UM alumna Dr. Katie Bouman’s journey to capturing the first ever image of a black hole

Wednesday, June 26, 2019 - 6:22pm

Dr. Katie Bouman graduated the University of Michigan in 2011.

Dr. Katie Bouman graduated the University of Michigan in 2011. Buy this photo
Courtesy of Adrian Dalca

Before Dr. Katie Bouman became the center of a social media firestorm, she would sit in “the bullpen” of DB Cafe on the University of Michigan’s North Campus with fellow members of HKN, an electrical, computer and computer science engineering fraternity, and eat “way too much Domino's pizza.” 

About ten years later, Bouman hit “go” on her computer at the Black Hole Initiative building in Cambridge, MA to reveal a ring-shaped image warped around a backdrop of hot gas. A previously unseeable mass, Bouman captured the first ever image of a black hole, a product of an algorithm she helped develop with a team of more than 200 scientists.

“I was going between the shock that we were getting this — I think I really expected things to go wrong,” Bouman said. “Although I didn’t want to say that out loud, I expected things weren’t going to work the first time....We had to keep pinching ourselves that this was real. I was going through these emotions of disbelief, awe and being afraid it might even be fake.”

Bouman was fascinated with science from a young age. In sixth, ninth and tenth grade Bouman competed in the Lafayette Regional Science & Engineering Fair at Purdue University. A few years later, as a junior in high school, Bouman began conducting image research at Purdue with a group of graduate students. There, she aided in the students’ research attempting to figure out if they could pinpoint from invisible signatures which type of camera took which image.

Because of this work at Purdue, Bouman decided it fitting to pursue a degree in electrical engineering at the University of Michigan. 

“You know, all the people in this lab were electrical engineers so I wanted to do this,” Bouman said. “I guessed I should just be an electrical engineer … I was kind of interested in images (and) signals and that kind of side of things from an early age. From that, thats what made me decide to go into engineering and do research.” 

However, Bouman theorizes her early work at Purdue wasn’t the only rationale behind her career path. It really boils down to biology, she admitted. Her father, brother and sister are all accomplished engineers. 

“It’s one of those things where, as a kid, I wanted to be as different from my dad as possible,” Bouman said. “I think that I thought I was doing something very different from him, I didn’t really know what he did. I knew he was in electrical engineering but I didn’t know details on what he worked on. Initially, I was doing more stuff in the computer vision realm. But as I got older, I think biology took over, whether that is good or bad, I don’t know.”

In 2008, Bouman moved into East Quad Residence Hall, a part of the Michigan Research Community — now the Michigan Discovery and Scholars program — and began attending 101 classes for her projected degree, electrical engineering. At the end of her first year, she received the William Harvey Seeley Prize, an award given to an electrical engineering freshman first in their class. 

Clayton Scott, University of Michigan professor of electrical engineering and computer science, cites Bouman as the first student whose name he remembered in his probability class. 

“She answered questions well, and asked her own challenging questions of me in return,” Scott wrote in an email to The Daily. “Her questions indicated a clear interest in not only learning the basic course content, but in applying and extending it in new directions.”

After graduating from the University in 2011, Bouman moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts to pursue a masters degree and eventually a post doctoral degree in both electrical engineering and computer science at MIT. About two years after her arrival at MIT, she joined the Event Horizons Telescope project with no previous knowledge on black holes.

“I kind of stumbled across the project,” Bouman said. “My advisor was going to give a talk to the group and so I went with him and was looking for new ideas or projects to get into, I didn’t really understand what they were saying. I mean, I understood the general details of it but I thought it was just really cool, and wanted to work on it. So I basically pushed my way into the group until they accepted me and I got to work on it.” 

For about six years, Bouman and the team of 200 expanded on the project (initially started in 2007) by developing new image reconstruction techniques and restructuring algorithmic parameters to create the image. Even more, Bouman said, the black hole image could reveal undiscovered properties of the spacetime around a black hole. 

“Einstein has this theory of general relativity which we believe to this day,” Bouman explained. “Basically it falls out from here, if you know the mass and spin of the black hole, then you should know exactly what the shape of this ring looks like. So, if we were able to look at this ring of light and saw some sort of deviation from that shape of the ring that we expect, then we would know something is wrong, and general relativity doesn’t hold up as boundary of a blackhole, where it's most likely to break down."

However, this doesn’t mean general relativity actually holds up at the boundary as the telescope doesn’t have infinite resolution; thus, there could be some perturbation that is yet to be measured, she explained.

“That’s why we keep going back and want to improve our instrument and improve our algorithms and observe other sources,” Bouman said. “For instance, the black hole in the center of our Milky Way — to try to pin this down even further. But this first image shows this is possible to see this ring of light, and we know we can have this extreme laboratory where we can go back and try to probe it again in different ways. We can directly observe the boundary of a black hole, and for that I think is pretty exciting to further our understanding of science.”  

After the initial shock of the image, Bouman received another unprecedented feat: trending on Twitter and garnering praise from the likes of women like New York Representative Alexandria Occasio Cortez. Though she was excited, Bouman also felt frustrated as she “tried to get the world to also understand there were many people and each person was really essential, and the diversity of ideas and people who worked on it made it possible,” not just her. 

“It is important to recognize this was a big team effort,” Bouman said. “I was not expecting (all the media attention). I just want everyone to understand there were a lot of different pieces, even the imaging aspects is just one piece of the puzzle. This project has been going on for over a decade, people have been building this instrument and there are many different parts of the project, making the image is just one piece of it.”

Another side effect from the onslaught of Bouman’s media coverage was a multi-sided conversation surrounding the low numbers of women in science, as studies suggest only about 30 percent of the world’s researchers are women. At the University, 25 percent of computer science majors are female.

For Engineering junior Kaitlin Kahler, Bouman’s success could potentially dismantle this imbalance by way of representation.

“I believe that representation in STEM for women is extremely important, especially in my studies and career in computer and data science,” Kahler said. “In a historically male-dominated field, women have been systematically marginalized, encountered biases, or perhaps discouraged in general at the very least … Moreover, role models in the media and news also play an implicit yet necessary part in inspiring women to pursue STEM careers. It shows that it is possible for aspiring youth to achieve success.” 

While being a role model was never something Bouman anticipated, she is excited — and a little scared — to be a source of inspiration for future generations to come. 

“I think it’s scary — it's not something I kind of wished for or that I sought out,” Bouman said. “I think it’s really heartwarming to have both girls and guys who come to me … I always feel awkward and embarrassed when people tell me this because why is it me? I don’t necessarily see myself as a role model, but I am really excited that the work that I’ve done and that other people in the project have done and the result of the black hole, and the picture of the black hole itself has inspired so many people.”