Smashing astronomy's glass ceiling

Inspired to follow a path few women had taken previously

Professor Lisa Kewley outside the Mount Stromlo observatory site, Canberra

Professor Lisa Kewley

A career in astronomy searching the furthest reaches of galaxies has taken Professor Lisa Kewley from Australia to Boston and Hawaii and back again to Australia. As a young woman growing up in Adelaide, Lisa’s passion for astronomy was ignited by an inspirational high school teacher. “My physics teacher was into astronomy and had his own telescope. I loved the school astronomy camp,” she said. “I wanted to understand the universe: I found black holes fascinating.”

Lisa’s path was sealed when she attended the National Science Summer School (now called the National Youth Science Forum) in 1991. “I was sponsored to go to Canberra where I interacted with other kids who were also into science. As a member of the Galileo group I visited Mount Stromlo Observatory just outside Canberra and it was then that I realised that I could have a career in astronomy. I persevered despite a lack of female role models in science and not being able to take my physics teacher’s science class due to timetable clashes. I suspected that I would hit a glass ceiling in an astronomy career, but endeavoured to see how far I could go.”

During her time at the University of Adelaide Lisa found role models during her Bachelor of Science course and post graduate studies. “Judith Pollard was a great role model as were outstanding lecturers such as Roger Clay and Bruce Dawson. After finishing her PhD in astrophysics at the Australian National University she applied for roles in the United States and Europe. Her father’s career as a defence scientist had meant that she’d previously lived in America so Lisa was no stranger to a different way of life. Moving to the US gave me access to the bigger telescopes in Hawaii and Chile and the chance to use their fantastic facilities,” said Lisa. “There were more opportunities to pursue my area of research into how distant galaxies are formed and evolve. There was also a vibrant community of young researchers and more female role models and mentors to learn from.”

Lisa studies how the amount of star formation and the amount of oxygen in galaxies changes over time: 12 billion years of the universe’s history. “When I was pursuing my undergraduate and postgraduate studies I would typically spend a few nights at the telescope and then analyse the data. Now I spend less time at the telescope and more time at a computer – especially super computers – looking at survey data gathered by ground and space telescopes. I use 3D data to look back through time to better understand the origins of the universe by working out the amount of star formation and oxygen in galaxies closer to the ‘Big Bang’.”

Lisa returned to Australia in 2011 as astronomy was changing in this country. She is currently Professor and Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for All Sky Astrophysics in 3D and ARC Laureate Fellow at the Australian National University Research School for Astronomy and Astrophysics. “Australia is one of the world leaders in the use of 3D instruments on telescopes. These instruments produce a data cube which delivers a tremendous amount of information about the galaxy which is critical to this area of research."

“This is why the launch of the James Webb space telescope later this year is so exciting.” The James Webb telescope has been designed to focus on the infrared part of the light spectrum. This means it will be able to focus on infrared bright objects like extremely distant galaxies. In 2020 Lisa’s world-leading research was recognised with her being the first Australian awarded the James Craig Watson medal by the US National Academy of Sciences. “I was deeply honoured. I think it’s wonderful that they recognise people from other countries.”

Lisa was recognised for her fundamental contributions to the understanding of galaxy collisions, cosmic chemical abundances, galactic energetics, and the star-formation history of galaxies. In addition to being honoured by the Academy of Sciences, Lisa’s other career highlights have been participating in education outreach projects and being involved in research using the Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) program data, which seeks to redress gender imbalance in the scientific community. “It’s very important for young female researchers to have female role models and for departments to have female members. “I was lucky to have American astrophysicist Margaret Geller as a mentor.”

Lisa has been using mathematical modelling to solve the gender gap. “If departments introduce initiatives based on fairness in recruitment then the gender gap in science could be closed in 15 years. “I will continue work on that so we can achieve real change in Australia.”

Image of the galaxy

In 2014, Lisa was named as one of The Australian Financial Review and Westpac’s 100 women of influence in the field of innovation and in 2019 The Sydney Morning Herald named her as one of Australia’s women leading the charge in science and space. “Senior women in science have a responsibility to hold doors open for women and help them move up so as to improve the pipeline. We have a responsibility to improve chances for the next generation.” And the women coming through will be well placed to be part of the next space race.

“I am very excited about the cube satellite industry and the extremely innovative ideas that cube sat technology is developing, and the impact it will have on both astronomy and remote sensing, which will in turn have an impact on investigating climate change. “Australia is in a great position to make a big difference in this area in tandem with private sector. “What kind of instruments will be launched into space and what they will look at will be determined by decisions made by the Australian Space Agency.”

The Australian Space Agency directs the country’s space efforts from its headquarters at Lot Fourteen, Adelaide, where the University already has a presence with the Australian Institute for Machine Learning. The innovation ecosystem brings together South Australia’s leading abilities in space, defence, hi-tech and entrepreneurship in one place. “Current science students should consider space as it’s a broadening, exciting field to be in,” Lisa said. And, like Lisa, they could go far. Beyond the glass ceiling which she and other pioneering women scientists have already shattered – and perhaps as far as the origins of the universe.

Story by Crispin Savage
Photos by Ben Appleton

Tagged in lumen, Lumen spring 2021