5 mins read 29 Aug 2022

Women of the Australian Space Community: Dr Karen Lee-Waddell

Women play a huge role in the Australian space sector, and each week will be sharing the story of an inspiring woman who makes our community so special. 

Dr Karen Lee-Waddell Director of the Australian Square Kilometre Array (SKA) Regional Centre (AusSRC). Credit: Supplied.

In March each year, we not only celebrate International Women’s Day but we also enjoy learning about all the contributions women have made to society during Women’s History Month. Originally started in the US in 1987, it has in recent times, in part due to social media, become more well known across the world. 

As a celebration of all the wonderful work, inspiration and support that women across our region do in the space sector, will be speaking to a new women in the Australian space community weekly, to uncover their stories and find out who inspires them.  

Dr Karen Lee-Waddell - Director at Australian Square Kilometre Array Regional Centre (AusSRC)

What is your role?

I am the Director of the Australian Square Kilometre Array (SKA) Regional Centre (AusSRC), which is leading the nation's effort to build computing and data-intensive research capabilities that will support astronomers using current and next-generation radio telescopes.

The SKA will eventually use thousands of dishes and up to a million low-frequency antennas, with the Australian contribution will initially comprise 512 stations arranged in a large core with three spiral arms, spread over a distance of 65km. 

The SKA project has 14 member countries including Australia, with Australia and South Africa hosting the core of the SKA Telescope, with the project headquartered at Jodrell Bank in the UK. 

How did you end up working in the space sector and what drew you to it?

I grew up in a 'big city' where light pollution drowned out the night skies. When I was about 8 or 9 years old, one of my sisters and I were driving home from a more rural area. It was a clear night and she opened the sunroof of her car. Before that moment, I had never seen so many stars! She pointed out some constellations and I was hooked. The wonder, the awe, and the very many questions in my head. I started to read books about space and soon after that night, I even got my first telescope.

What advice would you give to people looking to start their career in the Australian space Industry, whether they are new graduates or those looking to move their careers over?

Do it! I handed in my PhD thesis (in Canada) and then jumped on a plane to the other side of the world to start a postdoc with CSIRO. I had never been to Australia before that. Over the past few years, I have been able to work with several world-class telescopes that are located in Australia. There is so much support and so many opportunities here that my career has skyrocketed. 

Who have you met that has had the most impact on your career journey so far?

I have had several amazing mentors and role models during both my astronomy and military careers who have helped me get to where I am today. I couldn't really just name one of them because I needed them all, at one point or another.  

Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell is an astrophysicist who is best known for the discovery of radio pulsars as a postgraduate student in 1967. Whilst the discovery was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics, Dame Jocelyn, was not. This has been a point of controversy ever since. Credit: University of Dundee.

Which women in the history of the Space Industry do you look up to? What was it about their achievements that resonated with you?

One person who I met once, whose story inspired me, is Dame Prof. Jocelyn Bell Burnell. She was giving a talk at my institution and talked about how it was being a woman in astronomy in the 1960s. Even though it was quite some time ago, there were still parts of her story that I could really relate to.

She was the first person to discover pulsars, yet (unfairly) was not one of the recipients of the Nobel Prize. One of those high-highs, then low-lows stories. But her struggle (and the subsequent fallout) made my path in this field a little easier. I too, want to make it easier for women to pursue careers in space and astronomy.

What do you think are some of the issues faced by women in the space sector and how do you think they should be resolved?

There is still a lack of gender balance and overall diversity but that seems to be (slowly) changing. There are some very concrete things that can be done and much of it starts at the top (e.g. more diverse leaders and proactive initiatives to ensure diversity at all levels of employment).  

What has been your most interesting discovery or been the most interesting space-related project you have worked on or been part of?

I guess it would be the thing that really got me hooked. During my graduate program, I discovered a galaxy, a likely tidal dwarf galaxy, which is a special kind of 'baby' galaxy that forms when larger galaxies interact with each other. These 'cosmic dances' are not only fascinating -- telling us a lot about galaxy formation and evolution -- but they are also quite pretty to look at. 

What are you most excited about in the coming years for the Australian Space Industry?

The SKA! One of the telescopes will be built right here, in our Aussie 'backyard'. The SKA will not only revolutionise our understanding of the Universe, but it will also push computing and technology developments to the next level.