Tag Archive | Astronomer

Pretty galaxies on the BBC Big Screens

As part of National Science and Engineering Week, 11-20th March 2011 in the UK I was involved in the production of a series of 5 short videos called “From the Earth to the Edge of the Universe” which were made as a collaboration between Creative Technologies and the Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation at the University of Portsmouth. They are going on the BBC Big Screens, apparently right across the UK and continuing up until the 2012 Olympics.

Bear with me, this isn’t just an advert. The reason for the post is that my segment is all about galaxy morphologies. I talk (briefly) about Galaxy Zoo and show the HST image of Hanny’s Voorwerp. I also describe some of the main morphological features of galaxies, and what I like about them. So I thought you might like to watch it (sorry I can’t figure out how to embed it – the below is just a screen shot).KLMvideo

Karen – From Earth To The Edge Of The Universe from CCi Live on Vimeo.

You can watch all 5 videos here.

Cheers, Karen.

She's an Astronomer: Did we really need that series?

A long time ago when I initiated the She’s an Astronomer series I came up with the idea that it would be nice to ask everyone the same questions so that we get a overview of what lots of different (female) astronomers thought about the same issues. I deliberately set up a range of questions to allow the interviewees to focus on both the positive aspects of being involved in astronomy (and particularly the wonderful science Galaxy Zoo does) as well as any negative aspects of being a female in a very male dominated group.


And just in case there are any doubters out there I want to make it very clear that astronomy, both professional and amateur, remains very male dominated at almost all levels (and in professional astronomy, with declining participation the more senior the role). The UK’s professional astronomer group, the RAS has the following statement on the gender make-up of professional astronomers in the UK (admittedly now from 13 year old data):

“The 1998 PPARC/RAS survey for the first time enquired into the gender of members of the UK astronomical community. Women comprised 22% of the population of PhD students, which compares favourably with the 20% of students accepted for undergraduate places in physics and astronomy. However, only 7% of permanent university staff in astronomy are female. Of the UK IAU membership in 1998, 9.2% are female.”

and from our American friends at AAS, they provide a more recently updated table of Statistics which shows the encouraging statistic that in the US now about 40% of the PhD students are now women (but still only about 10% of permanent staff).

Statistics on amateur astronomers are a bit harder to find. You’d think our own Zooite database would help, but unfortunately we don’t track that kind of information. From experience though (as a speaker) I know amateur astronomers are an extremely male dominated group and disappointingly there has been very little change in this over the last few decades. This article in Sky and Telescope (which incidentally pictures one of the professionals we interviewed – Prof. Meg Urry) celebrates the improvement in the numbers of professional women astronomers since the late 70s, but reports that the situation hasn’t changed nearly as much in amateur astronomy: “According to Sky & Telescope reader polls, in 1979 only 6 percent of subscribers were female. By 2002 that number had grown to [only?] 9 percent.” And thanks to my friends on Twitter I found more recent S&T reader demographics which lists only 5% female readers as of January 2010. So that’s very disappointing. And in case you think such figures are somehow S&T only, my friends at the Jodcast tell me their mid 2010 survey of listeners resulted in a figure of 14% women (consistent with 9% women from 2007 within statistical uncertainty).

Anyway back to our She’s an Astronomer series and let’s see what the women who are involved have to say about all this. As it’s been several months now since the last post I’ll remind you that the questions we asked ranged from the personal (to give a bit of background) to more general. They were:

  • How did you first hear about Galaxy Zoo?
  • What has been your main involvement in the Galaxy Zoo project?
  • What do you like most about being involved in Galaxy Zoo?
  • What do you think is the most interesting astronomical question Galaxy Zoo will help to solve?
  • How/when did you first get interested in Astronomy?
  • What (if any) do you think are the main barriers to women’s involvement in Astronomy?
  • Do you have any particular role models in Astronomy?

Also if you remember we interviewed 16 different women – which comprised all 8 of the professional astronomers (from students, to senior professor) who had been involved in Galaxy Zoo at that time, plus 8 of the Zooites.

The full list of interviewees was:

I’ve been wondering for quite some time if the group agreed with each other on anything, and if we can come up with any interesting conclusions by looking at the different answers to each question. As some of you know I’ve been a bit distracted (little things like having a second baby, and getting some exciting Zoo2 results out), but I have now collated the answers to two of the most general questions (“What do you think is the most interesting astronomical question Galaxy Zoo will help to solve?” and “What (if any) do you think are the main barriers to women’s involvement in Astronomy?”) and plan to present my summary of the responses in upcoming blog posts.

I was going to chicken out and start with the science – the less controversial question (and where there was the most agreement), but thinking about it, perhaps it’s better to get the negative out of the way first, so I’ll leave the exciting science answers for next time and instead start with:

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

Here there was a lot of disagreement, but some interesting trends with the level of formal education/career progression in the field (unfortunately in the sense that there were more perceived problems the longer a person had worked in astronomy).

