She's an Astronomer: Karen Masters
Dr. Karen Masters is a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation, University of Portsmouth (also the 2008 Peter and Patricia Gruber Foundation IAU Fellow). Originally from the Birmingham (UK) area, she did an undergraduate degree in Physics at the University of Oxford (Wadham College) then moved to the US to do a PhD in Astronomy at Cornell University (in Ithaca, NY). After 3 years as a postdoc at the Center for Astrophysics at Harvard University (in Boston, USA) she moved back to the UK last year. Karen lives in Portsmouth with her husband (Wynn Ho, who is also an Astronomer – check out his Nature paper this week on the neutron star in Cas A (arxiv)), their 2 1/2 year old daughter and their cat. She is currently expecting her second child, due in the spring. She enjoys watching movies on TV (and misses going to the cinema), does yoga for relaxation, and wishes she could read more than one page of her book before falling asleep.
- How did you first hear about Galaxy Zoo?
Like most of you probably, I first heard about Galaxy Zoo from the BBC press which surrounded it’s release. I was living in the US at the time and always checked BBC online in the morning to get my news. I immediately noticed the Galaxy Zoo story and checked out the site. I was working in a group lead by one of the people who’s galaxy classifications you will see in NED (John Huchra), so we naturally discussed the project. I classified a few galaxies and mentally filed the project under “interesting” – especially as a possible teaching tool, and went on with my work.
- What has been your main involvement in the Galaxy Zoo project?
I got involved on the research side of Galaxy Zoo when I moved to ICG at Portsmouth last year. The project appealed to me as unique data set to do research in galaxy evolution, and also because I’ve always been interested in communicating science with the public. I thought this was a great way to combine both interests and jumped right in.
I was most interested in the red spirals, and immediately contributed by pointing out the effect that viewing angle would have in turning normal spirals red if they contain enough dust (blog post). This led to my first Galaxy Zoo paper which is currently in the referee process. Following that I got involved in the research on the intrinsically red spirals, suggesting a more conservative cut for the red spirals which will pick out only those with truly red spiral disks. I helped former Sussex undergraduate student Moein Mosleh (now doing a PhD at Leiden on high redshift galaxies) finish up his work looking at these objects, and ended up as the first author of the paper which has also just been submitted. One of the most interesting results we found is that red spirals have unusually large numbers of bars compared to normal blue spirals. So this piqued my interest in looking at the properties of the barred spirals in general. I’m currently working on writing up a short paper showing that redder spirals with larger bulges are more likely to have bars. I also got involved in Ben Hoyle‘s project to use Google technologies to create a Galaxy Zoo spinoff, and as many of you know we recently launched our bar drawing site. That data will provide some truly unique information on barred spirals, which I’m sure will be a goldmine for understanding the effect of bars on the evolution of spiral galaxies.
Finally I should mention my involvement with the blog (my posts). I have written a couple of general posts about my work, but what I am much more proud of is initiating and running this She’s An Astronomer series. It seemed like an obvious thing to do to me, to hi-light the amazing women who have been involved in Galaxy Zoo, and of course very timely with the IYA2009 cornerstone project. As a woman in astronomy I’m unfortunately very aware of the gender imbalance we face and hoped to do something which was both positive and encouraging for more women to get involved, but also tried to address some of the reasons for the current problem. I was very keen to profile both the researchers and a cross section of the volunteers – so you will notice that the series has so far been alternating between researchers and “Zooites”. I think by the time we’re done we’ll have profiled all the female researchers involved in Galaxy Zoo (hopefully I’ve found them all – and unfortunately it’s a small enough number to do that), although it will only be a tiny fraction of the female volunteers!
- What do you like most about being involved in Galaxy Zoo?
Well one thing I like is that it gives me an easy thing to talk about with the general public. I’ve so far given two public lectures on Galaxy Zoo science which has been a lot of fun. I also like that I get to write for the blog and have an audience for my ideas! If I had just decided to start a She’s an Astronomer series by myself it’d have been read by many fewer people, and been much less interesting to do!
I also am really enjoying the research I’m doing with the data. It’s nice to be involved in a successful project and to feel that my contributions are helping to make it more of a success. I’m very aware of the huge amount of work that went in before I was involved in the project, and very grateful to have been welcomed into the project so well.
- What do you think is the most interesting astronomical question Galaxy Zoo will help to solve?
I think the power of Galaxy Zoo is in finding the unusual classes of objects (like the red spirals and blue ellipticals) which shed light on specific aspects of galaxy evolution. There are so many factors which influence how a galaxy evolves and what can be very frustrating is how intercorrelated they all are so it’s very hard to pick out the most important. These unusual objects allow us to “turn off” one or more factors, and try to study just specific processes. For example with the red spirals we can study how star formation can be turned off without affecting the spiral morphology. This immediately rules out major mergers as the culprit. We might be studying just a tiny fraction of the population (like the red spirals in our paper make up just 6% of spirals) but the information they give allows us to study processes which affect all galaxies.
- How/when did you first get interested in Astronomy?
