SKA Organisation Headquarters, Jodrell Bank, 11 February 2019 – Designing and building the mega-project that is the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) would not be possible without the input of hundreds of talented scientists based all over the globe, who are all contributing their expertise, passion and years of experience to the project.
To mark the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, we spoke to female astronomers at SKA Headquarters and in our partner institutions around the world, to hear what they love about astronomy, who inspired them along the way, and what advice they have for the next generation of women and girls in science.
Read on, and click on the videos, to learn more about their stories!
Dr. Lourdes Verdes-Montenegro, Coordinator of Spanish Participation in the SKA and Researcher, IAA-CSIC
I don’t think I have a role model in the sense of a person that is a reference for me in astronomy; to get inspiration I look around and try to find people who are passionate about their work. This work is very challenging – you really have to try to investigate things and understand things, so anybody doing anything can show this kind of passion.
What I would have liked to have been told when I was young is that I cannot do absolutely everything, and that’s OK.
One of the things I like about working in a project like the SKA is that there is a need to collaborate between many different cultures. There are engineers and scientists, people doing policy, and doing very creative outreach activities.
One thing I never thought I could do is to influence the way in which we do science, through the SKA. Being the largest infrastructure to be built on Earth, it can really change the way we do things, and that’s great!
Dr. Sonia Antón – Assistant Researcher, University of Aveiro / EngageSKA
Being an astronomer is not only having the opportunity to work in science, but also having the privilege of knowing and working with people all over the world.
The opportunity to participate in the pre-construction phase of the SKA telescope is very exciting because it’s at this stage that the potential of the new instrument is defined. My research is on galaxies, in particular those that have supermassive black holes in their centre, and in terms of science, the SKA will have a huge impact in the domains of my research.
Dr. Cristina Garcia Miro – VLBI Scientist, SKAO
My expertise is in using radio telescopes from all around the world in a coordinated way, to observe the sky with all of them together simultaneously. The effort is like observing with a huge telescope the size of the Earth.
When I was young I was inspired by the NASA astronauts, I always wanted to be an astronaut. I’m very fortunate because I worked for NASA for more than 15 years, so in the end I got it – sort of! It was later, when I was a professional, when I learned about Jocelyn Bell Burnell for instance, and she became my role model to follow.
The best thing about being an astronomer is the discovery – you’re able to explain things that you couldn’t understand before. Research is also very important for humanity and astronomy really gives you a sense of perspective. You’re discovering the enormous, magnificent universe, and you see that you are so small and maybe your problems are not so important. My advice to the next generation of female astronomers is don’t be discouraged by others – always push for your goal, because you will get it.
Dr. Charlotte Sobey – Post-doctorate, CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science
I’m investigating magnetic fields in our galaxy, from the extremely high magnetic fields in neutron stars, down to the weak magnetic fields that pervade our galaxy. Growing up I was fascinated by space and I really liked problem solving. That led me to study a degree in physics and astronomy, and I became the first person in my family to gain a PhD – obviously my family are extremely proud and I quite like being called a doctor!
Growing up in the 90s the vast majority of the role models I had were men; I was particularly inspired by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. Hopefully now that’s changing with more inspirational stories from women in science careers becoming more publicised.
Big science projects like the SKA will hopefully produce more diverse role models for people to look up to who want to study in STEM fields in the future. For women interested in a career in astronomy I’d suggest seeking out others who share you interests, especially in the form of mentors. And also start coding now!
Dr. Chiara Ferrari – SKA France Director
Why did I decide to do this job? Because I found the sky so beautiful, and I wanted to understand what was behind such beauty.
My interest in the SKA started due to my scientific activity relating to the study of galaxy clusters, the largest gravitationally bound structures in the Universe, and in particular I was very interested to study their radio emission. Participating in this project has added even more passion to my job because I feel part of building an observatory that will allow us, and in particular the next generations, to go beyond our current knowledge of the Universe.
Dr Vanessa Moss – Observatory Astronomer, ASTRON
There were lots of things I tried as a kid – science, arts, music, sports. For a long time Plan A was to be a children’s book writer, but among my Plan As was also treasure hunter, palaeontologist, geologist, journalist, and for a very brief time actress! I ended up in astronomy because as you study science you find there are so many unanswered questions, and astronomy is a small piece of that science puzzle.
