She's an Astronomer: Karen Masters


Karen and her daughter, Sept 2008.

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:

  • Zooites:
  • Researchers:
    • 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).


About karenlmasters

Professor of Astronomy and Physics at Haverford College, USA. Principle Investigator for Galaxy Zoo. Spokesperson for fourth phase of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. Enjoys using radio telescopes. Busy having fun with astronomy!

21 responses to “She's an Astronomer: Karen Masters”

  1. Hanny says :

    My pleasure! ๐Ÿ˜‰

  2. Aida Berges says :

    Congratulations Karen! Wonderful interview and so interesting to know how much you have accomplished. ;D

  3. Alice says :

    What an awesome interview, Karen. I read this feeling hooked and fascinated! (Until the bit about Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin and Jocelyn Bell-Burnell, at which point I jumped out of my skin, since I’d picked them to mention in my little rant!) I’m so glad you joined Galaxy Zoo too.

    Looking forward to the rest ๐Ÿ˜€

  4. Karen says :

    Hanny – thanks. Alice – also thanks! Jocelyn Bell and Cecilia Payne really have amazing stories! Your comment prompted me to go back to your post to see what you had said about them, and that reminded me that I missed out Vera Rubin in my role models. She’s another woman who so clearly loves science and whose example is inspirational! But I did already write about her in an earlier blog post so I suppose it’s fair! (See:

  5. bportlock says :

    Karen said: “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 donโ€™ 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.”

    My wife has an engineering degree and she was one of two females in her course. The other 118 were all male, but she has said on many occasions that it was never the men who had a problem with her doing engineering, it was almost always other women who gave her a hard time. One of my daughters is starting to show an interest in science and the other daughter in architecture (I did Applied Maths & Physics at Uni) so we are encouraging them both as much as we can. Fortunately the science and maths homeworks are easily explained by the parents in this house!

    I was wondering whether Karen (or any other ladies here) would like to comment? I had always assumed that it would be the blokes who would resent woman entering into a traditionally male area.

    Just curious…. (and keep up the good work Karen. I’ve done quite a few barred spirals and I will be interested to see the outcome)

  6. Alice says :

    Bportlock, I think that is a very good point – not always the way, but often. I went to an all girls’ school until I was 16, and although maths was encouraged for the top class (in which I wasn’t!), science was universally thought of, even by the teachers, as an unimportant subject, only something to get through because of government requirements. The school itself didn’t take science at all seriously. (The only teacher who clearly did want us all to excel was a woman, a very young new teacher who only started there when I was 14. She also told me I must do A level chemistry, and I had so much respect for her that I obeyed her!)

    When I went on to a mixed school (and did A level Chemistry which was by far my favourite and most satisfying course), it all changed – although there were generally more boys on the science courses and especially maths, both sexes seemed to find science a lot more “normal”.

    It’s certainly usually men who end up listening raptly and wanting to know more if I mention the zoo, or who are willing to get into a conversation about that kind of thing. Steve Biko said, “The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed” – rather more extreme than the women/science situation nowadays obviously, but an ominous statement! I wonder if there’s a certain dog-in-the-manger attitude about it: they were put off science so it annoys them to see some other woman getting away with it?

  7. veggy2 says :

    My wife, now in her late fifites, showed maths and science ability at her girls school and would like to have taken it futher but was leaned on heavily by the school and her own mother to study more ladylike subjects.

  8. Infinity says :

    Great work Karen and a great story, I always wanted to be an astronaut too ๐Ÿ™‚

  9. Karen says :

    Bportlock – I think you’re right. The girls are often the hardest to deal with. Teenagers in general seem very cruel, and the pressure to conform in high school is enormous. For me, moving locations to do my A-levels (to a 6th Form College) was a huge positive – both academically and socially! I think that’s the only practical advice I have!

    But I don’t think it’s good to blame one gender or another for the problem, and I hope nothing in my interview suggested that. All the studies show that gender bias is not specific just men – women are just as likely to exhibit it, so need to be aware of the consequences. We all grow up in the same society after all and are exposed to the same prejudices.

    However I will admit that some of the worst direct discouragement I have experienced has come from women scientists. Usually it’s expressed in terms of a warning of how tough it will be and/or how I’ll need to be better than the men to succeed. I think generally it comes from a wish to be helpful, not any sort of “dog-in-the-manger” attitude. But it has lead me to think carefully about how I interact with younger women and girls interested in science.

  10. bportlock says :

    Thanks for the feedback. I found the comment about the “liberation” of moving to a college to do A levels interesting, particularly since Alice and Karen independently (I guess!) had such similar experiences.

    Ironically, given Alice’s comments about chemistry, I’m currently helping my daughter with her chemistry (the halogens and molecular structure diagrams). Good timing there Alice!

    Veggy2 – you echo pretty much what my wife said. Her friends and their mothers wanted to know why she was not doing secretarial courses or nursing. Her reply that she had no interest in them totally perplexed her questioners.