I was always interested in (and good at) maths and science. I don’t remember what first piqued my interest about astronomy in particular, but I do remember collecting newspaper clippings of astronomy stories in a scrap book as a young teenager (pre-internet), and that on a family trip to Florida when I was 14-15 I was ready to throw a fit if we didn’t visit Kennedy Space Center. I actually wanted to be an astronaut more than an astronomer for a quite a long time. Then I learned this would require I somehow become a US citizen (at the time Brits could not be ESA Astronauts because of the UK’s refusal to fund the human spaceflight part of ESA – although this has recently changed), and I also discovered how much detail I would be required to know about the space shuttle and just how fit I would have to be. I’m not really a detail oriented person, and I’m not that keen on the gym, so I gently switched my goal to becoming an astronomer! This also has the advantage of letting me keep my feet on the ground!
- What (if any) do you think are the main barriers to women’s involvement in Astronomy?
To start with it seems to be difficult to attract anyone into science (boys or girls). My personal experience is that science/maths really are seen as the hard option – they even look that way from the inside at lot of the time. I would say I maintained an interest in physics in school despite the classes. This has got to change – and in fact I think there is a clear recognition of this problem and that things are in the process of changing, with wonderful programs to encourage STEM subjects in schools.
The second problems seems to be societal. Many people see girls/women who are interested in science as weird. It was hard to be a teenage girl who was good at maths/science and I spent a lot of time learning to hide it. Even now I don’ t like to mention it in some situations (like at the hairdressers!). So girls who are interested in science clearly need a lot of encouragement to get past this. I hope eventually society’s perception of women in science will change (and I hope things like this blog series help with that), but I think this will be a very slow process.
Finally, to remain in a career as a researcher is very difficult for both men and women, and I believe slightly more so for women. The career path was set up in an era when most people involved in it has stay at home wives, and to me doesn’t seem optimized to retain the best researchers – merely the most persistent or flexible. The recent (or not so recent) increases in the length of postdoc years (with multiple short term contracts, and a strong expectation of moving – often internationally) and the delaying of when researchers can expect to gain any sort of stability in their job contract all make this much more difficult. For example having children while a postdoc is a difficult choice to have had to make. Also, because of the current gender imbalance, a higher proportion of female scientists than male scientists are married to other scientists (there’s just not enough female scientists to go around), and the balancing of two careers as junior academics at the same time is something which is really very difficult and stressful.
- Do you have any particular role models in Astronomy?
Cecilia Payne-Gaposkin and Jocelyn Bell-Burnell are two particular role models of mine. What strikes me about both their stories (separated by almost half a century) is that despite all the obstacles they faced they just loved doing science and felt that it was worth sticking it out. It also strikes me that in both cases had they not made a major discovery so young they would not have even had the (miserable) opportunities they had.
I also want to mention just a few of the many amazing women astronomers I have met during my career. Prof. Martha Haynes (my thesis adviser) was the only female on the astronomy faculty at Cornell for almost 20 years and seems to be personally responsible for increasing the numbers of women in extragalactic astronomy (in a recent count 60% of her students have been female). At CfA, Dr. Andrea Dupree (among many) was an amazing person to chat to at the coffee break. Apart from her impressive research CV and her past position as president of the AAS, she has an amazing dress sense, a host of wonderful stories about her family (she has a grandchild about the age of my daughter) and makes a mean Mexican chocolate cookie. I find many of the more junior astronomers I have met inspiring too. I want to particularly mention the courage and tenacity I saw in Dr. Amelie Saintonge when she had her first baby during graduate school and still went on to finish in less time than most students in the US. She’s now back at work as a postdoc after recently having her second baby! I hope she’ll forgive me for singling her out if she reads this!
I haven’t mentioned any men here, and I want to make it clear that that is not because many of the men that I have met during my career haven’t been incredibly encouraging and supportive (particularly Riccardo Giovanelli, John Huchra and Bob Nichol and of course my husband Wynn Ho), but because the question asks specifically about role models, and I have decided to focus on female role models.
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 listed on the She’s an Astronomer website in their Profiles.
For editorial help with this post I want to thank Hanny Van Arkel and Kate Land.
Profiled so far:
- Hanny Van Arkel (Galaxy Zoo volunteer and finder of Hanny’s Voorwerp).
- Alice Sheppard (Galaxy Zoo volunteer and forum moderator).
- Gemma Couglin (“fluffyporcupine”, Galaxy Zoo volunteer and forum moderator).
- Aida Berges (Galaxy Zoo volunteer – major irregular galaxy, asteroid and high velocity star finder). Entrevista de Aida en español
- Dr. Vardha Nicola Bennert (researcher at UCSB involved in Hanny’s Voorwerp followup and the “peas” project).
- Carie Cardamone (graduate student at Yale who lead the Peas paper).
- Dr. Kate Land (original Galaxy Zoo team member and first-author of the first Galaxy Zoo scientific publication; now working in the financial world).
Still to come in the series – more Galaxy Zoo volunteers and researchers. We’re not done yet! Next post – Galaxy Zoo volunteer, Julia Wilkinson (Jules).