Celebrating women at ESO — part I

Talking hopes, challenges, and the future of astronomy

7 February 2020
On the occasion of International Day of Women and Girls in Science, we look at the achievements of some of the women driving forward astronomy at ESO.

Sthabile Kolwa — Former ESO PhD Student
Josefina Urrutia — Software Engineer at Paranal Observatory
Gabriela Calistro Rivera — ESO Fellow
Aglae Kellerer — Optical Engineer for the Extremely Large Telescope
Anna Miotello — ALMA Astronomer
Paulina Venegas — APEX Telescope and Instrument Operator

Sthabile Kolwa — Former ESO PhD Student (@sthabile_kolwa)

Sthabile Kolwa during her PhD defence.
Credit: ESO/Sthabile Kolwa

Q. What is your role within ESO?

A. I used to work as a student research assistant at ESO Directorate of Science. While there, I carried out collaborative research on distant radio galaxies with my advisor Carlos de Breuck and his research group. I had the privilege of working with data accessed using state-of-the-art telescopes at ESO’s Paranal Observatory in Chile, which was very exciting.

Your femme identity does not correlate with your ability or lack thereof.

Q. What makes you get out of bed and go to work in the morning?

A. Knowing that there are so many questions that have yet to be resolved about the origin of the Universe, how galaxies evolve, how many habitable exoplanets really exist in the Universe. Also at the terrestrial or human level, I think about how I can use my problem-solving abilities to bring about solutions on how we can use our data to transform lives for the better.

Q. Have you ever had a ‘Eureka!” moment in your career?

A. Yes, certainly, I may have had several in fact! While working with spectra I obtained from the integral field unit instrument on the Very Large Telescope called MUSE, it hit me how fascinating it is that a Gaussian distribution could fit literally all of the spectral emission lines in my dataset. I felt as though I stumbled upon a mystery of nature that many scientists have noted before. It struck me that the study of physics really is an uncovering of the mathematical rules and logic that have existed for almost 14 billion years.

Q. What advice would you give to younger women considering a career in science?

A. Firstly, don't doubt yourself too much. When imposter syndrome hits, try to remind yourself of all that you have accomplished and how far you have come. Also, your femme identity does not correlate with your ability or lack thereof. Proficiency in maths or the sciences does not necessarily need to be an innate gift and our environment can affect how we view our competiencies. Thankfully, we can always work on improving our abilities.

Josefina Urrutia — Software Engineer at Paranal Observatory

Q. What is your role within ESO?

A. I am a software engineer and a member of the Paranal Software Group, within the Maintenance, Support and Engineering Department. My responsibilities include maintaining and improving the software of the KMOS, HAWK-I and VIRCAM instruments, as well as all instruments and telescopes at La Silla Observatory. I have been working at ESO for 12 years. During this time I spent two years at La Silla and ten years at Paranal.

The most thrilling and challenging moments I have spent at the observatories have been during very bad weather conditions or technical emergencies.

Q. What’s been your favourite accomplishment at ESO?

A. The most thrilling and challenging moments I have spent at the observatories have been during very bad weather conditions or technical emergencies, where everyone has to diligently fulfill a specific role — to protect and recover all systems as quickly as possible. It is a very satisfying feeling when operations can be resumed and scientists receive the telescope in optimal condition, after long hours of uninterrupted work by our department.

Q. Why do you think we need to encourage diversity in engineering?

A. As someone who was the only female engineer at La Silla Paranal Observatory for several years (now there are five of us!), I have experienced that women and men usually have different perspectives on how to tackle problems and tasks — both technical and other kinds. Multiple perspectives usually lead to more robust solutions, that are usually only followed through when they are supported by more than one person. Therefore, gender balance is important, not only in this industry, but also in any other aspects of life and human society.

I think we have a duty to go to schools and talk to girls; female engineers are very scarce as role models, so girls need a lot of imagination and willpower to realise it is actually possible, satisfying and fun to become a successful engineer.

A challenge I find important and interesting is reaching out to the community, especially to the young and the poor, living in the regions where the observatories are located; keeping science away from the wider society does not make much sense to me.

Gabriela Calistro Rivera — ESO Fellow

Gabriela with one of the ALMA antennas.
Credit: ESO/Gabriela Calistro Rivera

Q. What is your role within ESO?

A. I started at ESO as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow a few months ago, after finishing my PhD at Leiden Observatory in the Netherlands. As an ESO Fellow, I conduct independent research on the physics of galaxies and black holes. In particular, I try to understand how galaxies and black holes grow and interact across the history of the Universe. I use observations from a large variety of telescopes working across the electromagnetic spectrum, although most of my current research focuses on submillimeter and radio observations. A fraction of my time is also dedicated to functional duties. As a representative of the ESO Science Ambassadors programme, I coordinate astronomy outreach events around the world led by ESO scientists. I am also part of the ALMA Regional Centre, where I help to provide the astronomical community with advanced archival data products ready to do exciting science.

