Canberra astronomer Lisa Kewley heads US institution
The stars have aligned for Canberra-based astronomer Lisa Kewley. In July, she will become the first woman and the first Australian director of the Center for Astrophysics (Harvard & Smithsonian), USA.
Professor Kewley, an astrophysicist specializing in the formation and evolution of galaxies, is director of ASTRO 3D, an ARC Center of Excellence at the ANU’s Mount Stromlo Observatory, which studies the evolution of matter, of light and elements since the Big Bang.
As head of the CfA, Professor Kewley will oversee 800 staff at nine major science facilities and institutions – including observatories in Arizona and Hawaii, and NASA’s Chandra X-ray satellite. (It will build its successor, the next NASA-funded X-ray telescope.)
“Leading a large organization with expertise in a whole range of fields and access to different telescopes means that we will be able to answer really fundamental questions in astronomy,” she said.
What are the first galaxies in the universe? What do they look like? How have they evolved over time? What are the atmospheres around planets like in other solar systems? How did stars form and evolve in the early universe?
Prof Kewley said her nomination was “a huge honour” and she was “very excited”.
“It really is an incredible time to do astronomy,” she believes.
During this decade, the next generation of telescopes – such as Australia’s Square Kilometer Array (SKA), the world’s largest radio telescope, or the Extremely Large Telescope, the world’s largest extremely large optical/near-infrared telescope, in Chile – will lead to huge discoveries in many areas of astrophysics, she predicts.
They will “reveal a window into the universe we haven’t been able to see before.” Scientists could find out what happened right after the Big Bang or identify extrasolar planets that may harbor life.
“We are going to make major advances in our understanding of the universe, our place in the universe, and who we are in the universe.”
Professor Kewley’s own contributions to the field include understanding the physics of gases in star-forming galaxies, studying supermassive black holes, and tracking star formation and the evolution of the amount of energy. oxygen in galaxies over the past 12 billion years.
Dealing with such cosmic questions puts everything into perspective, she finds. “You are dealing with large time scales. We are looking back in time very close to the Big Bang, so beyond 13 billion years. And so our lifespan on Earth is very, very small compared to the time scale and lifespan of the universe.
But her family keeps her on the ground. “It’s nice to come home at the end of the day with my husband and my children, and therefore to do some vegetable gardening,” she said. “Both are fundamental to humans, but in a different way. Astronomy and astrophysics are about understanding our origins and why and how we got here. As humans, we have to live on this Earth and experience living on this Earth as well.
A stellar career
Professor Kewley became interested in astronomy in high school, thanks to her grade 11 physics teacher. He gave her articles on black holes and wormholes, and took the course on astronomy camp, where they tracked Jupiter’s moons and constellations through a telescope.
“It was amazing,” recalls Professor Kewley; “That’s when I decided I wanted to do astronomy.”
In 1991, she attended the National Youth Science Forum in Canberra and discovered that astronomy was a profession.
She studied science at the University of Adelaide, got her PhD in astrophysics from the Australian National University, then went to CfA for three years, working on star formation and evolution.
“I had a great time; it was really a stepping stone for my career in the United States. I made many relationships and many collaborators who I still work with today.
She spent seven years in Hawaii: her team from the Institute of Astronomy at the University of Hawaii discovered a galaxy 9.3 billion light-years away, while she received the Annie Jump Cannon award in Astronomy (2005) and the Newton Lacy Pierce Prize in Astronomy (2008) for his research at the WW Keck Observatory on the evolution of galaxies.
She returned to Australia in 2011, as the first female professor at the ANU Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics. She was elected a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Sciences (2014) and an International Fellow of the National Academy of Sciences (2021); and in 2020 became the first Australian to win the James Craig Watson Medal, an American award for outstanding contributions to astronomy.
Where are the women ?
But although Professor Kewley’s career has been brilliant, she is one of the few women in the field.
At the current rate, it is estimated that it will take 60 years to achieve gender equity; women won’t even make up a third of professional astronomers until 2080. Women hold 40% of doctorates in astronomy, but only 20% of senior astronomy positions, and leave the industry two to three times more often than men.
When Professor Kewley was a student, there was only one female professor of astronomy with a permanent job in all of Australia, and none at the ANU.
“When I was a postdoc there, it never occurred to me that I would be director of anything,” she said. “I always thought there would be a glass ceiling and that I would have to quit astronomy at some point.”
In the United States, however, Professor Kewley has seen more women at higher levels, children accompanied at lectures and meetings. These models showed her that women could have both a scientific career and a family.
“It completely changed my way of thinking and kept me in astronomy,” she said.
As a professor at ANU and director of ASTRO 3D, Professor Kewley was determined to make things better. She made the workplace culture more favorable to women: she set clear gender goals, offered all part-time positions and ensured that selection committees had an equal gender balance. Now half of the staff and more than half of the students are women – well above the Australian average in astronomy. Professor Kewley will bring this approach to the United States.
Although this is holding back female astronomers, Prof Kewley thinks more needs to be done to encourage students’ interest in science.
In high school, she confessed, she worried that physics and chemistry were too difficult for her. She had taken this idea from books where female characters needed men to help them with math and trigonometry, and hated physics.
“The attitudes of these characters made me feel like I wouldn’t be very good at it,” she said. “Fortunately, my father is a scientist; he made me do it, and it turns out that I loved it.
But not every girl is lucky enough to have a scientific father who can help her and give her confidence, Prof Kewley said. Teachers and the media should show women scientists, so girls can see that women can be scientists.
Too often, the famous scientists in textbooks are all men – ignoring (limiting the list to just astronomers) Hypatia of Alexandria, Caroline Herschel, Henrietta Swan Leavitt, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, Vera Rubin or Andrea Mia Ghez.
“Role models have to be there all the way,” Prof Kewley said.
She thinks there needs to be more collaboration between scientists and teachers to get kids (both genders) interested in science. ASTRO 3D, for example, donates telescopes to regional schools or girls’ schools, and trains teachers and students in their use; which greatly increases the number of children doing physics.
Her message to young women considering studying astronomy: “Do it, because it’s a fabulous field. It’s extremely exciting, and things are changing so quickly. You will be able to make discoveries with the huge telescopes that are coming online. There are plenty of opportunities for women (and men) in astronomy.