Professor Jayanne English

Jayanne is a professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Manitoba (UM) and a visiting professor in Oxford with an extraordinary artistic flair. We spoke to her the other day to learn a bit more about what she does and how she developed into the artist and scientist she is today.

As an astronomer, I tend to focus on galaxy evolution. In particular I look at the halos of galaxies and how gas flows in and out of them. The challenge is to figure out which part of the galaxy is the disk and which part is the halo. We’ve developed a modelling programme to model the disk of an ordinary galaxy, so then we can remove the disk and look for anomalies in the halo, which would include the motion of clumps of gas. If we know what the halo looks like for normal galaxies, then we can know what’s peculiar about what’s going on in other galaxies.

I’m in Oxford for the year to work with a colleague here who has some very interesting data. I’m using the software programme my UM colleague and I have developed to measure the kinematics of the carbon monoxide gas in the centre of certain galaxies. You can fit a nice rotation curve to the gas (how fast it’s travelling at a given radius) and examine the kinematics to see if we can help constrain the rotation curve – which is crucial to understanding the dark matter halo of the galaxy.

I also make astronomy images for public outreach and while I’m here I’ve been doing a lot of talks on how to create the images. It’s something that anyone can do – you don’t have to be an astronomer. What makes an image powerful is not knowing the technology but knowing how to create a striking image – though you want to retain the scientific information as well. When we first started this in the 90s, it was felt that the artistic and the scientific aspects were in conflict, but now scientists recognise that they can retain the scientific information – so they’re much happier with the images! I used to call my talk ‘Canvas versus Cosmos’, but now it’s ‘Canvas and Cosmos’ because the astronomy community has come around to not making it a conflict. You do have constraints on the imagery – you don’t want to make something that looks like fantasy – so you don’t use every aesthetic exploration you could imagine! You want to retain the scientific information and put it forward in a way that represents the institute and scientists that you’re making the image for.

The midplane of the Milky Way Galaxy in radio and far infra-redWhen I was working for the Hubble Heritage project, which produces these astronomy images, we tended to make images that were nameable, that had nameable shapes like spheres, such as planetary nebulae or supernova remnants – people can get the feeling that something’s exploded from them. I got desperate to make something abstract, where you couldn’t tell what they were. My favourite at that time was making an image of the interstellar medium in the Milky Way galaxy. It was velocity colour-coded radio data with far infra-red superimposed, and that was really abstract – delicious and beautiful! The ones that are the most popular are not necessarily the favourites of the artist or image maker. Our favourite ones are those where we grow and stretch and explore and discover, and those ones can make no sense to the viewer. Another image that I keep using is a really important radio one. It was the first radio image that looked like an optical image – it was convincing and naturalistic and compelling in the way that Western image tradition images are. It looked like a photograph, so my radio astronomy colleagues adore that image! I was the pioneer for those images, so they are really important to me. But I think my favourite astronomy image is the one that I’m going to make in the future!

In high school I was very much into science and maths but my father was a landscape painter, his sister was a painter, his first cousin was a painter, so I had a lot of skill in art. But I was focussing on science, even though I was going off to art classes at the weekends. I really wanted to do astronomy. When I went to university, out of the hundreds of people in the physics class, there were six women. It was very uncomfortable. So although my whole focus up until that first year of university had been science, I then switched to art. I worked in an art gallery and I went to different schools for art. Still, all of my artworks were based on science. In fact there are now two areas of art – called ‘New Media’ and ‘Art Science’ – and if those had existed at the time, I’m sure I wouldn’t have gone on to do science! But they didn’t, so if you wanted to do art and science, instead of doing them in parallel, you had to do them in series!

In the last year of my art class I did remedial maths and physics, and then went into the bachelor’s programme at the University of Toronto. From there I realised that actually you don’t do astronomy in your bachelor’s degree, you do it at graduate level, so I went to Australia to do a graduate degree. While I was doing art, I was always doing science classes, and while I was doing science, I was always involved in art exhibits and artist-run centres. Right through when I was a post-doc – I had a couple of great post-doctoral fellowships at Queen’s University, Toronto – I was part of an art collective, on the board of an artist-run gallery and running weekend workshops.

The Hickson Compact Group 31When I went to work for NASA to do the Hubble Heritage project, I stopped doing a lot of art in a formal way, because anything that was using my art background was devoted to designing the website, art directing the images and things like that. I still do art now, though, and a lot of the time I work collaboratively. A couple of years ago I had a piece with an artist named Willy LeMaitre in a group show in Toronto. Then the composer Nicky Lizee and I created a performance last spring in Toronto and I did the imagery for that. From four little videos I made for it, she integrated imagery, electronic music and a score for a live ensemble.

However, very few artists make their living doing art. You have to have another profession and keep two careers going. The astronomy imagery isn’t really art, but it is very public and renowned. I’ll pick up a book, and there will be one of my images in it. I don’t really get credit for it – it’s more likely to go to NASA or the scientists leading the project. And you never get any money for doing it either! The art stuff on top of that is volunteer, too. So it’s not a career in the sense that it makes you any money! In the past I would have said I’m not quite sure I’d call it an art career. But it is observed that way – people see my artwork and it’s exhibited. Also the Canadian Heritage Information Network website has a list of artists that you can look up, and there I am! Somebody somewhere has decided I’m an artist, so I guess I do have this career!
But it is really challenging to keep both up. Whenever I’m collaborating with an artist, every weekend is devoted to shooting the photographs and explaining the science, and making documents to explain it so that they know where they want to go and what they want to do.