As a team of female Peruvian professionals, one of our main goals is to provide female role models to motivate school girls to approach science.

Q. How did you get into astronomy?

A. I have found astronomy fascinating since I was a child, ​although back then my career plans used to constantly change, ranging from becoming an artist to a vet​! The decision to become a physicist was taken in the last year of high school, largely because I was lucky enough to have great physics and maths teachers who motivated me to be curious and always keep asking questions. Another event that triggered this decision was attending a breathtaking planetarium show on Hubble images during an exchange trip to Hamburg. Finally, the role of my parents was crucial as well since both pursued science-related careers — as an engineer and a pharmaceutical chemist respectively — ​exposing me to fascinating aspects of science from early on.

Q. What’s the biggest obstacle you have faced in your career, and how did you overcome it?

A. The hardest period in my career was probably during the first years of my PhD. This can sometimes happen to young students in academia, upon realising for the first time that the success of projects also depends on factors outside of their control, like the availability or quality of data. I overcame this by being proactive and taking risks by starting to work on entirely new topics and broadening my support network. While this involved spending significant time training myself on new skills and topics, this was very useful in the long term for broadening my scientific perspective and preparing me for life as an independent researcher.

Q. Could you tell us about the most interesting thing you’re working on at the moment?

A. Moving to ESO gave me the opportunity to start several new research projects and I am very excited about all of them. However, if I had to talk about one single project,​ I would choose one that is slightly outside the typical research profile and thus entirely uncharted territory for me and very exciting. It is an astronomy education project we are currently preparing, called ‘COSMOamautas: training teachers in rural regions in Peru.’

I am Peruvian, and while my country has a fast-growing economy, it still lacks a high-quality education system compared to developed countries, especially in relation to science. In order to help improve this through our programme, we have recently been awarded funding from the Office of Astronomy for Development of the International Astronomical Union. Thanks to this, we will organise teacher training workshops and visit schools in several rural regions with no access to scientific education.

As a team of female Peruvian professionals, one of our main goals is to provide female role models to motivate school girls to approach science. Learning from my own experience where role models and good teachers were key, this programme will hopefully help children from less privileged communities to have the same opportunities.

Aglae Kellerer — Optical Engineer for the Extremely Large Telescope

Aglae in the plant, where part of the ELT mirror is currently being polished.
Credit: ESO/Aglae Kellerer

Q. What is your role within ESO?

A. I work as an optical engineer on ESO’s next-generation telescope, the Extremely Large Telescope (ELT). I follow the work done by our industrial partners, in particular for the polishing of the 798 individual small mirrors that will make up the huge main mirror of the telescope. In parallel, we are preparing for the first night on which the telescope will collect light; we are planning how we will use the light to align the telescope and optimise its performance. This involves very interesting laboratory tests, design work and calculations.

On a very different topic, I was recently elected into the ESO Staff Committee, and I therefore spend a fraction of my time representing staff in the discussions with management. I decided to run for this role in order to push for a greener, more environmentally friendly ESO. Environmental issues have become so urgent that we can’t wait for politicians to initiate the change: I believe we all need to act and spur the change at our level.

Strangeness drives our work: almost everything I work on starts out strange.

Q. How did you get into engineering?

A. I got into engineering through astronomy. I’ve been interested in astronomy since a very early age and my aim was to work in the field one day, so I’m happy that I managed to make my childhood dream come true. Whenever I am at an observatory site I reconnect with my childhood dreams: the mysteries of the Universe are so spectacular that I can instantly forget all my worries.

Q. What do you think is the strangest thing that’s happened since you’ve been working in science?

A. Only one strange thing? That is impossible! First of all, strangeness drives our work: almost everything I work on starts out strange. Then I spend a lot of time getting my head around the problem, until I understand what’s going on. The strangeness disappears and I hope to run into another strange problem soon afterwards.

Let’s give an example that lies at the heart of my work: the need to build larger telescopes arises from the very strange nature of photons. We want to know exactly where they come from in order to get sharp images of astronomical objects: this is only possible if we give our photons lots of space. This is why we build a large telescope and let the photon pass through that large telescope, then it happily lets us determine its incoming direction with precision. If, however, the photon needs to squeeze through a tiny telescope, its incoming direction becomes imprecise and we get blurred images. What is the reason for this uncertainty relationship which links the position and incoming direction of a photon? Very strange indeed!