A lot of people study science and then go into all kind of fields, like law, computing or politics. What science teaches you is to think about things in terms of evidence; you don’t answer a question just based on what you feel or believe.
That’s so important in this increasingly data-driven world where we’re swamped my data and people can manipulate it to suit particular agendas. Being able to interpret the world around you based on evidence is really important.
Dr. Pamela Klaassen – Instrument Scientist, UK Astronomy Technology Centre
A career in astronomy is something I’ve always known I wanted to do, and that has been confirmed at every point along the road.
I definitely had some very inspirational teachers along the way. I remember when I was about 10 years old, I had one particular teacher – she just let us explore subjects at our own pace, especially maths. That was my first introduction to independent research, and I liked it! I enjoyed figuring things out for myself.
During my master’s degree and PhD, my supervisors were both excellent mentors. When times got tough during my PhD I knew my supervisor, she had my back. I’d encourage anybody to explore radio astronomy for themselves, and see what possibilities are out there!
Dr. Tessa Vernstrom – Bolton Fellow, CSIRO
My work focuses on using radio telescopes and statistical techniques to study some of the farthest and faintest parts of our universe, so this is very far away galaxies and even the space between galaxies.
My path to a career in astronomy was not a straight line. I was always interested in it as a child but as I got older I started down a different path and I was studying political science and wanted a career in politics. But the more I worked down this path I realised that while very interesting, it was something that I didn’t actually want to work in for a job. So, I stopped fighting my inner nerd, and returned to my first love of astronomy, and haven’t looked back since!
Dr. Marisa Geyer, Junior Commissioning Scientist, SARAO
I grew up with a physicist dad and so much of my childhood was spent with him explaining things to us like how the tides form and why the sunsets are red.
My mum’s background is computer science – I was always proud that she picked this quite unconventional career as a woman, especially for her generation. I studied science at university and fell in love with physics as a subject.
The best thing about being an astronomer is that I get to do incredibly high quality science in South Africa, the country I love and grew up in, and it’s not just any project.
We know that MeerKAT is already the most sensitive radio telescope in the southern hemisphere for specific types of research – it’s really something that’s pushing the boundaries.
Dr. Maaijke Mevius – Researcher, ASTRON
I decided to study physics because I wanted to understand more about the big questions in life, like how is the Universe built up, and what are we made of?
During my studies I realised that the problem solving involved in research is what I enjoy in daily life, so that’s why I decided to continue in research and do a PhD.
My main research at the moment involves the data of the LOFAR radio telescope. I’m studying the early Universe with this data, as well as more nearby events like space weather. My daily work involves solving puzzles, big and small, which can sometimes be frustrating, but once you’ve found the solution it’s very rewarding. The advice I’d like to give to new researchers is to ask questions – always ask questions. There’s no question too dumb to be asked.
Dr. Gulay Gurkan – Post-doctoral Fellow, CSIRO
My main research focuses on galaxy formation and evolution – within this topic I study active galaxies where we expect to find supermassive black holes in their centre. These galaxies can produce enormous energy that can be observed at radio wavelengths.
My parents tell me that I asked a lot of questions about the sky and I remember I was always curious what’s beyond our own galaxy, the Milky Way. As a child I thought I should be an astronaut, to go up there and study the Universe. As I grew up, I realised I should be an astronomer and study these interesting objects to find out what’s beyond our own galaxy.
At high school I really enjoyed maths and physics – I think this was a good sign. Against all the odds I followed my passion for astronomy, studied astronomy and space science, and here I am!
Dr. Rosie Bolton – Data Scientist, SKAO
The SKA is really amazing to work on because it’s such a broad project covering such a large area of science and engineering, and it’s geographically distributed around the globe which is really great fun to work with.
My specialism is in how we’re going to connect the data coming out of the SKA to the scientists that are going to use it.
The advice I wish I’d been given when I was younger would have been to think a bit more and research more about the kind of jobs that are available to someone who’s academically very bright and interested in science, maths and engineering. Don’t just drift into a single subject, but really look at the different exciting careers that are available.
Prof. Melanie Johnston-Hollitt – Director, Murchison Widefield Array (MWA)
My grandmother used to take me outside and show me the night sky when I was a small child, and she used to tell me about the Universe. Turns out everything she told me was wrong! But she instilled in me a love of the night sky and that persisted throughout my schooling. I was very stubborn and decided I wanted to be an astronomer, and that’s what I did.