For the most part the Zooites focussed on the problem of presenting science (to both girls and boys) as a boring/hard subject in schools (and to a lesser extent in the media). Our youngest interviewee, Hannah (who is working on her IGCSEs as a home schooled student) summarized the general view most clearly “because it’s taught so badly at school, it shuts down any interest”, and Alice (a science writer and former science teacher) agrees: “I think poor education is a far worse barrier than gender”. Gemma (a postgraduate student in engineering) muses that perhaps it’s because: “maths and science are [not] presented in an interesting way for girls at school and they are perceived as hard, rigid, dusty disciplines”. And Julia (an amateur astronomer with a degree in Economics) finishes it off by saying that she “think[s] that the media is partly to blame for propagating this myth by getting it badly wrong when presenting some science programmes and portraying maths as something we all hated at school”.

There were some positive views from the Zooites though. Hanny (a Dutch school teacher) expressed a her view that if you’re determined enough you’ll make it: “I can’t think of something that would’ve stopped me to be honest”, and there was a view expressed by the volunteers with more life experience that things were improving with time, for example Julia says: “I think things have improved slightly since [I was at school] but the popular myth still exists that maths is hard and science is stuffy and boring” and Els (a secretary in Belgium) says: “as you can see with the Galaxy Zoo community there are lots of women involved of all ages and backgrounds. So I think we’re getting there, eventually.” Aida (a stay home Mom in Puerto Rico, originally from the Dominican Republic) agrees saying “now I see that the universities [in the Dominican Republic] are full of women studying and that makes me so proud. There are no barriers now for us”.

And our ever resourceful Zooites provided some suggestions for improving the first formal introduction to science. Gemma says it best “if people could see more clearly at a young age how many cool things you can do with maths and science and the sense of achievement you get from problem solving, that they aren’t dry subjects that you learn by rote and that there are still many interesting things to discover, I’m sure a lot more people would be interested, be they women or men.”

From the younger members of the professional astronomers there was really good news in a generally positive feeling that the days of really strong barriers/discrimination are over. Anna (a Masters student) told us that “A female office mate and I were discussing how we don’t think there have been any obstacles for us”, Manda (a recent PhD recipient) says; “I don’t think astronomy is any longer a male dominated subject” and that “today [the many barriers which were around 10-20 years ago are] much less of an issue”, Carie (another recent PhD recipient) says that “I’ve never personally felt any discrimination as a female Astronomer,” and Kate (who recently left professional astronomy after completing her PhD and a first post doctoral position says: “I was always given enormous encouragement from my peers and never felt discriminated against.”. We even hear that (again from Anna) “A male office mate brought up that he believes it is easier to be a woman than a man in astronomy”. Unfortunately the picture coming from the more senior astronomers is not so rosy, and our most senior professional Prof. Meg Urry even explains that this was a shift in opinion for her as she remained in the field: “As an undergraduate and graduate student […] I frankly didn’t expect any problems and I didn’t notice any.”, but “30 years in physics and astronomy have shown me [..] the huge pile of female talent that goes wasted every year.” and that “When I see young women today with those attitudes” (i.e.. that there is no problem), “I find myself hoping that in their case, it will be true” (although she carefully adds that “I don’t think it’s a bad thing to be oblivious, as I was – it probably kept me from dissipating energy fighting the machine”). Unconsciously addressing the view of Anna’s male peer that it might be easier for the women than the men now, she describes that even 30 years ago she was being told that “as a woman, I would benefit (the implication was, unfairly) from affirmative action” and concludes “When people say this today, as they often do, I have to laugh. . I sure do wish it were true [..]”

Many of the professional astronomers focussed on the problems the career path poses. Carie explains the situation: “An astronomer must spend much of her 20s and 30s moving from institution to institution, completing a graduate degree and a couple of postdoctoral positions before finding a permanent position.” and Kate (who gave up on professional astronomy because of her dislike of the career path) says: “I don’t think the academic career path suits women particularly well. […] I personally wasn’t keen on the post-doc circuit of moving about every few years…”, Manda agrees saying: “the need to move around frequently for postdoc positions often means people have to make very tough choices”, and Karen (that’s me – and I’m a fairly senior postdoc now) says: “to remain in a career as a researcher is very difficult for both men and women, and I believe slightly more so for women” and I suggest that this career path “doesn’t seem optimized to retain the best researchers – merely the most persistent or flexible”, but Manda points out that “in my experience there are many men who worry about this too and many women who don’t so I don’t think this is a barrier that is specific to women by any means.”

