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Women’s Month Feature: Dr Rosalind (Ross) Skelton, SAAO

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 a BSc Honours in Physics, followed by Master’s in Astronomy (through the National Astrophysics and Space Science Programme) at the University of Cape Town. I did my PhD in Astronomy at the University of Heidelberg in Germany where I was part of the International Max Planck Research School, an excellent programme with students from all over the world.

2. What made you decide to choose your field of study? Is it what you envisioned for yourself while growing up?

I always loved science and maths, and was fascinated by how things work as well as the natural world. I remember doing some inspiring astronomy projects in high school and loved any opportunity to stargaze. During high school, I investigated career opportunities in astronomy and cosmology, though I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do yet.

3. What are your responsibilities at your place of work and how long have you worked there?

I have worked for the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) for the past year. I am based at the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) headquarters in Cape Town. I’m part of SALT’s astronomy team which manages the scientific operations of the telescope and takes observations for all the SALT partners. 

I support the astronomers who use SALT data, helping them with their preparations for observations and subsequent data analysis. I regularly spend time observing in Sutherland. The rest of my time is spent on research in the field of galaxy formation and evolution.

4. How do you think your work can benefit/impact South Africans and/or the world?

Our work on SALT enables researchers around the world to discover more about how our Universe works; find exciting objects like planets around other stars, supernova explosions and black holes; and to answer the big questions about how everything, from asteroids to galaxies and even the Universe itself, formed and changed over time. 

My research contributes to humankind’s knowledge and understanding of our place in the Universe. 

By supporting an incredible telescope like SALT, South Africa enables cutting-edge science to be done right here; build partnerships with scientists all over the world; enable impressive engineering and technological developments, and train young South African scientists and technically skilled people. 

5. What obstacles did you have to overcome to get to where you are today?

My studies were long and challenging. I moved continents twice before returning to Cape Town, and there were some culture shocks and language barriers to overcome along the way! The pipeline towards a career in academia narrows at every step of the way, so it felt very uncertain whether I would be able to get a permanent job as an astronomer and come back to South Africa.

6. What makes you get up every morning?

I love astronomy and enjoy the environment I work in and the challenges of research. I especially like the creative problem-solving aspects! I love the peace and quiet of the Karoo and the beautiful night skies when I go observing in Sutherland.

7. Who has been your greatest inspiration? Who saw your potential/encouraged you when the going got tough?

My family has always been incredibly supportive. I also had some great teachers at both primary and high school who were inspiring and encouraging. Mrs Harrop-Allen at Pretoria Girls’ stands out as a tough but excellent science teacher! The support and comradery from my class mates, both during my Honours and PhD, were essential!

8. Is there any female role model(s) in the science industry that you look up to?

Prof Renee Kraan-Korteweg at UCT, who was my MSc supervisor, has been an important role model. There are also a few other women, who are a number of years ahead of me, who showed me that it was possible to be an academic AND have a balanced life.

9. Which of your academic achievements are you most proud of?

I am proud of my PhD work and, more recently, of producing a set of galaxy catalogues that have enabled a wide range of interesting research by groups across the world.

10. What is your vision for the future – what do you hope to achieve in the next ten years?

I hope to build up a strong research group that will make a significant contribution to our field, and guide and train students who will go on to do well in their chosen careers. I want to play a role in developments in astronomy in South Africa and management of SALT in future.

11. What is your advice for young women who want to pursue a career in STEM?

Go for it! Try connecting with other women in science for inspiration and advice – if not in your own institute or field, through an organisation like SA WISE (South African Women in Science and Engineering).

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