy. Over the years she’s had several managerial positions, most recently as vice head of the department in 2012–2015. She has also received the pedagogical award at University of Gothenburg (2012). She and her colleagues won a contest to design an environmentally friendly obstacle for the Gothenburg Horse Show. Since 2012, she and her colleague Magnus Karlsteen have been the heads of equine research at Chalmers and University of Gothenburg.
Leisure: Usually spent in the stable where her own horse Angels Fly High and her daughter’s borrowed Gotland russ pony Quittra live. “The stable is my gym, I love the company of and interaction with horses. I bought my first horse while I was a student – I ate noodles for a whole year to afford it.”
Favourite places for inspiration: "The stable and the sea. I also get a lot of ideas while driving."
Most proud of: "That my equestrian sports initiative has had such a great response in such a short time, also my astronomy courses and winning the pedagogical award. I also think it’s cool that the galaxy image at the entrance of the Gothenburg Physics Centre is based on a computer simulation from my degree project. The picture was taken with the Hubble telescope."
Motivation: "I’m motivated by doing things that are both fun and important. It’s fantastic to be able to show how things are interconnected or to manage to understand something unexpected that pops up."
First memory of physics: "I remember the British science fiction series Space: 1999, which was on television when I was around ten. I was glued to the TV, and then I started checking out astronomy books at the library. I’ve been crazy about horses since about the same age. My friend and I used to take a bus, tram, train and then walk three kilometres to get to the stable. I still remember the names of all the horses and where their stalls were. But I didn’t connect the horses or science fiction to physics at the time."
Best thing about being a scientist: "When you get an idea that suddenly opens up whole new avenues. Collaborating with colleagues, when ideas from all different places create something new."
Challenges of the job: "One challenge at the moment is building up our research in equestrian sports on a broader, more long-term scale. I also really want to have time to do more research in astrophysics, but I realise you can’t do everything all the time."
Dream for the future: "One dream would be to be able to prevent outbreaks of the painful equine disease laminitis. We’ve initiated a project involving tests to find early signs of the disease. Imagine how much suffering we could prevent if we succeed!
Text: Mia Halleröd Palmgren, firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo: Henrik Sandsjö (photo 1), Mia Halleröd Palmgren (photo 2)