She's an Astronomer: Vardha Nicola Bennert

Nicola Bennert on the beach in Santa Barbara.

Vardha Nicola Bennert by the ocean in Santa Barbara (a 5 minute walk from her office at UCSB), May 2009.

Dr. Vardha Nicola Bennert is a postdoctoral researcher (“postdoc”) in the Physics and Astronomy Department at the University of California (UC) in Santa Barbara.  Originally from the Ruhr area in Germany, she completed her PhD in 2005 on the astrophysics of active galaxies at the Ruhr-University of Bochum. She then moved to the US for a first postdoc at UC in Riverside, before moving to Santa Barbara in 2008.

Dr. Bennert’s research interests focus on the central region of “active galaxies” (the black hole and the so-called narrow- and broad-line regions immediately around the black hole) and its relation to the host galaxy. She enjoys working in the stimulating research environment at UCSB and living in Santa Barbara – especially because the sun is always shining and the beach is so close! But she also misses her friends and family in Germany. In her free time, she loves to explore the outdoors of southern California, and is also on an inward journey, integrating meditation into her everyday life.

  • How did you first hear about Galaxy Zoo?

By coincidence! I was at UC Riverside and had an upcoming observing run at the 3m Shane telescope at Lick observatory when Prof. Bill Keel contacted my supervisor, Prof. Gabriela Canalizo, asking whether we could get a spectrum of “Hanny’s Voorwerp”. I agreed, went observing, had several clear nights and was able to get the spectrum. I was immediately intrigued by the object as the spectrum looked very familiar to me – very much like the narrow-line regions of active galaxies that I studied intensively during my PhD thesis, except that there was no evidence of an active galactic nucleus in the center!

  • What has been your main involvement in the Galaxy Zoo project?

I helped in the reduction, analysis, and interpretation of the  spectroscopic data which were integrated in the discovery paper of the Voorwerp. Later, by another coincidence, the team was looking for someone with experience in reducing HST images, which I have. So I obtained, reduced and analyzed HST images of the “peas” discovered in the Galaxy Zoo project. This formed part of another paper in which I helped in the interpretation of the results.

  • What do you like most about being involved in Galaxy Zoo?

It is great that so many citizen astronomers are involved, and that it has such a strong public outreach component. For me, public outreach is not only our duty as researchers who are basically funded through the tax payers’ money but something that I enjoy a lot. I love seeing how people get excited about astronomy and the research that I am doing.

  • What do you think is the most interesting astronomical question Galaxy Zoo will help to solve?

Galaxy Zoo has proved its value in revealing rare and interesting objects like the Voorwerp, through inspection of images by eye, showing the great advantage of  humans over robots! I think this, more than answering a particular question for which Galaxy Zoo was set up, will be the lasting legacy. These rare objects have the potential to provide us with new and surprising insights.

  • How/when did you first get interested in Astronomy?

As a child, I loved looking at the stars, and was fascinated by the books by Prof. Stephen W. Hawking, although I did not understand much at the time… However, this did not turn me off from pursuing a scientific career. On the contrary, I always found it exciting to be at the edge of my understanding and learn new things all the time.

  • What (if any) do you think are the main barriers to women’s involvement in Astronomy?

I do not like the very competitive way in which scientific results are promoted. Personally, I think that it must be difficult for women to have children while pursuing an astronomical career, since both tasks are quite time demanding. But of course, there are many women in astronomy who prove that it is possible.

  • Do you have any particular role models in Astronomy?

My PhD advisor, Prof. Hartmut Schulz, had a strong influence on me. I always considered him to be one of those “old-fashioned” professors who not only know so much about astronomy, but who have a profound general education with the emphasis on thinking for one’s own. Prof. Schulz sadly died in August 2003. I remember him gratefully for having been my “Doktorvater” in the truest sense of the word.

Also, my current supervisor at UCSB, Prof. Tommaso Treu, is a constant inspiration – he is not only very smart and extremely effective, but he is also always joyful, full of energy, and helps his students to make the best out of their potential.


This post is part of the ongoing She’s an Astronomer series on the Galaxy Zoo Blog in support of the IYA2009 cornerstone project of the same name (She’s an Astronomer).

This is the second post of the series, last month we interviewed Hanny Van Arkel (Galaxy Zoo volunteer and finder of Hanny’s Voorwerp).

Next in the series: Alice Sheppard (forum moderator).

About karenlmasters

Astronomer at Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation, University of Portsmouth. Project Scientist for Galaxy Zoo. Spokesperson for the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. Vice President of the Society for Popular Astronomy. Busy having fun with astronomy!

9 responses to “She's an Astronomer: Vardha Nicola Bennert”

  1. Alice says :

    Great to meet you Nicola! I’m so glad you got involved with Galaxy Zoo, and I love what you say about the power of thousands of eyes being our legacy. Thanks for a very interesting interview. Oh and do please come and chat with us on the forum, we’d love to meet you and will serve you a LOT of virtual tea and coffee. 🙂

  2. Veggy says :

    Good strand. How about an occasional post commemorating female astronomers in history? Without any research Caroline (?) Herschel springs to mind – she helped her brother William in his work in the 18th century, including discovering Uranus.

  3. Joseph K. H. Cheng says :

    Great idea in adding such interesting article and welcome to the ZOO, Nicola !

    JKHC.

  4. Hanny says :

    Nice piece Nicola & Karen! 😉

  5. Half65 says :

    Great interview.
    We wait you in the zoo.
    Espresso machine is turned on. 🙂

  6. Jo says :

    Lovely interview, it’s great when people are able to enjoy reaching their goals. Well done you!

  7. zeus2007 says :

    This was a great idea about the Series. Welcome Dr. Nicola Bennert to Galaxy Zoo.

  8. Karen Masters says :

    Thanks for all the comments. I’m enjoying editing this series and learning more about all the interesting women involved in Galaxy Zoo. We have some good interviews lined up for the next few months. The interview with Alice is almost done and will be posted around July 1st. I also just got interviews back from Carie Cardamone (peas paper) and orignal Zoo team member Kate Land. It’s interesting reading – and tempting for me to post more frequently than once a month!

    I like the idea of including historical women who have inspired the kind of science Galaxy Zoo does – although of course they’d be hard to interview! There are also a lot of articles on them elsewhere.

    Thanks again for the comments. It’s so nice to get some feedback.

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