Q. If you could give one piece of advice to a younger version of yourself, what would it be?

A. I wish I could talk to my younger self, but my younger self would probably not have listened. I would have politely smiled at my older self and done what I wanted anyway! So if I could give only one piece of advice, I would probably tell myself to go on just like this — to listen to peoples’ experience, but mainly to my own heart.

Anna Miotello — ALMA Astronomer

Anna on the Very Large Telescope Platform at Paranal Observatory.
Credit: ESO/Anna Miotello

Q. What is your role within ESO?

A. I have been an astronomer at the ALMA Regional Centre at ESO since September 2019. The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA, operated by ESO together with its international partners) is an array of 66 antennas spread over distances of up to 16 km on the Chajnantor plateau in the Chilean Andes. This array observes our Universe at submillimeter wavelengths to study some of its coldest objects. As an ESO Astronomer, I spend 50% of my time supporting ALMA. I make sure that ALMA users have the software they need in order to check the status of their observations. I also structure the requested observations in “blocks” that can be scheduled and observed by the array.

The rest of my time is spent carrying out my own scientific research, which focuses on studying how planets form around young stars. I do this by running models, and by using ALMA to observe planet-forming disks, which rotate around forming stars feeding them. These objects, made of cold dust and gas, provide the ingredients for forming planets like those in our Solar System.

I guess that this enjoyment comes from the awareness that I am the first person ever to look at a given star, disk or galaxy in such great detail.

Q. How did you get into astronomy?

A. I have always been particularly passionate about mathematics and science, but also about art, philosophy and sport. My decision to study physics at the University of Milan was led by the certainty that this was the subject where I would learn the most. My interest was already caught by Astrophysics by the end of my bachelor’s degree. I realised that this was a peculiar field of physics where your experiments take place in the sky and you can only observe objects without touching the experimental setup. An incredible amount of detailed information about objects so far from us could simply be ascertained by collecting photons at different wavelengths. This was all very fascinating to me and I decided to do a master’s degree in Astrophysics. This is where I became particularly interested in how our own Solar System originated and how its properties compare with planets that could form around other stars. For this reason, I started working in the field of star and planet formation.

Q. What is your favourite part of your job?

A. My favourite part of my job is looking at new data as soon as it is delivered to me. I guess that this enjoyment comes from the awareness that I am the first person ever to look at a given star, disk or galaxy in such great detail. It feels like the light emitted by that star or galaxy has travelled lightyears to reach a telescope and now can finally be seen by someone. Another aspect I love is getting to understand the physical nature of what I observe. Often, it is only a small step forward with respect to what we already know but it is incredibly beautiful when our knowledge of the universe increases.

Q. What do you think could be done to further improve gender balance in science?

A. Many different things could be done, but if I think about my personal experience, I think working towards the inclusion of mothers in science will help improve the gender balance. Of course, not every woman in science needs to be a mum, but many of them want to and too often they feel like this is an impossible task. I had three children during my PhD and everything went more than well. This was made possible by the support and encouragement of my supervisor, the observatory where I worked, and of my husband. I was also inspired by other more senior women, who were great scientists and happy mothers and they were doing just fine. Supporting mothers who are already doing science, giving them the flexibility and the practical resources they need, and encouraging young women to be themselves is the way to go.

Paulina Venegas — APEX Telescope and Instrument Operator

Paulina in front of the APEX telescope on the Chajnantor Plateau, deep in the Atacama Desert.
Credit: ESO/Paulina Venegas

Q. What is your role within ESO?

A. I have been a part of the Science Operations Team at the Atacama Pathfinder EXperiment (APEX) since 2012. I am one of six people who carry out and give support to the observations as an antenna and instrument operator.

Q. What is your favourite part of your job?

A. When I think about my favorite part of my job, several things come to mind...the first one is that I can stare at the Universe from the terrace of my room during the night, which is a spectacular show of light here in the north of Chile. And of course, I like to participate in the internal projects at APEX, mostly related to programming and artificial intelligence for the production of tools needed for the observations. In this way I feel like I contribute my grain of sand to science.

Dedication and persistence are the path to achieving my goals.

Q. Tell us about one important lesson you’ve learned during your astronomy career.

A. Science is not an easy subject, but I have learned over the last ten years that dedication and persistence are the path to achieving my goals.

Q. What do you think could be done to further improve gender balance in science?

A. The astronomy community is diverse; people who work at ESO have different cultures, religions, and genders. This is absolutely necessary as it allows us to learn from others with different points of view, from their culture and their gender for example. As the saying goes, “where everyone thinks alike, nobody thinks much”.