However, another problem posed by the research career path is the balancing of duel careers, something which preferentially hits women scientists as I explained: “because of the current gender imbalance, a higher proportion of female scientists than male scientists are married to other scientists” and as I know from personal experience “the balancing of two careers as junior academics at the same time is something which is really very difficult and stressful”. Carie agrees: “there are numerous problems to consider if both partners are academics, a common situation for female astronomers”.

Worries about combining a life in research with having a family are also mentioned several times. Carie says that if you’re “thinking about starting a family, it can be very difficult [..]”. and from Vardha (another senior postdoc): “I think that it must be difficult for women to have children while pursuing an astronomical career, since both tasks are quite time demanding.” Alice is the only Zooite to mention the demands of family, but points out that for many women (herself included) “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. ” Of course as Vardha says, “there are many women in astronomy who prove that it is possible [to do both]” and in fact we have two examples of professional astronomers with children who were interviewed (that’s me and Meg), although I did say that “having children while a postdoc [was] a difficult choice to have had to make” (and would add that the impact on my staying power in the field is yet to be determined as I do not have that sought after permanent job yet). Alice mentions three more female astronomer role models with children (Cecilia Payne-Gaposkin, Jocelyn Bell-Burnell and Vera Rubin) and says in particular that a blog post on Vera Rubin was “very encouraging on that front” (i.e. the ability to balance astronomical research and having children), but then Manda says that “There are very few female astronomers in very senior academic positions and even fewer who have chosen to have a family”, and goes on to comment that “This does sometimes make me doubt if I can pull off both having a successful academic career as well as a family because there are so few examples of women who have actually achieved this!”

Our most senior professional astronomers (our two Profs: Meg and Pamela) both have comments about the sometimes poor climate and the still prevalent (but usually subtle) discrimination. Pamela says that “I think a lot of academia is still very much an old boys network”, and describes examples of subtle discrimination which just make the women feel they don’t belong (for example “too few women’s bathrooms”, “equipment [..] designed for tall, flat chested, heavy object lifting men” etc.). Meg says that 30 years in the field have shown here that “Fewer women are sought after as speakers, assistant professors, prize winners, than men of comparable ability”. Going back to the school years, Zooite Julia says that “Girls just weren’t encouraged to take sciences”, and Aida recalls how when she was at school (in the Dominican Republic) “girls were supposed to marry young and be housewives”. And not to depress you further, but some of our 16 interviewees had some horrible stories of less subtle discrimination to share. Meg has “seen talented women ignored, overlooked, and sometimes denigrated to the point where they abandon their dreams”, Pamela recalls the common assumption that “since I’m in a physics department, [..] I must be a secretary”. And I remembered that “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”. From the Zooites, Alice mentioned Cecilia Payne-Gaposkin and Jocelyn Bell-Burnell who she comments were “both treated outrageously unfairly” and has some sad stories of her own to share too.

But moving back to the positive I’ll say again that there was a real sense that things are improving – just very slowly. Pamela (who remember is based in the US which has the worst maternity leave policy of any developed country and poor health care for most people not in stable jobs) concludes her comments with the statement that ” I suspect it will take at least a generation (and major reform to things like maternity leave and health care) for real change to take place, but I believe the change has started.”. I agree saying ” I hope eventually society’s perception of women in science will change […], but I think this will be a very slow process.”

And finally as encouragement for all the girls and women out there interested in astronomy as a career I’m going to reproduce almost the whole last paragraph of Meg’s answer with some helpful suggestions for getting around the problems which remain.

“[..] let me keep it simple: there is discrimination, and it is done by all of us, men and women both, quite unconsciously for the most part. There is a large body of research in the social science literature (which, unfortunately, natural scientists rarely read) documenting the natural tendency of all of us – people raised in a society where men dominate leadership roles in most fields – to undervalue women. I hope young women don’t experience what I did – and there’s a good chance they won’t – but every young woman or under-represented minority scientist should learn about this “unconscious bias” so that, should they ever find themselves getting discouraged or feeling inadequate as scientists, they will correct for the effect of a harmful environment and recognize their own considerable achievements and talents. Or just call me! I’ll be happy to try to reassure them. It’s probably not them, it’s that they are trying to do science in an environment that is unwittingly toxic.”

So that’s why I thought we needed a blog series showcasing the women of Galaxy Zoo. Next time – all the fun science which after all is the reason we all tough it out when we have to!

She’s an Astronomer: Els Baeten

Els Baeten

Els Baeten

Els’s interview in het Nederlands

Els Baeten (ElisabethB) lives in Belgium, in the old university town Leuven. She studied medicine for a few years, but then decided that it was not what she really wanted to do. She now works as a secretary in an SEO company.

When she isn’t busy doing anything Zoo-related she can be found at festivals, concerts, exhibitions and the theatre. She also loves reading and spending time with her family, friends and their children.

