The astrophysicist from Aasiaat

Ivalu Barlach Christensen

Ivalu Barlach Christensen loves the northern lights, the sea, and The Kardashians – also, she is Greenland’s first astrophysicist. Get the story of Ivalu’s journey from Aasiaat to the stars right here.


By Sara Kirstine Hald



Kim, Kourtney, Kendall, and co. are ready with top-tier reality entertainment. Two young women are sitting in front of the screen, enjoying themselves, chatting, and getting absorbed in the lives of the famous family. One episode replaces the other – all night long.


That’s pretty much how it went down when Ivalu Barlach Christensen learned to use a radio telescope.


“My friend was supposed to teach me how to use the telescope. Every hour, we had to send a command to the telescope and ensure that usable data was coming in, but we didn’t have to analyze it ourselves. Therefore, after sending a command, we had to wait an hour to send a new one. So, we just watched The Kardashians all night,” she says.



Greenland’s first astrophysicist


Ivalu Barlach Christensen is 28 years old and Greenland’s first astrophysicist. She doesn’t like to call herself that, though; it makes her embarrassed. However, she does like to say she’s a scientist. That’s what she’s dreamt of since she was a child.


It took some time for her to figure out that she specifically wanted to be an astrophysicist, but the interest in the universe has always been there.


“When I was about ten years old, I saw the astronomer Anja Cetti Andersen talk about black holes on TV, and I was like… Bam!” she says, gesturing her brain exploding with her hands. “I didn’t even know how to imagine it, and that’s when I realized that space is much bigger than the solar system I could recite by heart,” she says.



“Telescopes are one of the biggest perks of being an astronomer.”
– Ivalu Barlach Christensen



Working in the Atacama Desert


Today, Ivalu knows more about the solar system than most. She can explain the occurrence of the northern lights in detail and regularly works with advanced radio telescopes. She has, among other things, been an intern at the Greenland Telescope located at the Pituffik Space Base.


“I love working with telescopes. Night shifts on the telescopes are one of the coziest things I’ve ever experienced,” she says. “Telescopes are one of the biggest perks of being an astronomer.” She also highlights the travels.


“I get to visit places of the world that I never thought I’d see. For example, I’ve been to the Atacama Desert in Chile,” says Ivalu.


Here, she worked with one of the world’s largest telescopes on the project Atacama Pathfinder EXperiment (APEX) – the same telescope she operated on the Kardashian night with her friend. Even though the telescope is located in Chile, it can be operated from Bonn in Germany, where Ivalu Barlach Christensen is doing her Ph.D.

The telescopes for the APEX project are located 5,100 meters above sea level in the Atacama Desert.


Source: Flickr

Always wanted to see the world


In Bonn, Ivalu studies at the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy. She completed her bachelor’s degree in Lund in Sweden, and before that, she studied in Aalborg.


“I moved from Greenland in 2014, so I’ve been living abroad for almost a decade. And I’ve come to terms with the fact that I won’t move back to Greenland. Or… I’ll never say never, but it won’t be in the near future,” says Ivalu.


Currently, she’s considering Canada, Holland, or somewhere in Asia as her next stop.


“I don’t know where I’ll end up, but I don’t think I’ll settle in one place within the next ten years,” she says.



“When we went fishing, we used weights to learn math in a fun way.”
– Ivalu Barlach Christensen




Ivalu grew up in Aasiaat and believes that growing up in the small town has strengthened her desire to explore other places.


“I wanted to see the world, and that made me feel suffocated in Aasiaat,” she says.



Learned math with weights


“Aasiaat is a small town, and we can’t just leave the town whenever we want. Every week was the same, so I often felt like trying something different,” she says.


Even though she was occasionally bored, she’s glad she’s grown up in Greenland. With a lifelong interest in science, it was ideal to have nature so close.


