She's an Astronomer: Alice Sheppard

Alice Sheppard with Lorikeets

Alice Sheppard has had various jobs in administration, environment, teaching and writing whenever she can – but as soon as she started moderating the Galaxy Zoo Forum nearly 2 years ago, she knew that this was her real work. She’d been hooked on astronomy and science since she was very young, but the presentation of these subjects at school didn’t encourage her to think she’d ever really get involved. She studied Environmental Science at university in Norwich and Granada, Spain, and became increasingly interested in informing and involving the public. She now lives in Pembrokeshire, Wales, with her family and two cats who also contributed to scientific research for April Fool’s Day! Her involvement in the Galaxy Zoo project inspired her to start an Open University course and her current goal is to continue the work she has begun informally in the Galaxy Zoo project as a science communicator and educator. You can catch up more with Alice on her blog: Alice in Galaxyland, and she invites you to join her any time for virtual coffee and galaxy conversations in the forum.

  • How did you first hear about Galaxy Zoo?

Chris (Lintott) posted a “sneak preview” on his website. I signed up on the first day . . .

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

I’ve moderated the forum since it was started. It’s become a wonderful place – my pride and joy! I answer astronomy and technical questions, deal with problems, and organise on-forum and public events. Oh, and chat, of course. Both genders do that. Honest! I’m the only person who’s been moderating since day 1.

I’m also sort of the link between the scientists and everybody else. If Chris or Kevin or Jordan or Pamela want something, they ask me, and it’s usually me the zooites go to to get something sorted out. I also run the Object of the Day rota.

Finally I’m involved in Waveney’s Irregulars project, and have given a few talks (you can listen to one here) – which I urge lots of you to have a go at, too. It’s not hard to inspire an audience with such a great story.

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

It’s all such a great idea! It’s something every curious human should have a chance to try. It’s something people put a lot of effort and goodwill into. As I have blogged about I think this is because the modern world doesn’t value goodwill or real but unmarketable knowledge. It’s a place to be curious, to be happy, to be yourself – as well as to learn and to change the world a little by your science contribution. It’s become my true “job”, the realest thing I do, and I’ve never been happier.

While studying science at university I got interested in how to communicate it all to the public. I was disappointed that the public was seen as the enemy, or at least a liability, by my professors. As if “the mad scaremongers” were on one side while “the scientists” were on another. I felt that scientists and the public should work together. It’s one of my dreams to try and promote that, and Galaxy Zoo is such a great example of how it can work so well.

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

Well, the way I see it, traditional astronomy is studying a few galaxies – like a few specimens at a zoo. What we do is study the entire ecosystem. We’ve found peculiarities, and about how phenomena affect one another. Both the Voorwerp and the red spirals/blue ellipticals demonstrate quite how much is going on outside galaxies.

Personally, I would love to see what the Irregulars project will bring. Irregulars and low surface brightness galaxies are much more abundant than the famous spirals. They may turn out to be very important to the whole “ecosystem”. We’re like ecologists studying plankton and beetles, not just the lions and tigers.

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

Somewhere, there’s a photo of me aged about 6 reading a huge astronomy book. I wouldn’t know how not to be interested.

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

I don’t know much about women astronomers specifically, other than Cecilia Payne and Jocelyn Bell who were both treated outrageously unfairly. But in various jobs I’ve had, I’ve been: publicly blamed for male colleagues’ mistakes; treated like an idiot while the same male colleagues were praised for my ideas; told “we shouldn’t employ blondes”; and denied a pay rise I’d been promised before accepting the job. I’ve even had it said to me that I won’t get anywhere with the sort of public science communication I want to do because I’m not busty or good-looking enough! (I mention this not to fish for defence, but to express my fury at this “selection criteria”.)

Fortunately, this has only been done by generally loathsome people. I find the astronomical community very welcoming, and sincerely hope women working in it don’t get that sort of rubbish. It’s not only demoralising, but it might really prevent your ideas and discoveries ever being heard.