  • How did you first hear about Galaxy Zoo?

In July 2007 I was browsing the site of New Scientist and I came across an article about a new Internet based project called Galaxy Zoo. I immediately thought: this has to be good! At the first look I got hooked and I have been actively involved in most parts of the project ever since.

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

I’ve been involved in most of the projects. First of all classifying galaxies in Galaxy Zoo 1 and 2 of course, and I also really like the special hunts for mergers, peas and voorwerpjes.

My contribution to the Peas paper was finding lots of them. And it was really great to see my name mentioned in that paper! I’m also rather fond of Gravitational Lenses and if we could get some of them confirmed that would be great news indeed. For the moment I’m having a lot of fun with Merger Zoo and the Barred Spirals. And when I really want to relax I go asteroid-hunting. Wouldn’t it be great to have an asteroid named Galaxy Zoo!

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

I love the fact that people from every background are able to make a real contribution to scientific research. It’s also great to be part of a team of enthusiastic people from all over the world.

And I’d never expected to meet so many new friends.

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

I think there will be lots of questions solved with the results of Galaxy Zoo. Especially questions that nobody thought of in the first place, questions that pop up when a large amount of curious people sift through large amounts of data. In this respect Galaxy Zoo also offers new perspectives for other areas of scientific research.

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

When I was young I saw all around me that science was a part of everyday life. Both my grandfathers were avid readers who loved sharing their knowledge about nature and everything with their grandchildren. I watched the first moon landing in my pyjamas together with my entire family. My sister, brother and I had a really big book with the history of the earth and also with lots of pictures of the solar system and the stars. I also have fond memories of watching Cosmos with Carl Sagan with my family. And our parents let us stay up very late during clear summer nights to watch the stars and the occasional meteor.

So stars and planets and everything that is out there have always been a part of my world.

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

In my school, a traditional all girls school, I never had the impression that science and maths weren’t for girls. They were just subjects some of us were good at. But in general, a scientific career or any career for that matter, is still more difficult to achieve for a woman.

But as you can see with the Galaxy Zoo community there are lots of women involved of all ages and backgrounds. So I think we’re getting there, eventually.

  • Do you have any particular role models in Astronomy?

I don’t think I would use the word ‘role model’ but I really admire the Zookeepers and other astronomers involved for coming up with this great idea and continuously thinking of new ideas and projects. I especially admire the way they share their knowledge with us and the value they attach to our efforts.

Finally I’d like to thank my sister, Veerle, for helping me out with this blog post and Edd for the pictures.

Els’s interview in het Nederlands

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.

Still to come in the series – more Galaxy Zoo volunteers and researchers, it might be December 2009 – but we’re going to keep going for a few months more!

Zij is een astronoom: Els Baeten

Our first She’s an Astronomer translation posted at the same time as the interview! Thanks Els.

Els Baeten

Els’s Interview in English.

Els Baeten (ElisabethB) woont in België, in de oude universiteitsstad Leuven. Ze studeerde enkele jaren geneeskunde maar besloot uiteindelijk dat dit  toch niet echt was wat ze wou doen. Ze werkt nu als secretaresse in een herverzekeringsmaatschappij.

Wanneer ze niet bezig is in de Zoo kan je haar vinden op festivals, concerten,  tentoonstellingen of in het theater. Ze houdt ook van lezen en brengt veel tijd door met haar familie, vrienden en hun kinderen.

  • Waar hoorde je het eerst over Galaxy Zoo ?

In juli 2007 zag ik een artikel op de site van New Scientist over een nieuw internet project : Galaxy Zoo. Mijn eerste reactie was : Dat ziet er goed uit ! Vanaf het eerste moment was ik helemaal verkocht en ik ben sindsdien actief betrokken bij de meeste projecten.

  • Wat zijn je belangrijkste verwezenlijkingen binnen Galaxy Zoo?

Eerst en vooral natuurlijk het classificeren van sterrenstelsels in Galaxy Zoo 1 en 2. En ik vond de speciale zoektochten naar botsende sterrenstelse (mergers), Peas en Voorwerpjes heel leuk om te doen.

Mijn bijdrage aan het Peas paper was dat ik er een heleboel gevonden heb. En je naam vermeld zien staan in een wetenschappelijk paper doet je toch wel wat.

Ik ben ook erg geïnteresseerd in zwaartekrachtlenzen en ik hoop echt dat enkele van onze vondsten the real deal zullen zijn!

Voor het ogenblik heb ik het naar mijn zin met Merger Zoo en de Barred Spirals (balkspiralen). En als  ik echt wil ontspannen ga ik op asteroïdenjacht. Zou het niet geweldig zijn : een asteroïde die Galaxy Zoo heet!

