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 did my undergraduate Physics and MSc Astronomy studies at the University of Cape Town. I completed my PhD in High Energy Astrophysics at the University of Southampton in the UK.
2. What made you choose your field of study? Is it what you envisioned for yourself while growing up?
I decided at the age of 11 to become an astronomer. I saw the Hubble Space telescope images published in the Cape Times in the ‘90s and they were so amazing that I decided that I wanted to study the Universe and learn more about what was in those pictures.
3. What are your responsibilities at your place of work and how long have you worked there?
I am the outreach astronomer at SAAO. I spend half of my time doing research into black holes and neutron stars in other galaxies. The rest of the time I answer emails from the public about astronomy-related topics; give talks at schools, and I am also the social media coordinator for the Observatory.
4. How do you think your work can benefit/impact South Africans and/or the world?
Astronomy is, of course, a big driver of innovation and invention. So, in this way, the entire field of astronomy contributes to society by fostering an environment for new technology to be developed.
Personally, I feel my impact is more on an individual level. My work allows me to travel and meet new people all around the world. Working together to achieve a common goal is a fantastic way to build good relationships between individuals and even entire nations.
5. What obstacles did you have to overcome to get to where you are today?
There was a definite lack of female role models during my time as a student. There were times when it was obvious that male students were given preferential treatment and this was very disheartening. I was lucky that I always had my parents' unwavering support during my studies and this helped me to stay motivated.
6. What makes you get up every morning?
I enjoy interacting with the public and answering their questions about astronomy. I also really enjoy my research as each day brings the possibility of discovering something interesting, like a new black hole!
7. Who has been your greatest inspiration? Who saw your potential/encouraged you when the going got tough?
My parents have definitely been my biggest supporters. They encouraged my interest in science from an early age and have always tried to make sure that I have what I need to pursue my studies and career.
8. Is there any female role model(s) in the science industry that you look up to?
I am very lucky to have worked for Dr Vanessa McBride. Dr McBride was a postdoctoral fellow at Southampton when I was a student and I went on to work for her at UCT during my first postdoc. She is very supportive and a good scientist. I admire her ability to strike a good balance between her work and personal life.
9. Which of your academic achievements are you most proud of?
I have just been awarded a Fulbright fellowship to work in the US for several months. The Fulbright award is very prestigious and I am very pleased that my hard work has been rewarded.
10. What is your vision for the future – what do you hope to achieve in the next ten years?
MeerKAT is nearly complete and when it is, it will be the most powerful radio telescope in the world. My goal is to be the lead scientist on a MeerKAT project to study two nearby galaxies. I plan to include young South African astronomers in this project as this will be a great opportunity to gain experience in working on large collaborative astronomy projects.
11. What is your advice for young women who want to pursue a career in STEM?
A career in STEM can be very rewarding. However, you must be aware that women are still very underrepresented in STEM and so sometimes this can lead to a hostile working environment. I would strongly urge young women in STEM to make use of mentoring services available to them as things are a lot easier when you have someone to talk to who understands what you are going through.