I think it is still true that it’s hard to get girls into maths and physics. I believe that males and females are often (not always) genuinely good at different things and this diversity should be embraced and utilised, not made a taboo. I’ve also noticed with many jobs that anyone “serious” and “dedicated” is expected not to spend time with their children. Which I think is terrible. Mums and carers should be treasured! Having a family one day is important enough to me that I would choose that over a career if I was forced to pick one or the other. But I found Karen’s recent post about Vera Rubin very encouraging on that front.

All that said, I think poor education is a far worse barrier than gender. For goodness sake don’t start me off on that one.

  • Do you have any particular role models in Astronomy?

ZookeeperChris has to come first. Besides all his work (Chris, have you had any sleep this week?), he was kind enough to answer many, many questions by e-mail, and taught me lot of what I know! Also ZookeeperKevin, who’s taught me a lot about what working as an astronomer is like. Sir Patrick Moore is another definite. Like the zookeepers, he makes astronomy for everybody, not just a few academics.

My longest-standing hero is Russell Stannard, who wrote the “Uncle Albert” books. I love the story of Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg, etc. They were physicists, not astronomers, but must have felt the same revolutionary excitement about relativity and quantum physics that I feel about the Zoo. Bohr believed that scientists do science not for themselves, but to explain it to others.

I hugely admire my fellow citizen scientists: Waveney, whose programming genius and creativity has brought so much to the zoo; Aida and Jules, my fellow irregular galaxy folk; Pat and Gumbosea, the gravitational lensing experts; Tom and Jules, who encouraged me to start an Open University Course; and all the people who brave the huge forum to come in and ask all the things they never got to ask at school – and other amateurs who take so much trouble to explain things, delight, and inspire. Thank you all – you help make my world.


This post is part of the ongoing She’s an Astronomer series on the Galaxy Zoo Blog is support of the IYA2009 cornerstone project of the same name (She’s an Astronomer). We are now listed on the She’s an Astronomer website in their Profiles.

This is the third post of the series. So far we have interviewed

  • May 1st 2009: Hanny Van Arkel (Galaxy Zoo volunteer and finder of Hanny’s Voorwerp).
  • June 1st 2009: Dr. Vardha Nicola Bennert (researcher at UCSB involved in Hanny’s Voorwerp followup and the “peas” project)

Still to come in the series – more Galaxy Zoo volunteers and researchers, including original team member Dr. Kate Land, Carie Cardamone (Yale graduate student and author of the “peas” paper), and others.

About karenlmasters

Astronomer at Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation, University of Portsmouth. Project Scientist for Galaxy Zoo. Also member of Sloan Digital Sky Survey, Dark Energy Survey and Euclid.

14 responses to “She's an Astronomer: Alice Sheppard”

  1. Jo says :

    That was a really lovely interview to read Alice, well done you!

  2. weezerd says :

    More power to your elbow!
    (and that’s nothing to do with the kitchen-sink stereotype!)

  3. jules says :

    Great photo. Good read. Well said Alice!

  4. Thomas says :

    Great stuff, Alice🙂

  5. elizatbeth says :

    Wonderful interview Alice just wonderful.

  6. Rick N. says :

    Also a great public speaker!

  7. Alice says :

    If you’re wondering who Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin is, she has got an Object of the Day here about her wonderful work on stars in the 1920s. She’s an example to anyone wanting to break through! http://www.galaxyzooforum.org/index.php?topic=275589.0

    And many thanks Karen for all your hard work on this project and my nitpickiness, and for joining the forum. 8)

  8. Half65 says :

    A great interview.
    Alice you’re “The Moderator”.
    Ciao

  9. Mark O'Connell says :

    Alice don’t let anyone fool you. You are a beautiful, and smart lady. I am just sad I can’t stop by the forum to say hi and participate anymore. The site lost me completely in merging accounts. But thanks to you (you just reminded me) I can still continue to do waveny’s irregular project.

  10. Alice says :

    Hi Mark, please send an e-mail to Pamela or Arfon – or to me if you can’t find them; click my profile to find my e-mail address – and they’ll sort you out. We don’t want to lose anybody!

  11. zeus2007 says :

    Nice post and the best to you, Alice, in your future endevours.

  12. Dave says :

    Well spoken Alice, especially your reply to the ‘barriers’ question. With your spirited and refreshing attitude I hope you are giving talks to school children.

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