  • Wat vind je het leukste aan Galaxy Zoo ?

Ik vind het fantastisch dat mensen van totaal verschillende achtergronden kunnen bijdragen aan wetenschappelijk onderzoek. Het is ook geweldig om deel uit te maken van een team van enthousiaste mensen van alle uithoeken van de wereld. En ik had nooit gedacht dat ik zo veel nieuwe vrienden zou vinden.

  • Wat is de meest interessante astronomische vraag die Galaxy Zoo zal kunnen oplossen ?

Ik denk dat er een groot aantal vragen beantwoord zal worden dankzij de resultaten van Galaxy Zoo. En dan vooral vragen waar niemand ooit aan gedacht had. Vragen die opduiken wanneer heel veel nieuwsgierige mensen enorme massa’s gegevens doorzoeken. Galaxy Zoo gooit zo ook de deur open voor andere gebieden van wetenschappelijk onderzoek

  • Hoe en wanneer kwam je voor het eerst in contact met astronomie?

Als klein kind zag ik overal rondom mij dat wetenschap bij het leven van iedere dag hoorde. Mijn twee grootvaders waren gretige lezers die hun kennis over en liefde voor de natuur met veel enthousiasme met hun kleinkinderen wilden delen.

Ik zag de eerste maanlanding in mijn pyjama, samen met de hele familie. Mijn zus, broer en ik hadden een heel groot boek over de geschiedenis van de aarde, ook met een gedeelte over het zonnestelsel en de sterren. Ik heb ook hele mooie herinneringen aan Cosmos van Carl Sagan waar we met de hele familie naar keken.

En op heldere warme zomerdagen lieten onze ouders ons heel laat opblijven om te kijken naar de sterren en een toevallige meteoor.

Sterren en planeten en alles wat er rondom ons bestaat zijn altijd een deel van mijn wereld geweest.

  • Wat zijn de (eventuele) obstakels voor de deelname van vrouwen in de astronomie ?

Toen ik naar school ging, nochtans een traditionele meisjesschool, had ik nooit het gevoel dat wetenschappen en wiskunde niets voor meisjes waren. Het waren gewoon vakken waar sommige meisjes goed in waren. Maar in het algemeen is het toch nog steeds moeilijker voor vrouwen om een wetenschappelijke carrière, of eender welke carrière, uit te bouwen.

Maar zoals je kan zien zijn er in de Galaxy Zoo heel wat vrouwen van alle leeftijden en achtergronden. Dus zullen we er wel komen, uiteindelijk.

  • Heb je rolmodellen in de astronomie ?

Ik zou het woord rolmodel niet echt gebruiken maar ik bewonder de Zookeepers en de andere betrokken astronomen voor het bedenken van dit geweldige idee en de manier waarop ze telkens weer nieuwe projecten aanreiken. Ik bewonder heel speciaal de manier hoe ze hun kennis met ons delen en het belang dat ze aan onze bijdragen hechten.

Tenslotte zou ik nog graag mijn zus Veerle willen bedanken voor haar hulp bij het schrijven van deze blog post en Edd voor de foto.

Els’s Interview in English.

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.

Still to come in the series – more Galaxy Zoo volunteers and researchers, it might be December 2009 – but we’re going to keep going for a few months more!

She's an Astronomer: Pamela L. Gay

Pamela & her horse Skye

Pamela & her horse Skye

Dr Pamela L. Gay is on the faculty at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville where she teaches, produces the Astronomy Cast podcast with Fraser Cain, and works with the Galaxy Zoo project. In addition to podcasting, she also works to communicate astronomy to the public through her Star Stryder blog, through frequent public talks, and through popular articles. She received a B.S. in Astrophysis from Michigan State University in 1996 and a Ph.D. in Astronomy from the University of Texas in 2002. While it may seem (even to her!) that she either lives on campus or online, she actually lives in a historic house in southern Illinois with her husband, two dogs, and a lot of books. Whenever she can, she escapes to Liberty Prairie Farm to ride her horse Skye.
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She's an Astronomer: Julia Wilkinson

Julia Wilkinson (Jules)

Julia Wilkinson (Jules)

Julia Wilkinson (aka Jules) manages an Advice Centre in Manchester by day and is an amateur astronomer by night – out with her telescopes or binoculars if it’s a clear, starry night or inside with Galaxy Zoo or an astronomy book if it’s cloudy. Julia has a degree in Economics and has also studied music and has a house full of musical instruments that she fully intends to find time to play again one day! A more recent interest is astrophotography and one or two of her photos have appeared on the forum’s astrophotography thread. Enticed into astronomy having grown up with the Apollo Moon programme she has always regretted not studying sciences at school but spurred on by her involvement in Galaxy Zoo she now studies science and particularly astronomy with the Open University.

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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.

