1. Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I'm a PhD candidate at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. I'm (kind of) in my final year (the pandemic has thrown things a bit off) and I'm a parent to a toddler who was born during my PhD studies.
I participate in lots of science outreach, particularly on Instagram (you can find me at @astrophysicist_rose) and have been involved in various equality, diversity and inclusion work (EDI) throughout my PhD. This, on top of my research, lead to me being awarded FindAUniversity PhD student of the Year 2020, which was a big honor!
My research uses math and computer modelling to predict the locations around young stars that have stellar clouds. These clouds can be ejected into space and affect how the star behaves as it gets older.
2. What is the earliest recollection of wanting to pursue a career in astrophysics?
Whilst I liked space as a kid, I don't think I liked it any more than most kids. I wanted to pursue a career in physics since I was in high school, some time after I realized you could be a scientist without having to do medicine or vet science. I must have been around 14. This only changed from physics to specifically astrophysics once I was at university and near the end of my undergraduate degree. At this point, I realized that I enjoyed applying the physics skills and knowledge I had learnt to space and astrophysics, so I decided to pursue a career in this!
3. What challenges have you faced throughout your journey and how have you overcome these difficulties?
Every journey has its challenges, some of which are a part of the journey and others are outside of it in other parts of life. A few challenges I've experienced related to my career path include; getting over perfectionism, battling imposter syndrome, dealing with gender stereotypes in physics and I'm still trying to get over my fear of public speaking! Of course, there's a lot of overlap in life and one's career can also be affected by other parts of life, these kinds of challenges for me have included; being ill during my PhD for an extended period of time, being a first generation graduate student, my supervisor taking a sabbatical year, juggling parenting and work, the pandemic (of course!).
I've found that overcoming the challenges that are external to my career can be the hardest, and I have no fix-all advice for these ones! Having a good support network at work/university/school is vital here, people that are sympathetic and try to lend a hand when these challenges don't leave much brain space for career related things.
The challenges that are more related to the career are in some ways easier to tackle! I've found that none of those challenges that I've experienced are unusual. Many people have had to overcome these too and they can be invaluable for helping you and often have lots of good advice that's relevant to your specific situation. I can't stress the value of a support network enough. I've also found Instagram to be a very valuable place for that for me, allowing me to connect with people in similar situations from further afield. With these challenges though, there's also lots of extra training that can be found provided by universities to help people overcome some of these kinds of challenges eg. public speaking workshops.
4. What would you say is a prominent struggle that women face in the astrophysics field and how do you think it can be resolved?
It's difficult to pick one. The issues that women face in astrophysics are, as far as I've seen, often no different to elsewhere in society. It can be a very male dominated field, which makes it difficult for anyone who identifies with a gender other than male, since the environment is set up to support men. Things are changing though and, for example, there is increased funding for people, like women, who come from underrepresented groups to pursue PhDs, postdocs etc. Representation is important for women to see that they can pursue this career, they are welcome here, their skills, perspectives and experiences are valuable, but they also need to be supported once they are here. I'm not sure this is fully felt yet as many women drop out of the career all the way along; after their undergraduate degree, after their phd, after their first postdoc. There are also issues related to things like childcare, unfortunately society still sees this as predominantly the job of women (whilst expecting them to have a career, care for older family members, do the household jobs, remember the birthdays of everyone they know). Women are expected to carry a lot of burdens that men are exempt from, and whilst this isn't specific at all to astrophysics, it certainly is still true there - and add in the extra work women are expected to do on top of their research (such as science outreach, equality diversity and inclusion work etc) and the problem gets worse. Women are expected to do more work than their male counterparts.
Ultimately the whole of society needs to change its perspective, but astrophysics (in academia at least) itself could improve the situation with things like increased funding for researchers from underrepresented groups, affirmative action in hiring but also in conference speakers, supporting women that are expected to fill the childcare role with flexible office hours and funding for childcare at conferences etc, educating staff to be aware of bias that leads to women being roped into things like outreach and teaching at the expense of their scientific research. It would also help if there were more academic positions that allowed people to work remotely so that people didn't have to move their family across the world every few years for a new job when their old contract runs out. Women aren't looked on favourably by society for uprooting their families or understandably may just not want to, and end up leaving the career.
It's a tough question to answer, partly because there are many issues, and partly because it can vary a lot between countries and universities/institutions that hire astrophysicists.
5. Has mentorship played a role in your journey? If so, how?
Doing a PhD requires a fair bit of mentorship. For many (though not everyone) this mentorship comes from their supervisor. I've been very lucky to have a fantastic supervisor who's supported me academically and in other parts of my life too. From things like teaching me how to write academic papers (I'm still learning of course) to being open from the beginning about the challenges (and rewards) of trying to stay in academia, she has taught me a lot. She actually taught me in my undergraduate degree and at the time I was completely in awe of her (I still am, if you're reading!). She was the only female professor in my department at the time, she had 3 kids, taught and inspired the undergrads, gave amazing talks at conferences, published fascinating research and was a caring person. Female role models are important. She made it feel possible for those of us in the class who weren't male. I might have given up on that dream of pursuing a PhD if it wasn't for her. She showed me I could still be a scientist and be valued for my research, even if I was going to be expected by society to fill lots of other roles too.
6. What do you hope to accomplish as an astrophysicist in the future?
Academically, I don't have hopes of winning a Nobel prize or anything! I would be really happy just being able to continue my research, ideally without having to go from contract to contract! Lots of science research is about making small steps rather than huge discoveries.
I'd like to have encouraged other people, especially from minority groups, to pursue a STEM career! Obviously I'm biased to loving astrophysics most, but I'd just love to see more women, POC, LGBT+ folk in STEM in general, and I'd love to have contributed to that.
7. What is the biggest piece of advice you have for young women wanting to enter the STEM field?
Build a support
network! This will help get you through in hard times, which will exist no matter what you choose to do with your career!