I’ve had the great privilege of working at all levels of the SKA project, from being on the Board of Directors, to being in charge of the Science Working Group on cosmic magnetism, and leading the science analysis data pipeline work package for the Science Data Processor.
It was enormously valuable to see a project of this scale end-to-end from the governance to the science requirements and technical details, and to see how you put all that together working with a vast array of engineers, scientists, officials. Plus I got to travel the world which was awesome!
Audrey Dikgale – Radio Telescope Operator Team Lead, SARAO
Working in science means every day is a learning curve – that’s what make it so exciting. If things were just steady and monotonous then we wouldn’t learn anything.
The advice I wish I’d been given as a budding scientist is to have more confidence in myself and my abilities. When you come to a male-dominated industry like this I think confidence goes a long way, because firstly you are doubted because you are female so you have a lot to prove. If I had been coached into building my confidence in my career, I think it would have been easier than trying to prove to everyone I am capable, which takes longer.
Garima Chauhan – PhD candidate, ICRAR-UWA
Click on the video below to hear Garima Chauhan explain why she chose astronomy.
Dr Betsey Adams – Staff Astronomer, ASTRON
I study neutral hydrogen in dwarf galaxies, and the question that drives me is: what is the smallest galaxy that can form?
Here at ASTRON I spend of lot of my time working on APERTIF, which is the new phased array feed for Westerbork Synthesis Radio Telescope, and we’re going to use that to survey the sky and neutral hydrogen.
I’ve been lucky to have many inspirations throughout my career – it started very early with my first grade teacher, Mrs Alexander, who provided many opportunities and enrichment for me to learn about astronomy and space science. I was also very lucky that throughout my undergraduate and PhD studies I had strong women as mentors and advisors to help me find my way in astronomy.
Dr Bonita de Swardt, Programme Manager: Strategic Partnerships for Human Capital Development, SARAO
I’ve always been fascinated by what’s out there beyond our own planet. Growing up my family served as my inspiration; my older brother was my role model, he always wanted to be an astronomer and I grew up trying to steal his astronomy books and peek through his telescope!
In high school it was difficult to maintain my interest in science because many of the other learners in the class were not very interested in science and maths.
The advice I would give is no matter what your background is, always pursue your dreams with your whole heart. That’s what I did.
Dr. Anna Bonaldi – Project Scientist, SKAO
I’m a cosmologist, which is the branch of astronomy that studies the universe as a whole. I was actually studying humanities – Ancient Greek and Latin – in high school, so I was on a completely different path when I stumbled across an old book on astronomy in our library. I thought it was very interesting, possibly more interesting than the other things I was doing! That triggered me to change my career path.
I didn’t really have a role model – I always compared myself to myself, and tried to always improve myself rather than looking at a role model. If I could go back and give good advice to my younger self, I think I would tell her to trust her instincts, and not to give up. Trust that things are possible despite other people around possibly being negative about it.
Dr. Maria Rioja – Senior Research Scientist, CSIRO-ICRAR and OAN, Spain
My main interest is empirical research using observations with multiple telescopes simultaneously and applied to a wide variety of studies in the galactic and extra galactic domain. I didn’t have a role model in science – I grew up in a small rural village and had no examples of an academic life. I had no idea you could have a career like this.
My discovery of science was through the subjects in high school and I remember some of the teachers being very inspirational. Afterwards, when I studied a PhD there were colleagues, scientists who I admired and they became role models for me.
Working on the SKA is very exciting – there is the opportunity to influence the design of the next generation instrument that will make what is now impossible, possible.
Dr. Isabel Márquez Pérez, Science Deputy Director, IAA-CSIC
What made me choose a career in astronomy is very much related to my childhood. I remember my mother explaining to me how the seasons worked, how day and night worked, and how the eclipses worked using a globe, a tennis ball and a torch. That made me wonder about our place in the Universe.
The best thing for me about being involved in this huge SKA project is that it will become part of the history of astronomy, a cornerstone in our history.
It’s a huge step forward for astronomy and I’m absolutely glad to be part of it.
Dr Gemma Anderson – Research Fellow, ICRAR-Curtin University
Listen to Dr. Gemma Anderson talk about how she became an astronomer.
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