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She's an Astronomer – International Editions

Our She’s an Astronomer series is part of the International Year of Astronomy – and what better way to be international than to provide some posts in languages other than English! Thanks to Aida for inspiring this addition – she told me in an email she had translated her interview into Spanish for her parents and a light bulb went on. We’ll start with Aida’s interview in Spanish, shortly to be followed by posts in the native tongues of Hanny (Dutch) and Vardha (German). This idea turned out to be popular the non-native English speaking women involved, who provided their translations much more quickly than I’ll be able to post them!

Ella es una Astrónoma: Aida Bergés


Aida’s interview in English

Aida Bergés (Lovethetropics) vive en Puerto Rico con su esposo e hijos.  Originaria de la República Dominicana, ella estudio en un colegio católico para señoritas (Colelgio del Apostolado), donde fue inspirada o motivada por su profesora de historia (Rosa María Reyes Feriz).  Después de graduarse de allí, inició la universidad a estudiar leyes, donde la Juez de la Suprema Corte, Ana Rosa Bergés Dreyfuss (miembro de su familia), se convirtió en una profesora muy querida.  Después de terminar su grado en inglés en otra universidad, ella desempeñó  varios trabajos secretariales como traductora.  Se trasladó a Puerto Rico a vivir con el mayor de sus hermanos y su esposa, conociendo entonces a su esposo, (Benito García Méndez).  Su rol principal en los últimos 30 años ha sido ser esposa y madre de Benny y Laura (ahora adultos; Benny trabaja y Laura se encuentra terminando su maestría en Psicología).  La familia ha pasado la mayor parte de su tiempo en Puerto Rico, excepto por 7 años que estuvieron en Jew Jersey, donde nacieron los niños.   A Aida le encanta leer historia, ciencia ficción y fantasia.  Ella tiene tres perros y un gato.  A ella también le encanta el océano, particular y especialmente ir a la playa o simplemente contemplar las olas.

  • ¿Cómo supiste de Galaxy Zoo?

Estaba leyendo CNN en línea y encontré un artículo que describía cómo una joven profesora de los países bajos, había encontrado un nuevo tipo de objeto que fue llamado Voorwerp de Hanny.  Era un artículo que celebraba el primer año de Galaxy Zoo.  Fui a Galaxy Zoo inmediatamente y mi vida cambió para siempre…  Para mí fue como llegar a casa.

  • ¿En qué te has involucrado más dentro del Proyecto Galaxy Zoo?

Formo parte del Programa de Irregulares y también del Proyecto de Estrellas  hiperveloces.  En el Proyecto de las galaxias irregulares, yo busco las galaxias irregulares y se las envío a Richard Proctor para ser integradas a la clasificación.

Tenemos ahora más de 17,000 irregulares y la cantidad o los números crecen cada día.  Además necesitamos la ayuda de los miembros de Galaxy Zoo con sus clicks (esos clicks lo que hacen es que tú decides si una galaxia es irregular o no) en la clasificación de Irregulares.  Le mando a Richard entre 100 y 500 posibles irregulares cada semana.  También trabajé en la clasificación  de tres Pea (guisantes), Integraciones, Voorwerpjes y Supernova.  Encontré un objeto verde inusual hace muchísimo tiempo que ha sido nombrado el objeto verde, misterioso de Aida, el cual ha sido el objeto del día.  Todavía no sabemos lo que es.

Los dos proyectos mayores en los que he estado envuelta han sido por pura coincidencia.  Con el proyecto de las irregulares yo era la que buscaba las galaxias para la clasificación y cuando decidimos escribir el primer artículo sobre astronomía, sin ser astrónomo, yo fui icluída.  Clasifiqué sola 24,000 galaxias para limpiar la muestra de espirales, elípticas, artefactos y objetos que no pueden ser identificados.   Después clasifiqué 12,000 más.

Para el proyecto de las estrellas hiperveloces fue pura coincidencia que encontré dos,  como en cinco minutos.  Tuve que buscar en Google el término “estrellas hiperveloces” porque no tenía idea que existían.  Lo publiqué en el sitio de los novatos y tenía que hacer un objeto del día y Thomas Jennings me dio la idea de publicar las estrellas hiperveloces conocidas.  El “Zookeeper” (esto es un astrónomo de Galaxy Zoo), Jordan, leyó el objeto del día y se emocionó tanto que un grupo de intrépidos miembros de Galaxy Zoo decidimos buscar más, yo soy una de ellos.  Estamos casi listos para hacer la primera página de una nueva división para ellas en Galaxy Zoo.

Hasta ahora solamente hay 16 o 17 estrellas hiperveloces conocidas; pero estamos muy  optimistas de que podemos conseguir más, aunque sea solamente por la gran cantidad de miembros que tenemos.  Nosotros somos más grandes que las fuerzas  armadas de Suiza.

