In celebration of National Women’s Month 2017, the NRF is paying to tribute to our female researchers at the NRF managed National Research Facilities. We thank the ladies for volunteering to tell us a little about themselves and the work they do.
1. What did you study and where?
I studied Physics during my undergraduate years at Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia. I then studied Astrophysics and Space Science at the University of Cape Town (UCT) for my Honours and Master’s. My PhD was in Astrophysics at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits).
2. What made you decide to choose your field of study? Is it what you envisioned for yourself while growing up?
Growing up I was always fascinated by the clear night sky. However, I did not always know that I wanted to become an astronomer. My first love was Physics. After completing my undergraduate studies in Physics, I got the opportunity to study under the National Astrophysics and Space Science Programme (NASSP) at UCT, where I was formally introduced to astronomy. This was when I became more fascinated by the mysteries of the universe and decided to peruse astronomy as a career.
3. What are your responsibilities at your place of work and how long have you worked there?
I have been working as a postdoctoral researcher joint between the Hartbeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory (HartRAO) and Wits for the past year. I am also an active member of the High Energy Stereoscopic System (H.E.S.S.) international collaboration.
I spend most of my working time learning and testing different methods to understand feedback mechanisms from active galaxies and their cosmological impact; programming; mentoring students; participating in different student training programs; writing proposals, and organising outreach events locally and in Ethiopia.
4. How do you think your work can benefit/impact South Africans and/or the world?
In addition to fulfilling our deep desire to understand how we came to be and the nature and evolution of the universe we live in, astronomy by its very nature has the capacity to spark curiosity and make people think big. Therefore, it can be used as a tool to inspire and create a scientifically curious society. That would mean a society capable of observing, questioning, gathering information, developing new technologies, solving problems, and making informed decisions.
5. What obstacles did you have to overcome to get to where you are today?
The biggest challenge for me was fighting stereotypes. Society expects you to act and live in certain ways when you are a woman. It can take a lot of work not to feel that there is something wrong with you just because you want to do something that is (mostly) done by men. This is a general problem women face – not just in science, but in other fields as well. There are, of course, other personal roadblocks that threaten your progress here and there.
6. What makes you get up every morning?
Deadlines! On a serious note, it’s usually the thought of having another chance to do what I do.
7. Who has been your greatest inspiration? Who saw your potential/encouraged you when the going got tough?
My PhD supervisor, Prof Sergio Colafrancesco, and my close friends.
8. Is there any female role model(s) in the science industry that you look up to?
Prof Renée Kraan-Korteweg (Chair of Astronomy at UCT) and Prof Raffaella Morganti (ASTRON) have always been the women I look up to in my field.
9. Which of your academic achievements are you most proud of?
Some of my academic achievements were harder to accomplish than others, but I am proud of all of them.
10. What is your vision for the future – what do you hope to achieve in the next ten years?
I obviously hope to build my career and make a significant contribution in my field. I plan to work on gender and education-related issues to help get more women into STEM and also participate in exciting and innovative activities that inspire and benefit society.
11. What is your advice for young women who want to pursue a career in STEM?
Do what interests you, ignore stereotypes and try to surround yourself with supportive people and great mentors. If you focus on your strengths and persist, you will learn that a career in STEM can be exciting and rewarding.