Nuwanthika Fernando is an astronomy guide at Sydney Observatory. She recently completed her PhD at the University of Sydney studying the dynamics of satellite galaxy planes. To celebrate International Women’s Day in 2018 Nuwanthika looks at contemporary women in astronomy.
‘Each one of you can change the world, for you are made of star stuff, and you are connected to the universe.’ – Vera C. Rubin, Bright Galaxies, Dark Matters
As astronomy divides into multiple avenues in the 21st century, women have taken diverse roles in various specialisations. Today’s post will look at several women who have a myriad of responsibilities in astronomy in Australia, ranging from leading international research groups, managing and supporting observatories and educating the public and the future generations. We will also hear from some of the Sydney Observatory’s ‘stellar’ female Astronomy Educators about the work and ideas of contemporary women in astronomy.
Katrina Sealey – Head of Data Science and Information Technology, Australian Astronomical Observatory (AAO) and Astronomy Educator, MAAS
Passionate about astronomy and mentoring women in STEM professions, Katrina Sealey obtained her PhD at the University of New South Wales. As an observational cosmologist, her research required a survey of quasars in the southern skies, which meant observing in locations like the Chilean desert, the Canary Islands and the NSW countryside. Katrina now leads the team of scientists and programmers that support the multiple telescope sites and instruments that belong to the AAO, allowing smooth observing from remote locations, and efficient handling of data for astronomers. She is also one of the two Australians chosen for the 2019 Homeward Bound expedition to Antarctica – a leadership program for women in science, that encourages participation in science policy and management. Katrina also enjoys her involvement in public outreach activities, and enabling people to reach their fullest potential. Katrina believes the role of sponsorship is vital for working to support and increase the numbers of women in the astronomy and more broadly STEM pipelines.
Tara Murphy – Assistant Professor, the Sydney Institute of Astronomy (SIfA), University of Sydney
An ARC Future Fellow, and winner of the Young Tall Poppy Award in 2012, Tara Murphy received her PhD at the University of Edinburgh. From SIfA, she leads the international team of astrophysicists using the Australian SKA Pathfinder (ASKAP), and Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) radio telescopes to study radio transient objects. More recently, Tara and her team have used the ASKAP and MWA to follow up on gravitational waves detected by the Advanced Light Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (aLIGO), allowing in-depth studies of the event that caused the gravitational waves. Tara is also passionate in her teaching and outreach activities, directing the National Computer Science School Challenge for the past decade, and founding Grok Learning, a start-up that promotes easy learning of computational methods for science to students. Tara says, ‘I think it’s really important to say that there is no one type of person who can succeed at science. Modern science needs people with all kinds of skills, so don’t be put off if you don’t think you fit the stereotype.’
Sarah Reeves – Assistant Curator and Astronomy Educator, MAAS
Before her role as an Assistant Curator at MAAS led her to obtain a ‘perfect sphere’ of silicon for the Museum’s collection, Sarah Reeves studied emission and absorption spectrums of gas-rich galaxies for her PhD at the University of Sydney.
Sarah says, ‘I’ve studied and worked as a scientist for over 10 years now and my experience as a woman in this field has, on the whole, been overwhelmingly positive. Throughout my studies, I was pleased to see that the split of males and females in my cohort was always about 50:50, and I’ve never felt that I was treated any differently than my male colleagues. However, most people’s idea of a scientist is still a white male, lab-coat-and-glasses-wearing geek. Dispelling this idea and recognising the variety of real, amazing women working in scientific fields is so important to achieving gender equality!’
Aina Musaeva – Programmer, AAO and former Astronomy Educator, MAAS
Before recently leaving the Sydney Observatory to work as a Data Scientist, Aina Musaeva hunted for intermediate-mass black holes in dwarf galaxies during her PhD at the University of Sydney.
An 8-year veteran of the Sydney Observatory’s Astronomy Educator group, Aina says, ‘I believe encouraging girls to pursue careers in STEM is very important since many of them are curious and passionate about STEM from an early age only to be discouraged by their parents and family saying STEM is not for girls. Did you know that when a family is spending time at a museum, the parents are 3 times more likely to explain the exhibits to boys than girls? (Crowley, K. et al) As parents we mean well but we also pass on the same biased views to our children as our parents passed on to us. I think it is time to change that!’
Crowley K, Callanan MA, Tenenbaum HR, Allen E., Psychol Sci. 2001 May;12(3):258-61
Sharing the stories of these women, of the past and the present, is not just imperative to encouraging girls to consider STEM fields as career possibilities, but also important in motivating women early in their STEM careers to persevere through. In our next (and final) post, we’ll take a look at the wonderful possibilities for the future of women in astronomy.