“When my parents would skin a seal, they would explain to me what the different things inside were, so I learned about the biology of the seal. And when we went fishing, we used weights to learn math in a fun way. That’s how I learned the 5 times table, for example,” says Ivalu.


She explains that her parents have had a great influence on where she is today because they’ve always encouraged her to explore her interests.


“When I was about 5-6 years old, my parents noticed that I was looking up at the sky and seemed interested. So, they started learning about the stars themselves to be able to tell me about them,” says Ivalu.

The tattoos on Ivalu’s ankles are hydrogen molecules. They have had a significant impact on radio astronomy, which she works with today.


Photo: Emil Nørgaard Stach

Lacked Greenlandic role models as a child


As a child, Ivalu was glued to the screen when the Danish astronomer Anja Cetti Andersen was on TV. This was the closest she came to a role model because there were no astrophysicists who visited or lived in Aasiaat.


“I could have used some role models I could relate to. Even though I had Anja on TV, I still thought it was something the Danes did, and Greenlanders did something else. I’ve always found her super fascinating and cool, but I couldn’t see myself in her,” Ivalu says.


She describes how ‘the things on TV’ felt very different from her own life.


“What I’ve seen on TV is not something we do; it’s something they do,” she says.


As an example, she mentions Americans starting university; in movies and series, they’re usually driven there by their parents, and they can often come home for visits.


“We might be lucky to have a high school in our town, and otherwise, we move and can’t just come home whenever we feel like it. For example, I moved to Sisimiut when I was 15 to go to high school. Those small differences make it hard to relate to what you see on TV,” says Ivalu Barlach Christensen.



“What I’ve seen on TV is not something we do; it’s something they do.”
– Ivalu Barlach Christensen



Had a culture shock in Denmark


Ivalu also felt the differences when she moved to Denmark to study environmental technology at Aalborg University.


“I thought it would be easy-peasy to move to Denmark because I knew it and went to boarding school there. But the everyday life was so different that I had a little culture shock,” she says.


At first, Ivalu didn’t want to admit that it was hard. When she finally did, it got better, although the new life was still lonely and challenging.


“There were a lot of things that were different. The study environment was different, suddenly I had to take the bus when I needed to go somewhere, and I had to plan to see my friends,” says Ivalu.


“When I went out, I didn’t necessarily meet anyone I knew,” she says. In the same moment, she greets a passing guest in the café in Nuuk where we are sitting.


“Here, there’s always someone to say hello to. That’s what I’ve been used to my whole life, and I thought it would be a copy-paste in Denmark. Without wanting to say it out loud, I had an expectation that I would fit in right away and that everything would be like I’m used to from home, but it wasn’t,” she says.

When we met Ivalu Barlach Christensen, she was in Nuuk for Greenland Science Week, where she hosted an event for the population.


Photo: Emil Nørgaard Stach

Healthy to “fail”


The not-so-smooth move to Denmark affected Ivalu’s confidence. And the same did dropping out of environmental technology after the first semester. However, she learned something important from it.


“I’ve always been the smart girl who sailed through school. I think it’s been good for my ego to drop out of environmental technology. It made me much more humble. Since then, I’ve thought that I would take it one semester – one step – at a time,” she says.



“I think it’s been good for my ego to drop out of environmental technology.”
– Ivalu Barlach Christensen




After ‘failing a bit’ in environmental technology, Ivalu returned to her basic interests and started studying physics.


“Alongside my studies, I watched documentaries about astronomy and thought I would have it as a hobby when I finished, but I never imagined it being a career option,” she says.


It wasn’t until the second year of her studies she found out she could study astrophysics as a master’s degree and decided to “see where it took her.”



I’ll drop out when they kick me out


Even though Ivalu loves astronomy, the study has been tough.


“Physics is a difficult subject, and when I failed an exam, I thought it was the end of the world,” she says. “But then I remembered that you actually have three attempts and can even apply for an exemption before you can be kicked out.”


She passed the exam on the second try and, in that connection, decided she would keep studying for as long as they’d have her.