  • ¿En qué es lo que más te gusta involucrarte en Galaxy Zoo?

Lo que más me gusta es ayudar a los científicos a descubrir nuevas cosas y estar allí cuando esto sucede.  Las personas en Galaxy Zoo son maravillosas, comenzando con los moderadores, los astrónomos de Galaxy Zoo (Zookeepers) y todos  los miembros en general.   Para mí es como estar en casa.

  • ¿Cuál tú crees que en astronomía es la interrogante más interesante que Galaxy Zoo ayudaría a resolver?

Con cada pregunta que respondemos, tenemos diez preguntas más.  Primero me gustaría saber el lugar que ocupan las galaxias irregulares en el universo. Después me gustaría saber si hay otros Voorwerpjen y dónde termina la saga de los Voorwerpjes, así como las galaxias anilladas en forma de tela de araña (así es que Aida denomina las galaxias que tienen anillos extendidos de muy baja luz superficial).  Esas son las galaxias más bellas para mí y como están formadas las galaxias anilladas de onda de choques.  Muchas preguntas y poco café.

  • ¿Cómo y cuándo te interesaste por primera vez en Astronomía?

Cuando era joven vivía en el campo, así es que las estrellas y la luna eran espetaculares… Desde que vi por primera vez las estrellas me han interesado.  Yo comencé a entrar al internet porque quería leer todo lo que pudiera sobre la astronomía.

  • ¿Cuál tú crees (si alguna) es la barrera más importante para que las mujeres se integren en la astronomía?

Bueno, yo vengo de un país del tercer mundo, República Dominicana. En mi ápoca se supone que las mujeres se casaran jóvenes y fueran amas de casa; pero ahora veo que las universidades allí están llenas de mujeres estudiando, lo cual me hace sentir muy orgullosa.  Ya no existen barreras para nosotras, quizás solamente algunos hombres reacios; pero las mujeres estamos ganando.

  • ¿Tienes algún ejemplo a seguir en astronomía?

Tendría que decir que los astrónomos de Galaxy Zoo (Zookeepers) son mi ejemplo a seguir porque antes de entrar a Galaxy Zoo yo no conocía a ningún astrónomo.  Especialmente Chris Lintott y Jordan Raddick porque estamos haciendo el proyecto de las irregulares juntos.  Jordan Raddick es doble porque el nos está ayudando con las estrellas hiperveloces.  También Bil Keel a quien estoy ayudando a conseguir más posibles Voorwepjes (estas son galaxias que tienen una emisión tan fuerte de radiación que es visible al ojo humano) y  Thomas Jennings que comenzó el sitio donde las personas nuevas en esto pueden hacer preguntas y quien  regresó a la universidad a estudiar astronomía.  A eso es lo que yo llama una persona comprometida.

La persona que me inspiró a amar la ciencia en general fue mi hermana Adolfina.  Ella es doctora en medicina con especialidad en Pediatría y Hematología.  Ella y su esposo, quien es también un Hematólogo, descubrieron un elemento en la sangra desconocido hasta el momento en que ellos lo encontraron.  Ella es la hermana más buena y amorosa que cualquiera puede tener.

Me gustaría incluir un profundo agradecimiento a mis padres, Rafael Bergés Lara y Thelma García de Bergés, al igual que a mis tios, Manuel Bergés Lara y tia Carmen.

Aida’s interview in English

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.

  • 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).
  • July 1st 2009: Alice Sheppard (Galaxy Zoo volunteer and forum moderator).
  • July 27th 2009: Carie Cardamone (graduate student at Yale who lead the Peas paper).
  • Aug 28th 2009: Gemma Couglin (“fluffyporcupine”, Galaxy Zoo volunteer and forum moderator).
  • Sept 15th 2009: Dr. Kate Land (original Galaxy Zoo team member and first-author of the first Galaxy Zoo scientific publication; now working in the financial world).
  • Oct 1st 2009: Aida Berges (Galaxy Zoo volunteer – major irregular galaxy, asteroid and high velocity star finder). Entrevista de Aida en español

She's an Astronomer: Kate Land


Dr. Kate Land is from sunny Sussex on the south coast of the UK and her research/studies have taken her to Cambridge (undergrad), Imperial (PhD), and then Oxford (postdoc). Her PhD was on the Cosmic Microwave Background radiation, and in particular exploring anomalies in the WMAP data and their implications for our cosmological models. During her postdoc, her research continued to focus on cosmological observations, such as galaxy surveys and supernovae data, and what they might tell us beyond our current understanding. While a postdoc in the Astrophysics group of Oxford University, Kate had the pleasure of sharing an office with Dr. Chris Lintott. But she assures him that this had nothing to do with her decision to leave the field and enter into a new profession! Kate now works as a quantitative researcher in finance, and enjoys living in London with her boyfriend and savoring the delights of North London pubs at the weekends.

