6 mins read 26 Sep 2022

Women of the Australian Space Community: Dr Zahra Bouya

 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 Zahra Bouya - Space Weather Researcher at the Australian Bureau of Meteorology. 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 Zahra Bouya - Space Weather Researcher at the Australian Bureau of Meteorology

What is your role?

I am a Space Weather Researcher at the Australian Bureau of Meteorology and I have been a Space Weather Forecaster at the Australian Space Forecast Centre since 2011. Having graduated with a doctorate in physics from Morocco in 1999, I subsequently obtained a PhD in Atmospheric Physics from the University of New South Wales in 2008. I do both research and forecasting for space weather.  

For space weather forecasting, I collect and analyse large amounts of data about the Sun to identify any activity that might herald a Coronal Mass Ejection resulting in a geomagnetic storm. During a geomagnetic storm, I try to understand the space environment in the context of its impact on system operations and collect large quantities of data with the goal towards creating a reliable advanced warning system to improve the prediction of the next geomagnetic storm.

 It is a kind of continuous learning; we always find something new to learn with every geomagnetic storm. As a researcher, I contribute to the development of efficient warning and prediction systems allowing for preventive measures to be taken to reduce space weather impacts on a variety of modern technology vital to human life.

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

I completed my doctorate degree in physics at the Ibn Tofail University, Kenitra, Morocco in 1999. I was awarded a University of New South Wales (UNSW) Postgraduate Award scholarship in 2002. This led me to peruse a PhD at UNSW in Atmospheric Physics. At the completion of my PhD in 2008, I remember feeling unclear about my next step in Australia, but an opportunity to work at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) opened up. 

I moved to the Australian Bureau of Meteorology Space Weather Services in 2009. I was met there by an extraordinary science environment within Ionospheric Prediction Services and started to explore ionospheric modelling and forecasting for Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) and High Frequency (HF) radio applications. 

At the beginning of 2011, after I gave a presentation about space weather's impact on satellite positioning and a long discussion about space weather research and operations, one of my colleagues came to me and said, "Why don't you try space weather forecasting? You need to start training". This was the first time anyone had expressed trust in my ability to do space weather forecasting. I decided to give it a go and I started training as a space weather forecaster at the Australian Space Forecast Centre (ASFC). 

I completed the space weather forecasting training and was formally assessed as being competent in June 2011. I have worked as a Space Weather Forecaster (SWF) and Aviation SWF through the last Solar Cycle and respectively, as on-duty SWF and Manager Severe Space Weather Event (MSSWE) during the past two Severe Space Weather Watches issued by the ASFC in September 2017 and October 2021. Having the privilege to pursue space weather forecasting would not have been possible without my highly supportive colleagues. 

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?

It is an exciting time to be in the Australian Space Industry! The sector needs broad and varied skills to advance Australia’s space capability. If you are passionate about space, there are many opportunities out there. Believe in your inner power and follow your dreams!

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

My scientific career could have been derailed at so many junctures without the support of the extraordinary people that I met during my journey. My PhD supervisor, Professor Gail Box, is my exceptional mentor, who has supported me in every way. She was exceptional and adorable. My colleagues in the Australian Bureau of Meteorology Space Weather Services, have been very understanding, flexible and encouraging. And I have been strongly encouraged to participate in training related to space forecasting and research, which has provided me with many new opportunities.

The Space Weather Services Centre. Credit: Bureau of Meteorology.

What has been the highlight of your career so far or what are you looking forward to most in the future?

Closely watching a geomagnetic storm's ongoing effects on aurora hunting, problems and disruptions to the many technological systems that might be affected, is very exciting. At the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, we help all kinds of industries. We also work together with government agencies to enhance the resilience of critical infrastructure to the adverse effects of space weather.   

We provide services and advice on the impact of space weather activities which enable systems operators to make decisions to mitigate the adverse effects of space weather on the variety of human technology that is embedded in space-affected environments. These services are effective enough that, for most events, people at home aren't aware of what's happening. It's challenging work but it's very rewarding to be solving real-world problems.

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

The mathematician who helped put the first man on the moon was Katherine Johnson. She was one of the first African American women to work as a NASA scientist. Her legacy continues to inspire all women to this day.