“I’ll drop out when they kick me out,” she says. “And that’s how I’ve come this far.”



Hard being a woman in the field


Today, the biggest challenge is being a woman in a male-dominated field. In her physics studies, there were two women, and in astrophysics, Ivalu was the only woman in the entire year.


“It can be challenging to be a woman in this field – to put it mildly,” says Ivalu, particularly complaining about being interrupted by her male colleagues when she speaks.


“It happens all the time. At least 2-3 times a week,” she says.


When it happens, she complains to her friend, but she hasn’t yet cracked the code for what to do in the actual situation.



“It can be challenging to be a woman in this field – to put it mildly.”
– Ivalu Barlach Christensen



“I think a lot about how to handle it and try to find inspiration on TikTok,” she says. “Sometimes I think, ‘Okay, I can say that next time I’m interrupted,’ but it always happens so quickly that I forget the answers I’ve rehearsed.”


“Sometimes I just get irritated and leave without saying anything. Or I’m completely taken aback and don’t know what to say. I just stand there thinking, ‘Does he really mean that? Is this a joke?'” she says.

Ivalu researches general astrochemistry and knows all the stages of how a star is created.


Photo: Emil Nørgaard Stach

Let me mansplain it to you


Furthermore, men have on several occasions wanted to mansplain Ivalu’s own research to her. Or they have assumed that she doesn’t know as much as them.


“There was this one time when someone wanted to explain to me the different stages of star formation. I’ve been working with that for three… four… No, five years now. But no, ‘Let me explain it to you, you don’t know about it,'” she says, mimicking the voice.



“I love astronomy, and I always will, but the environment itself… That will be the reason if I ever choose to do something else.”
– Ivalu Barlach Christensen



Fortunately, Ivalu Barlach Christensen doesn’t feel that being a woman has affected her career or opportunities, but she’s clearly frustrated about how it affects her daily life.


“That’s the hard part about research. I’ve also considered changing careers for that reason because it happens so often and affects you so much. So sometimes I wonder if I really want to be interrupted and have my own science explained to me for the rest of my life. I love astronomy, and I always will, but the environment itself… That will be the reason if I ever choose to do something else,” she says.


On the other hand, Ivalu points out independence and co-decisioning as some of the best things about the field.


“I find the people I want to work with myself, and I really like how much I shape my own presence in academia,” she says. “And the research itself, of course!”



Stocking up on northern lights


Even though Ivalu doesn’t see herself moving back to Greenland for the time being, she always enjoys coming back here.


“I miss Greenland when I’m not here. I miss being able to go out – without any purpose – and meet people I know. And I miss being close to the sea. I love sailing and being by the water, and right now, I live in Germany right in the middle of Europe, where the sea isn’t exactly close,” she says.


When Greenland feels a bit too far away, she plays Greenlandic music, and feels a bit at home again. And she makes sure to stock up on northern lights when she’s here.


“After all these years, I’m still fascinated by the northern lights and still go out to look at them. Especially now when I’m rarely in Greenland,” she says. “I feel like I have to collect enough northern lights in my memory to get by until I come back again.”

The northern lights were one of the things that made Ivalu look up to the sky as a child, and even though she grew up with it, it still fascinates her.


Photo: Emil Nørgaard Stach

Wants to inspire children and youth


Ivalu Barlach Christensen hopes she can help inspire children and young people in Greenland. So, when she’s here, she visits primary and high schools to give presentations about astronomy and encourage others to study natural sciences.


“I try to get them to explore different possibilities and show that you can have a connection to Greenland even if you study something atypical abroad,” says Ivalu.


Her eyes sparkle as she tells this, and the enthusiasm in her voice is unmistakable.


“There’s someone who’s asked me about astronomy on Instagram, and the last time I was here in Nuuk, I finally met her for the first time. She says she’s thinking about becoming an astrophysicist, so I really hope that,” Ivalu says enthusiastically.