The next generation of women in astronomy

9 April 2019

The way we understand the universe is influenced by many women both past and present, so during British Science Week we ran a “Women in Astronomy” study day for 57 girls aged 13-16 years, providing them with the opportunity to find out more about women in astronomy and their amazing work. Participants gained insight into how we study the cosmos and they had the opportunity to meet women astronomers working in Oxford. The event aimed to promote women into astronomy and allowed the girls to consider whether a career in astronomy might be for them!

The day and activities

The day began with an introduction to Global Jet Watch by Prof. Katherine Blundell OBE who directs the project that runs five observatories strategically distributed in longitude around Planet Earth, such that there is always one of these in darkness. The observatories are used in the study of microquasars and novae in our Galaxy, but they also bring educational opportunities to the schools which host four of the observatories (in Australia, Chile, India and South Africa).

The visiting students then took part in three workshops. Dr Rebecca Bowler, who studies early galaxies that formed within the first billion years in the life of the Universe, talked to the girls about multiwavelegth astronomy. During the session they also had a tour of the Philip Wetton Telescope on the roof of the physics department.

Rebecca commented on why she got involved with the event.

Seeing successful women in physics played a pivotal role in inspiring me to become a scientist. This event was a fantastic opportunity to show that women past and present have lead astronomical discovery, and that becoming an astronomer or any sort of scientist is an exciting, challenging and rewarding career open to all” (Dr Rebecca Bowler)

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Dr Kate Clough, whose research focuses on numerical solutions to Einstein’s theory of general relativity, in cosmological and astrophysical contexts, ran a session on how computer simulations can be used to study the physics of stars and black holes, and help solve mysteries about the origins of the Universe.

Katy commented on how important it is to encourage women into science.

Participating in these kind of events is a great reminder for me of how absurd it is that girls are considered intrinsically less talented in science. I love seeing how, with only a few hints, they quickly grasp the ideas and complete the exercises. They are full of potential, and it would be a shame for them, and for science, if that talent goes to waste” (Dr Kate Clough)

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The students also had a workshop at the History of Science Museum which explored instrumentation in astronomy and the work of Caroline Herschel, who was the first woman to receive a salary as a scientist and the first woman to be awarded a Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1828.

The final session of the day involved a panel discussion with 5 women currently working in astronomy, including Dr Charlotte Palmer, who is a laser physicist using high-powered lasers to re-create astronomical conditions. The panel reflected on their experiences as women in astronomy, including some of the challenges they had faced.

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Feedback

The feedback from the day has been extremely positive and the girls gained an appreciation for how “women have had a big impact in astronomy”. The day also seemed to have an impact on their aspirations to become an astronomer, with one student commenting that “seeing all the confident, clever women in science/astronomy has inspired me” and another who “definitely want to find out more about studying astronomy in the future”].

They also took away some key messages about how to approach their future, with one student commenting “it’s okay to have self-doubt but to always try to take risks to get yourself out there”. A teacher commented that “the Q&A panel at the end demystifies scientists and the science process by showing the students that science is done by regular real people working hard in teams”.

I think it created a positive image of women in astronomy and I think quite a few students were inspired to explore careers in science” (participating teacher)

The ‘Women in Astronomy’ study day was run in collaboration with the History of Science Museum.

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Dr Charlotte Palmer, Dr Rebecca Bowler, Nora Eisner, Dr Katy Clough and Dina Traykova (from left to right) take part in the panel discussion.