Actually I probably spend six days a week on the astronomy and one day a week on art. Well, it’s six days a week of being a professor – less than half of that will be on astronomy. The rest of the time you’re designing courses and marking and doing administration and budgeting. As a professor, you’re essentially running a small business. You’re finding funding for your students and your research associates, so you’re writing grant applications. It’s like sales to the public. And then you have to do all of the administration associated with the grant, so you’re book-keeping and accounting. You have to be supervising your staff – so that’s like being a boss. Most of your time is not spent doing research. And then when you’re doing research, you’re dealing with broken code, or learning how to code. You’re not making discoveries, you’re struggling with what’s going on. I don’t think any professor finds it doesn’t take six days a week to do it all. Though of course it doesn’t stop me from partying!

When I went back to do astronomy the second time, it was much less sexist than the first time around – and that had been the reason I’d left. However, I was eleven years older than my peers – and you absolutely notice that age difference. They were just coming into it from high school and their view of the world was black and white. It took them a couple of years to accept me and appreciate me, and those first two years were a bit isolating and awkward. But as time went on, some of these people became my best friends and they still are. We graduated in 1989 and we still try to see each other every year.

I came to my career in physics ten years late. Is there a point at which it is too late to start a career in physics? It depends what your expectations are. Once I got to undergrad, once I realised how few people actually go on to do astronomy, getting to grad school and getting paid became my aim – particularly having spent time as an impoverished artist. The way I thought of it was that every step I made was icing on the cake. You don’t know if you’re going to get into grad school, and if you do, you think “Wow – I get to do the next step”. Don’t worry about having a long-term strategy for your career. Always enjoy what you get at that moment, and that way you can enjoy all the different stages stress-free.

The Cygnus region of the Milky Way GalaxyI knew there would be challenges. First of all, I’m a woman. In some places in those days it was still hard to get hired as a woman. Secondly, I was older, so I was aware that I might face ageism. People warned me about it, and I was told I shouldn’t expect a career in astronomy as a professor. So I just thought I would keep applying and if it didn’t work out I’d find something else to do with the education I had.
In fact, I did what was at that time the standard career path. I did three post-doctoral fellowships of two years each, and then got hired as a professor at the only job I applied for. People were really impressed that my university did hire me – that they weren’t ageist. It goes to show you can’t plan a strategy based on the assumption of a common culture across institutions – you can’t tell that a university wouldn’t hire someone who is older, and you can’t really say that it’s too late. Maybe if you’re close to 60 and you go back to do physics, you might struggle. It takes ten years to get your degree, and then at 70 you’re at retirement age! But you only have one life, and if you want to do astronomy, do it.

I think ageism and sexism still exist in physics though. There are places which will think when they’re considering hiring an older person that they aren’t going to get that many years out of them. And sexism is a time-dependent and position-dependent function! When I went back 11 years later to do my undergraduate degree and the sexism had died down, I can’t tell you how happy I was to have witnessed that transformation. In the last year of my degree, in a course of nine people, five were women. To see that was really wonderful. But then I went to Australia for grad school, and I ended up writing a report on sexism at my institution. So the same year, but a different location, and the sexism is there again. In my university, the University of Manitoba, we have three women and three men astronomers, so we’re doing alright. But when I was at NASA, even if the team was 50% or more women, it still could still be sexist depending on the leaders.

It’s important for women to know that if they are doing average, they are doing as well as their male counterparts. We need to give women confidence, to get them over the imposter syndrome. Role modelling is also incredibly powerful. I didn’t used to think so, because I didn’t have role models – I had mentors (who were male and feminist). I thought mentoring was the critical thing, but when I and a female colleague started teaching at UM, we got all-female graduate students! I didn’t know them, I wasn’t mentoring them, but they wanted to do astronomy. So role modelling is clearly really powerful.

Jayanne at 5000m visiting the ALMA observatory in the Chilean Atacama DesertI also think it’s critical to be hiring women using the notion of affirmative action. When we’re hiring women, we are hiring on merit. I’ve been on hiring committees, and as part of the process you specify that a person has to have a certain set of capabilities. But if we can specify, for example, that someone has to be a specialist in infra-red astronomy, we can specify that we’re going to hire women to be role models – that’s their role. In fact when you get your shortlist, you very quickly realise that any one of those people would be good. So if you have a mixed group of men and women and you’ve been hiring men and ignoring women for decades, you have to make a reparation. These women are just as good as the men, they’re just as much the best person for the job. It’s not just “filling a quota”. You’re still competing with other women, and you should be sticking up for yourself. You’re hired because you’re good at this job –as good as anyone else.

If I could give one piece of advice, I think it would be this. If you like doing physics, don’t give up on your career because of a negative environment at one particular moment. If you change the place or the time, that will change, and when you switch to another institution, it can be heaven.