Canberra astronomer Lisa Kewley heads US institution

The stars have aligned for Canberra-based astronomer Lisa Kewley. This July, she will become the first woman and the first Australian director of the Center for Astrophysics (Harvard & Smithsonian), USA.

Professor Kewley, an astrophysicist specialising in galaxy formation and evolution, is director of ASTRO 3D, an ARC Centre of Excellence at ANU’s Mt Stromlo Observatory, investigating the evolution of matter, light, and the elements since the Big Bang.

As head of the CfA, Professor Kewley will oversee 800 staff across nine major scientific facilities and institutions – including observatories in Arizona and Hawaii, and the NASA X-ray satellite Chandra. (She will build its successor, the next NASA-funded X-ray telescope.)

“Leading a large organization with expertise across a whole range of areas, and access to different telescopes means that we’ll be able to answer some really fundamental questions in astronomy,” she said.

What are the first galaxies in the universe? What did they look like? How did they evolve across time? What are the atmospheres around planets in other solar systems like? How did stars form and evolve in the early universe?

Professor Kewley said her appointment was “a tremendous honour”, and she was “very excited”.

“It’s a really amazing time to be doing astronomy,” she believes.

This decade, the next generation of telescopes – such as Australia’s Square Kilometre Array (SKA), the world’s largest radio telescope, or the Extremely Large Telescope, the world’s biggest optical/near-infrared extremely large telescope, in Chile – will lead to huge discoveries in many areas of astrophysics, she predicts.

They will “reveal a window to the universe that we haven’t been able to look at before”. Scientists could discover what happened right after the Big Bang, or identify which extrasolar planets are likely to hold life.

“We’re going to make major advances in our understanding of the universe, our place in the universe, and how special we are in the universe.”

Professor Kewley’s own contributions to the field include understanding the gas physics in star-forming galaxies, investigating supermassive black holes, and tracing how stars are formed and how the amount of oxygen in galaxies has changed over the past 12 billion years.

Dealing with such cosmic questions puts everything into perspective, she finds. “You’re dealing with large time scales. We’re looking back in time very close to the Big Bang, so beyond 13 billion years. And so our lifetime on Earth is very, very tiny, compared to the timescale and the lifetime of the universe.”

But her family keeps her grounded. “It’s nice to come home at the end of the day to my husband and kids, and so some vegetable gardening,” she said. “Both are fundamental to humans, but in a different way. Astronomy and astrophysics is about understanding our origins and why and how we got here. As humans, we need 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 Year 11 physics teacher. He gave her articles about black holes and wormholes, and took the class on astronomy camp, where they tracked the moons of Jupiter and the constellations through a telescope.

“That was amazing,” Professor Kewley remembered; “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, obtained her doctorate in astrophysics from the Australian National University, then went to the CfA for three years, working on the formation and evolution of stars.

“I had a great time; it was really a springboard for my career in the US. I made lots of connections and lots of collaborators whom I still work with today.”

She spent seven years in Hawaii: her team at the Institute for Astronomy at the University of Hawai’i 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 her research at the W.W. Keck Observatory on the evolution of galaxies.

She returned to Australia in 2011, as the first woman professor at the ANU Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics. She was elected a fellow of the Australian Academy of Science (2014) and an international member 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 stellar, she is one of the few women in the field.

At current rates, it is estimated that it will take 60 years to achieve gender equity; women will not make up even one-third of professional astronomers until 2080. Women hold 40 per cent of astronomy PhDs, but only 20 per cent 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 woman astronomy professor with a permanent job in all Australia, and none at ANU.

“When I was a postdoc there, it never occurred to me that I would be a director of anything,” she said. “I still thought that there would be a glass ceiling, and that I would have to leave astronomy at some point.”

In the US, however, Professor Kewley saw more women at senior levels, children in tow at conferences and meetings. Those role models showed her that women could have both a scientific career and a family.

“That completely changed my thinking, and allowed me to stay in astronomy,” she said.

As professor at ANU, and director of ASTRO 3D, Professor Kewley resolved to improve matters. She made the work culture more women-friendly: she set clear gender targets, offered all positions part-time, and ensured selection committees had an equal balance of sexes. Now, half the staff and more than half the students are women – well above the Australian average for astronomy. Professor Kewley will bring that approach to the US.

While this retains women astronomers, Professor Kewley believes more must be done to encourage school students’ interest in science.

In high school, she confessed, she worried that physics and chemistry would be too hard for her. She had gotten that idea from books where female characters needed men to help them with math and trigonometry, and hated physics.

“The attitudes of those characters made me feel I wouldn’t be very good at it,” she said. “Fortunately, my dad’s a scientist; he made me do it, and it turned out that I loved it.”

But not every girl is lucky enough to have a scientist father who can help her and give her confidence, Professor Kewley said. Teachers and 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 astronomers alone) Hypatia of Alexandria, Caroline Herschel, Henrietta Swan Leavitt, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, Vera Rubin, or Andrea Mia Ghez.

“Role models have to be there all along the way,” Professor Kewley said.

She believes there must be more collaboration between scientists and teachers to make children (of either sex) interested in science. ASTRO 3D, for instance, donates telescopes to regional schools or girls’ schools, and trains the teachers and pupils how to use it; that dramatically increases the number of children doing physics.

Her message to young women thinking of studying astronomy: “Just do it, because it’s a fabulous field. It’s tremendously exciting, and things are changing so rapidly. You’ll be able to make discoveries with the huge telescopes that are coming online. There are lots of opportunities for women (and men) in astronomy.”

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