Guest Blog She is an Astronomer by Alice Sheppard

Alice Sheppard moderates the Galaxy Zoo Forum. Alice prides herself as an amateur astronomer with a lifelong interest. Alice wants to become a professional science writer and promote citizen science. Pulse Project is currently producing a documentary about Galaxy Zoo. This is the second guest blog from Alice. To read more about Alice visit her blog.

How are women doing in science these days? Two women, Elizabeth Blackburn and Carol Greider, have just won the Nobel Prize for “Physiology or Medicine”– bringing the total of women recipients of the Physiology or Medicine prize up to 10, out of a total 195 prizes since it began. It’s also the first time two women have ever shared the prize.

Their work, carried out many years ago with Jack Szostak, was on “telomeres”: tips of chromosomes, which they liken to the plastic tips of shoelaces, preventing the chromosomes from shortening as they divide and the body grows and ages. In normal cells these telomeres are switched off; in cancerous cells they are much stronger. This has huge implications for cancer research and cure.

For me, the phrase “Nobel Prize” has had a faint sting to it ever since I learnt of its ignoring Jocelyn Bell-Burnell discoverer of pulsars, and awarding the prize to her male supervisor. But Nobel prizewinners are a small, spotlit selection. What about the average female scientist?

The International Year of Astronomy has set up a cornerstone project, “She is an Astronomer”, which reveals some interesting statistics:

“Approximately a quarter of all professional Astronomers are women. 
The field continues to attract women and benefits from their participation, but there is wide geographical diversity, with some countries having none and other countries having more than 50% female professional astronomers. These numbers drop towards more senior levels, suggesting that scientific careers are heavily affected by social and cultural factors, and are not determined solely by ability.”

So, by what is it determined? Evidently some countries still forbid women to take up such a profession. What about those not at such an extreme? The Galaxy Zoo blog runs a monthly “She is an Astronomer” feature in which both amateur and professional women are asked about their views on the main barriers to female astronomers. The most common response is that they have invariably felt welcomed, but the frequent need to move around in an academic career is difficult, especially if one has children. Aida an amateur from a developing country, has witnessed a change in attitudes to women during her life: in her youth, they were not expected to go to university or have careers, but now they do.

One lady behind more research and progress is Dr Helen Walker who works on the Mars Express Satellite, and on MIRI, the mid-infra-red instrument which will be part of the James Webb Space Telescope. She is also Senior Secretary of the Royal Astronomical Society and President of the Society for Popular Astronomy, researches material around stars which may form planets, and incredibly friendly! Earlier this year she made a speech in which a resoultion was passed by the International Astronomical Union to make an effort to encourage more women into astronomy. She has also conducted interviews with female astronomers, and had this to say: “A recurrent theme that has emerged from these interviews is the importance of support and mentoring from other women working in the field.”

With this in mind “She is an Astronomer” web page now has a discussion forum “We hope that this forum will provide an opportunity, not only for women - and men - to discuss gender issues, share ideas and best practice, but to open up channels of communication for women working at all levels in astronomy and in all countries,” says Helen. “The first step is for people to realise where there are problems, then we can address them. I’m hoping we’ll get some suggestions from the forum on how to improve the situation.”

The most important area of our forum is, indeed, a board on Women in Astronomy. We’re asking such questions as “Is there a leaky pipeline?” and “How can we get more girls into maths and physics?”, and asking working scientists to tell us about their jobs. The other two moderators, Hanny van Arkel and Paula Brochado, and I take turns writing “Features of the Week”, astronomy stories and profiling female astronomers. We also have boards for science stories and questions, news, and general chat.

It was a huge honour to be invited to moderate this forum, and to suddenly feel that I’m taking part in a bit of a social crusade. We unanimously decided that we want a place as civilised as the Galaxy Zoo Forum, where everybody encourages everybody else. So far, we’re small, but slowly growing – I can’t wait to see what we’ll grow to be!

The forum was set up a few weeks ago, and launched publicly on the 1st of October. We hope to continue well after the 2009, the International Year of Astronomy, draws to a close, and to have met and promoted mutual encouragement and sharing of knowledge between many women. It is, of course, equally open to men – to people of all levels, from amateur to professor to (well, you never know) Nobel. All you need is an interest in science and gender equality. And I hope to see you there!

 

 

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