Meet the Canadian women making an impact in astronomy and physics

“I’m driven by challenges and I think I was born to do that.”

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They are few in number, but powerful: women make up about 15% of scientists in the Canadian fields of astronomy and physics, but their contributions make them a powerful force. Here are three that are winning awards and mentoring the next generation.

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A Canadian first

In January, Kathryn McWilliams, PhD, became the first Canadian to receive an Honorary Fellowship in Geophysics from the UK’s Royal Astronomical Society (RAS).

” I was not excpecting that at all ; it was very surprising and humbling,” says McWilliams, professor of physics and engineering physics at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon.

The RAS represents scientists in disciplines such as astronomy, geophysics and space science. Its coveted fellowships recognize scientists outside the UK who have made significant contributions in their fields.

“What I do is commonly called ‘space science’ — the science of space between the Earth and the sun. We’re trying to understand Earth’s space environment, so it’s kind of a study of weather and how the conditions in space created by the sun’s activity affect us,” McWilliams explains.

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McWilliams directs SuperDARN Canada, which is part of an international effort that uses radar to learn more about Earth’s upper atmosphere. As a summer student in 1992, McWilliams helped build the first radar site, and today she chairs the international SuperDARN collaboration, which involves researchers from 10 countries.

“It works like a police speed radar trap: we send a signal into the atmosphere up to about 250 kilometers, just below the space station. The moving electrically charged particles up there change our signal, and we get an echo back. Then we can watch how the signal changes to determine how fast these particles are moving.

“Our lab is practically the size of the solar system, and we work with people from all over the world, because no group could possibly have enough funding or enough money to have all the instruments needed to answer these questions. the fact that it is a collaborative research field.

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Throughout her studies and career, McWilliams was often the only woman in the room, but that never deterred her.

“It can be frustrating, but I kept pushing forward and taking advantage of the opportunities,” she says.

“Along the way, I had good allies. Things got better; someone starting a PhD now would have a different experience than I had decades ago. To move forward, you have to set priorities and move forward.

A star is born

In 2017, Quebecer Laurie Rousseau-Nepton became the first Indigenous woman in Canada to obtain a doctorate in astrophysics. After graduating from Université Laval, she became resident astronomer at the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope in Hawaii. Rousseau-Nepton is also the principal investigator of SIGNALS, a large-scale observing program using the state-of-the-art telescope to study more than 50,000 star-forming regions around the Milky Way.

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The project, which includes an interdisciplinary team of about 70 experts, covers many areas of extragalactic astrophysics, says Rousseau-Nepton, who got involved as a summer student helping build a camera for the project.

“I came here for the first flight when the instrument was installed on the telescope, which was exciting,” she says.

Stars form everywhere in galaxies, in the Milky Way and in many nearby environments, Rousseau-Nepton explains. Depending on how and where they form, they evolve differently.

“In astronomy, we do surveys to try to address questions that we don’t yet have answers to. Star formation is such an important phenomenon because it drives the evolution of the whole universe,” she explains.

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I’m driven by challenges and I think I was born to do it.

“Before, we didn’t have the tools to study the star-forming regions around the Milky Way in depth. Now we can see in detail what is happening, and by studying thousands of them in different environments and areas, we try to understand how they change and what they will become.

When it concludes this summer, SIGNALS will create the largest database of its kind. Rousseau-Nepton enjoyed collaborating with several female trainees during this project.

“By supervising them, I make sure that they acquire the best knowledge and the best tools. I was the only student in my group for a while, so I know what it’s like and I share my experiences with them,” she says.

“I love my job. I wake up every day thinking, ‘My job is to look out into the universe and try to figure things out; isn’t that the best? I’m driven by challenges and I think I was born to do it.

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Explore distant planets

As a child, Brenda Matthews loved science and looking at the night sky, but she had no plans to merge the two as a career until her final year of undergrad at McMaster University, when she met Christine Wilson, a astronomer who had just joined the physics department.

“Christine was such an inspiration to me that I decided to pursue graduate studies in astronomy at the University of Calgary,” says Matthews, who returned to McMaster to do her PhD with Wilson.

“Having a female supervisor helped me get to the end of my doctorate and decide to continue, because it’s one of the stages where women leave.

Today, Matthews is an astronomer at the Herzberg Astronomical and Astrophysical Research Center in Victoria, British Columbia, which is part of the National Research Council of Canada.

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Matthews studies planetary systems beyond the solar system, studying debris disks – the equivalent of our comet and asteroid belts around other stars – to see where planets might be located.

Brenda Matthews is an astronomer at the Herzberg Astronomical and Astrophysical Research Center in Victoria, British Columbia ERIN CLAYTON
Brenda Matthews is an astronomer at the Herzberg Astronomical and Astrophysical Research Center in Victoria, British Columbia ERIN CLAYTON

“To detect more distant planets, we can image the system to detect that planet, but we are limited in the mass of the planet that we can detect,” she explains.

“So if you want to detect Neptune or Saturn at their positions around other stars, you can constrain planets like that by studying their debris disks. We detect them with optical telescopes or telescopes in the near infrared, or by emission: Because all small comets and asteroids can undergo collisions and generate fine solids, we can detect them in the infrared and at longer wavelengths.

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Matthews says astronomy differs from other sciences because it’s so accessible and visually appealing. Many of us may appreciate seeing the night sky or stunning images from the Hubble Space Telescope. It is important to her to mentor other women who are pursuing this field.

“It’s great work, and if you have a passion for it, you should be able to pursue it,” says Matthews, adding that his organization recently formed an equity, diversity and inclusion committee to increase the number of underrepresented groups in the field. .

“I try to do my part in finding talent and nurturing it along the way because it has benefited me a lot.”

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