    Karen – I wasn’t attempting to suggest a particular gender bias. I’m sure there are plenty of misogynist dinosaurs on my side of the fence, but men and women are often portrayed (by the other sex) as backing each other up. Women say that “Men always stick together” and men talk about “The sisterhood”. My wife’s comment ran counter to this “common knowledge” which is what provoked my interest. Both my wife and I are keen that our daughters get to do whatever they want to do and they are not pressurised by us or others.

    My own opinion is that the human race needs ALL the talent it lay its hands on and it matters not one jot whether those with the skills are male or female. The resources that the world is truly short on are ability, skill and intelligence.

    Best regards


  11. Alice says :

    Oh, I *loved* chemistry! In fact I should dig out the chemistry sheets I made for my A level students back in the days of my teacher training. I still enjoy reading my 1st-year-degree-level chemistry textbook.

    I didn’t mean to blame any gender either, and the dog-in-the-manger comment referred to girls who didn’t think any fellow girl should have a career at all (yes, there are a few, not very many). Anyway, I think we all know what we all mean ๐Ÿ˜€

    In fact the prejudiced people may be the most miserable – when we are strong enough, we can try to liberate them, too.

  12. bportlock says :


    With regard to the “prejudiced” I believe that only they can liberate themselves, but perhaps we can lead by example and throw them a few hints.

    On happier matters…

    I have been known to flick through old university notes when up in the attic. My “from first principles” mathematical derivation of the Geiger-Marsden scattering experiment stills brings a tear to the eye…. *sniff!*

    I recently found some observing notes from my early days with a telescope borrowed from the local astronomical club. I was a rather beat-up looking 3″ refractor but it gave some lovely images. Smeared pencil drawings of lunar craters and Saturn’s rings. Ahhhh, the fun I had. I can still remember the BAA finder field for SS Cygni.

  13. Jo says :

    Wow! Great interview, i really enjoyed reading this, it made me ask myself a lot of questions.

    Do other women judge what i do (Zoo)? Who have i told? With two young children meeting mums on the preschool run isnโ€™t actually the best for discussions about the universe. Telling my old friends about the Zoo came as no great surprise to them. I can however picture some raised eyebrows from other women and wry smile when previously mentioning the subject. Made worse when you are not a scientist and cannot even argue your corner with any real credit. This can leave you stranded to discuss anything with anyone.

    I do think that instead of competing and comparing ourselves we should look to find benefits in our differing approaches. Thatโ€™s if men and women do approach the subject differently? i wonder if there is further reading on this?

  14. Carie says :

    Bportlock – I went to Wellesley College as an undergraduate, and in that environemnt the women were very encouraging.
    Almost every scientist I knew was female, and we were all very encouraging of each other. I don’t know if that continues at the highschool level, but it was certainly true at the college level.

  15. elizatbeth says :

    Wonderful interview!!

  16. Karen says :

    Thanks again for all the nice comments.

    Jo – it does seem to me that (other) mothers can be the most judgemental set of people. Perhaps since once you have kids that seems to make you a target for everyone else’s opinions about how you should raise them it’s done in self-defense, but I think it’s really something we should fight against! I won’t even comment on some of the raised eyebrows about being a working (scientist) mother… but there’s lots of support too of course.

    My Mum told me she read this yesterday, which reminded me I totally forgot to mention her. During my secondary school years she would come along with me to evening classes about astronomy, and all sorts of other stuff. That was really a huge help to me. I would never have gone alone, and my friends thought I was odd for even wanting too in general! ๐Ÿ™‚

  17. Jo says :

    Thanks for the reply Karen. Good luck with all your future projects.

  18. Anonymous says :

    Thought provoking interview!

  19. erum sameer says :

    hello i have a daughter and i want to make my daughter astronomer. still she is 6 year old , but i want to start astronomer edjucation still now. but i live in pakistan and in pakistan not prefer me and i donot want to spoil my daughter future. so please help . I know my child have a lot of skills . please do not ignore me . because in future my child will become a big astronomer. I am mother and I am very woried about her , because I live in pakistan and in pakistan not higher edjucation of astronomer please do not ignor me GOD BLESS YOU , THANKX THANKX.(ERUM02000@YAHOO.COM)

  20. Karen Masters says :

    Thanks for your comment. I’m delighted you want to encourage your daughter’s interest in astronomy. Since she is still so young, I think that’s all you can or need to do at the moment. If you have the resources to find her some books on the subject (obviously aimed at her age group) and help her to use the internet to learn more (there are some great online resources, for example the NASA Kids Club: or StarChild: that would be wonderful.

    When she’s older, if her interest remains, the best thing for her to do is to study physics or engineering at university. At that point (many years from now) she may find the chance to study abroad, or Pakistan may be a very different place by then!

    She’s already off to the best start by having a mother who want to encourage her interest in science rather than push her towards more traditionally “girl” activities. As a mother I feel I want to encourage you to let her be a little girl too though. There should be noting contradictory about being girly and being a scientist.

    Best of luck, Karen.

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