Beautiful, Inspiring, Mysterious! How do you describe space? What do you think when you look up at the stars? The United Nations General Assembly certainly knew how beautiful, inspiring, mysterious, and important space is when they designated a week to be World Space Week. That’s this week, and the theme for this year is Women in Space.
There are numerous New Zealand women who have been inspired by the stars to become Women in Space.
I must, of course, start with Professor Beatrice Tinsley – not simply because she studied physics as I did at the University of Canterbury. She had a huge influence on astronomy and particular the science of the evolution of galaxies. Take a look at the video by another Woman in Space, Dr Meghan Grey from the University of Nottingham, who explains just why Dr Tinsley was so influential.
Professor Tinsley’s legacy lives on with many Women in Space in New Zealand. So many, that this week they launched their own network: Women in Space Aotearoa New Zealand (https://www.womeninspace.co.nz). The line-up of members is impressive – engineers, technicians and scientists at Dawn Aerospace and Rocket Lab, a surgeon and Aerospace medicine researcher, astrobiologists, astronomers, CEOs etc. I love their mission – “A network for women working in space in New Zealand and those who want to.”
Close to home, here in Christchurch, in the University of Canterbury Physics and Astronomy department there are a number of talented Women in Space Astronomers including Professor Jenni Adams whose telescopes are neutrino detectors buried deep within the ice of Antarctica, Associate Professor Karen Pollard who is the Director of Mt John Observatory and has a special interest in the pulsation of stars, and Dr Michelle Bannister (a.k.a. @astrokiwi) whose passion is planets. Also in that department is the next generation of professional Women in Space, the PhD students. One of them, Rosemary Dorsey, has agreed to answer some of my questions:
What drew you to Astronomy?
What first amazed me about astronomy was how we are able to observe other planets in our Solar System (like Mars using the landers and rovers) without ever setting foot on them. With all the challenges that come with launching, sending and landing the Mars missions, it seems highly unlikely that nothing would go wrong; and yet we have had many successful missions and lots of data collection. It is amazing to me that the extremely challenging conditions presented to the Mars missions have been able to be managed by people millions of kilometers away.
The other enticing thing about astronomy is how much there is to know about space. There are so many different objects that exist that are stranger than what we know of even in our own Solar System, and processes which we cannot even imagine or recreate on Earth. The universe is just one giant, fantastic playground for the mind.
Who inspires you?
The person who currently inspires me at the moment is my PhD supervisor, Michele Bannister. She is an established woman in astronomy and esteemed in her field with numerous publications and collaborations. She has many creative ideas for research projects which branch across seemingly unconnectable fields; for example, space and law!
She is also an advocate for work-life balance and ensuring that your mental health is strong so that you can work to the best of your ability, while making time for important things like friends, family and hobbies.
Her mind and attitude inspire me to work and think harder about my research and make sure I am putting myself first.
What discovery of yours has thrilled you most?
As part of one of my postgraduate research projects, I was examining the light curves of potential Young Stellar objects and realized that one of the stars showed a regular dip in brightness – possibly an exoplanet! I never ended up publishing any results but it is still very cool to think that I potentially discovered a planet orbiting another star.
What would you say to a teenage girl thinking about whether or not to take a science class?
I realized quite quickly in high school when I first started to really enjoy science that the logic and reasoning of math and science were not enjoyed by everyone equally. Some people just don’t get it whereas some people live for it.
If you feel the need to understand how everything works and you think summarizing a process or mechanism with a clean explanation and a formula is satisfying, then you should definitely give science a chance! [my emphasis]
Well, thank you Rosemary – I hope you inspire some of the next generation of Women in Space. It is kind of neat that what drew you to astronomy was hugely influenced by another Canterbury graduate, Sir William Pickering, who directed the Jet Propulsion Laboratory for over 20 years and was instrumental in sending the first probes to the planets.
For me, space is a taonga, the stars a treasure to behold. I am grateful to these New Zealand Women in Space have not merely seen the beauty, or wondered about the mysteries of space, but have been inspired to explore it and by doing so educate and inspire the rest of us.
Finally, I leave you with a few images of scenes I’ve viewed and shared with others through my own telescope. I am an ambassador for Unistellar which produces digital telescopes for the enjoyment of the stars and for citizen science. In conjunction with SETI and The Planetary society, they have set a goal of 1 million girls experiencing the stars this week. So, if you know any, take them outside tonight to enjoy the glories of the stars. Then inspire them further with a free ebook which celebrates more Women in Space and has many great activities.