  • How did you first hear about Galaxy Zoo?

In the pub with Chris! Another cosmologist (Anze Slosar) and myself were interested in investigating recent claims in the literature about the rotations of spiral galaxies in our local universe aligning in an unlikely way (they shouldn’t really align at all!). But we realised that we’d have to go through thousands of images of galaxies (or develop some software) to identify the handedness of the galaxies. We thought about dumping a laptop in the coffee area of our department to get people to help, and I asked Chris for advice over a pint one evening – because I knew he was very good at crowd-sourcing (having already got children from around the world to observe a quasar for him 24 hours a day!). He then told me about Galaxy Zoo, which was in its infant stage at this point. And it was a great match – our project would fit in perfectly, adding another scientific motivation to GZ while Anze and I would provide some more ‘man’ power!

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

I was pretty heavily involved in all stages of the project for its fist year from helping to test the site, monitor traffic, analyse data, interact with zooites, deal with the press, and eventually publish papers! I was part of the front line when it all kicked off in July 07 – and I mean front line! It was madness with thousands of emails a day coming in, media people ringing for interviews, and servers exploding! I loved answering peoples questions but we quickly realised that we couldn’t keep up with the emails and we launched first the FAQ page on the site, and then the forum. The media part was fun too… doing live radio interviews on the fly, and helping with pieces for New Scientist, Physics World, etc. About 9 months after Galaxy Zoo launched we submitted the first Galaxy Zoo paper. It was an awesome moment for me, and the whole project, when it got published.

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

The popularity of the site was absolutely heart-warming. I used to get quite emotional reading emails and posts on the forum from zooites who loved the project and were wild about astronomy. So much of an academic’s work can be remote, abstract, and cut off from the ‘real-world’. And it was just brilliant to work on something that touched so many people.

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

The cosmology ones! But I am biased… to be totally honest I didn’t know much about galaxies when I first got involved with GZ. I was, and remain, more interested in cosmology; the study of Universe as a whole. And as objects sitting in space, galaxies can reveal a lot about how the Universe is expanding, and any invisible forces that are influencing them.

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

As a kid I was always fascinated by big questions, like ‘where is the edge of the Universe?’, and ‘what is empty space made of?’. I couldn’t sleep sometimes for getting myself so confused and freaked out! My granddad was also a massive influence on me – he was a mathematician, and fascinated by astronomy. At 7 he bought me a calculator, at 8 a star chart, and at 9 a subscription to the Junior Astronomical Society. I also got handed down a telescope about this time and saw some of Jupiter’s moons and Saturn’s rings from my bedroom window. Very cool! Maths became my thing at school, college, and Uni. But in my second year at Uni I got back into astronomy – heavily influenced by images from the Hubble telescope which are gorgeous and awe inspiring. I found the scales, temperatures, and physics involved with the stuff going on in the Universe very exciting – and I was chuffed to be able to do the final year of my degree in Astrophysics (rather than Maths). This was the first step towards me becoming a theoretical cosmologist, and thinking about those big questions again!

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

I don’t know of anything stopping women getting involved in amateur astronomy. But I don’t think the academic career path suits women particularly well. I was always given enormous encouragement from my peers and never felt discriminated against. But I personally wasn’t keen on the post-doc circuit of moving about every few years… I wanted to plan for the future and ‘nest build’ somewhat, and in a location of my choice! I think this is more of a female thing – to agonise over the future. But it might have just been me being unadventurous!

  • Do you have any particular role models in Astronomy?

My supervisor, Prof. Joao Magueijo, was an enormous influence on me. Not only a genius, but a lot of fun to work with – very supportive, unpatronising, and encouraging with his students and very involved in the research we did together. Another inspiration is Dr. Sarah Bridle, of UCL. A very smart woman, who is refreshingly unpretentious and friendly! I’d say she is a great role model for female academics.

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 sixth post of the series. So far we have interviewed:

  • Hanny Van Arkel (Galaxy Zoo volunteer and finder of Hanny’s Voorwerp, “Hanny”).
  • Dr. Vardha Nicola Bennert (researcher at UCSB involved in Hanny’s Voorwerp followup and the “peas” project).
  • Alice Sheppard (Galaxy Zoo volunteer and forum moderator, “Alice”).
  • Carie Cardamone (graduate student at Yale who lead the Peas paper).
  • Gemma Coughlin (Galaxy Zoo volunteer and forum moderator, “Fluffyporcupine”).

Still to come in the series – more Galaxy Zoo volunteers and researchers, including next: Aida Berges (“Lovethetropics”), high velocity star searcher extraordinaire!