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Natasha Hurley-Walker

On International Women’s Day 2017, we sat down with Australian astronomer Dr. Natasha Hurley-Walker based at ICRAR – the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research in Western Australia, who just completed a two-month fellowship at the SKA Headquarters in the UK, to chat about her work, her background, and women in science.

For a lot of people working in science fields, their interest in science was sparked when they were young. How did you get into astronomy?

Ever since I first saw an episode of Star Trek I wanted to know more about space and was inspired by my visits to NASA’s Johnson Space Centre while I was living in Houston, Texas, during childhood. My parents fed my interest giving me access to as many science fictions and books as I could read, and I pursued mathematics and science at school.

When it came to choose a path through university, I was strongly drawn to physics, which I felt was the only discipline that comes close to explaining how the universe operates.

Looking back at your own path, what would you say characterises a career in astronomy?

Travel! This might sound surprising to a lot of people but astronomers travel a lot. We study and work in different countries to acquire experience and collaborate on research with colleagues from around the world, which is very rewarding.

I did my undergraduate degree at the University of Bristol in the UK, and in the summer after my third year I joined the summer astronomy program at Jodrell Bank Observatory near Manchester and enjoyed the experience so much that I continued my research project as my Master project. During this period I discovered a previously unknown pulsar in the data I was working with, a huge reward for my hard work!

After my Master’s, I was accepted for a PhD position at the University of Cambridge. There, as part of a small team of students, scientists, and engineers, I helped to commission a new radio telescope and performed some of its first science observations, which was very exciting.

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Natasha working on the MWA

I then took up a Super Science Fellowship in Australia to help with the commissioning of the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA), the SKA-low precursor in Western Australia. I helped develop the software and data reduction processes to turn the raw data into usable images of the sky. This gave me a fantastic opportunity to use a brand new telescope as well as travel the world working on science projects with brilliant people. These collaborations have meant travelling to the USA, India, New Zealand, and all around Europe.

I’m now an Early-Career Research Fellow at Curtin University in Australia. With the help of colleagues, I recently developed an extensive map of the southern radio sky mapping some 300,000 galaxies that can be used to model what the SKA will observe (read more).

I recently undertook a two-month fellowship at the SKA Headquarters at Jodrell Bank in the UK to work with the science team there on expanding this idea into building the first surveys with the future SKA-low telescope.

Lots of travel indeed! Another thing that seems to stand out from your experience is fine-tuning telescopes – almost like a mechanic – and the excitement of discovering something new. Would you say that’s a big motivation?

Absolutely! What I enjoy about my job is solving a myriad of technical and scientific problems. It’s very satisfying to separate artefacts produced by the instrument from actual data, obtaining as close as possible an image of the real sky.

Every so often I discover something completely unexpected and new, which is such a fantastic feelingRecently I discovered an ancient radio galaxy which has nearly completely died. It’s the faintest one ever found, and interestingly the jets are coming from a spiral galaxy like our own rather than a more typical elliptical – that is very unusual because we only know of a few such examples out of hundreds of thousands of radio galaxies.

What about the work environment? Astronomy, like many other sciences, suffers from a reputation of being a male-dominated environment, has this affected you personally?

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Unconscious bias in the work place

Even if I don’t feel gender discrimination or imbalance in my job I’m quite aware of the unconscious bias that may lead to my work and thoughts being undervalued. But aside from standing up for myself, I am helped by the men of my generation who tend to notice that sort of thing, and act as supportive allies when such situation arises.

Occasionally at conferences or in meetings I notice the gender balance is male-skewed. Then again, in some fields, it’s now female-skewed.  I feel that my work environment is very similar for women as it is for men. Last year marked my return from six months of maternity leave, which I was initially worried would heavily impact my work. While it hasn’t been perfectly straightforward coming back I certainly can’t work ten-hour days when I feel like it anymore my university and my colleagues have been very supportive and understanding. While I by necessity work fewer hours, I also now work “smarter”, knowing that my time is very precious and I need to spend it wisely.

Flexible working practices like the ability to work from home when necessary, and the no-questions-asked one hour per day of leave that the university gives staff members returning from parental leave, have been extremely beneficial in helping me transition smoothly back into work.

People from all over the world work on the SKA. We know that diversity in the workplace helps provide a healthy mix of ideas and solutions to problems that makes companies more successful, and yet it is a topic that is still sometimes poorly understood. What can be done to help improve awareness of its importance?

I highly recommend facilitated workshops on unconscious bias. There is a large amount of research on bias in hiring procedures, in promotions, in workplace interactions, and as scientists we should all be open to using evidence to implement best practice. The workshops can be surprisingly fun: we ran one as part of the 2013 Women in Astronomy meeting in Perth, and many people commented that they learned a lot both about their workplaces and also about their own biases. For a fun test you can try at home, have a look at Project Implicit based at Harvard University. Award programmes like the Pleiades Awards and Athena Swan provide best-practice frameworks for organisations to improve their environments to promote equity, and their gold accreditations should be something all organisations aspire to achieving.

Before we finish, inspiring the next generation to study STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) fields is an important part of what we do. What would you say to a young person who is interested in science but unsure about their study or career path?

Follow your dreams and listen to your heart. Don’t take other people’s feeling into consideration, do what is right for YOU. You’ll know if you’re in the wrong path, because you’ll constantly be thinking about something else. If you get that feeling, look at your options, and change direction.

Finally, we’re told that when you’re not busy discovering new radio galaxies you’re into board games and cycling. Tell us more!

I absolutely adore board games; proper worker-placement Euros like Caylus, strategic PVPs like Robo Rally, and traitor games like Battlestar Galactica. I’m also a keen transport cyclist: in my family we have three bicycles, a tandem, a trailer, and a balance bike for my toddler son. I’m thinking about getting an e-bike, too! I think cycling is a win on all counts: great for the environment, fantastic for my health, a great mood-booster and mind-clearer at the start and end of the day, and it sure is faster, cheaper, and more fun than queuing in traffic. I also love science fiction, especially novels and the more mind-bending (and probably more obscure) TV shows and movies. I also enjoy cooking and have a food blog, sadly very rarely updated nowadays, but I have a lot to do!

In December 2016 Natasha gave a great TEDxTalk in Perth about her work. Take a look!

Have a question? Contact Natasha here!

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