14 mins read 11 Dec 2020

Astrophysicists Accepted into Global Leadership Program

Two of OzGrav’s brightest young stars are preparing for a year long journey that will provide them with the skills required for leadership in a world impacted by climate change – a journey that will take them all the way to Earth’s frozen desert, Antarctica.

Women scientists in Antarctica in January 2018. Homeward Bound is a program that helps increase the influence and impact of women leaders with a STEMM background in making decisions that shape the future of our planet. Credit: Oli Sansom

Two Melbourne astrophysicists are swapping their lab coats for overcoats capable of withstanding the freezing temperatures of the Antarctic. Isobel Romero-Shaw and Debatri Chattopadhyay can normally be found studying the aftershocks of the biggest bangs in the Universe, but in November 2021 they will be travelling to Antarctica to face up to one of human-kind’s greatest existential crises – climate change.

Both Isobel and Debatri were recently accepted from a pool of hundreds of applicants to join 98 other future female leaders in the sixth Homeward Bound program, a once in a lifetime opportunity to come together with like-minded women to collaborate and train in leadership strategies that will contribute to a sustainable world. Their 12-month commitment begins in January 2021 and will see them participate in online learning courses before travelling to Argentina and then on to Antarctica.

The program is quite a departure from their day-to-day jobs studying gravitational waves, those tiny ripples in the fabric of spacetime that are the result of huge amounts of matter being accelerated towards each other in cataclysmic collisions. But climate change is a subject that resonates with many of us, and as 2020 shapes up to be the hottest year on record, Isobel and Debatri have decided that it’s time they did something about it.

Both women are currently PhD students, Isobel at Monash University, and Debatri at Swinburne University of Technology, and both are affiliated with OzGrav, the ARC Centre of Excellence for Gravitational Wave Discovery and Australia’s premier centre for the study of gravitational waves. Isobel analyses gravitational wave signals observed by kilometre-scale detectors, while Debatri creates theoretical models of the stellar progenitors in giant supercomputers.

I got the opportunity to sit down and talk with them at length about what brought them to this point in their careers, and the importance of the Homeward Bound program.

Isobel Romero-Shaw (left) and Debatri Chattopadhyay (right). Isobel and Debatri are both astrophysicists, completing their PhD's with Monash University and Swinburne University of Technology respectively. Credit: Romero-Shaw/Chattopadhyay

Dan: Isobel and Debatri, you’ve come from such different backgrounds… Can you start off by telling us a little bit about yourselves? You are such accomplished scientists now, I was wondering about your childhoods and about which females you looked up to as role models?

Isobel: I grew up in the beautiful city of Bath in the UK. I was always interested in nature, largely inspired by my biggest role model — my mum. She was doing a part-time degree in Natural Sciences with the Open University when I was very young. She would wake me up in the small hours and we would creep around the dark garden, finding woodlice and balancing them on the lens of her camera. This gave me an appreciation for the spectacular detail in the natural world. My mum continues to inspire me with her tireless work ethic and problem-solving efficiency.

Debatri: I was brought up in Calcutta, India. Both my parents have degrees in biology, and my father being a scientist himself, I grew up in a very scientifically minded environment. I would say my parents were my first role-models, encouraging me to ask questions and guiding me through wonderful books. Be it evolution, plant-response to stimuli or jumping genes, my parents taught me a lot of concepts of biology as children’s stories. Growing up to read on my own, I often found the under-representation of female scientists in articles and nearly non-representation of female characters in adventure novels quite troubling.

Dan: So how did you end up getting interested in space and astronomy? Were you fascinated by the night sky as kids, or was it something that developed later?

Debatri: I became a huge fan of the science fiction works of Jules Verne in my childhood and by the time physics was introduced to me as a subject in middle school, it easily became my favourite subject. It was when I was 14 and already knew I wanted to be a physicist that I found a book on black holes. I couldn’t see much of the night sky, living in a city, but reading about pulsars, galaxies and quasars took my mind’s eyes to those enchanting places. So, my sky-watching was my imagination, which was handy through daytime and light pollution.

Isobel: As a kid I used to love reading and drawing, although I did enjoy science and ended up pursuing physics in higher education. My interest in space only really developed once I was already at university when I found out about (and was completely smitten by) the concept of gravitational waves. I got into astrophysics via gravitational waves, not the other way around!

Dan: So two very different pathways to space… But how did you each end up studying gravitational waves here in Australia?

Isobel: I was very picky with my PhD projects and wanted to do something entirely focused on gravitational waves. I was Googling around and stumbled across the webpage of my now-supervisor, Paul Lasky, who had a list of incredible sounding projects. After a few Skype calls with him I was totally sold on the idea of living in Melbourne — Paul told me the coffee here was the best in the world, and my co-supervisor Eric Thrane showed me pictures of the magical-looking Puffing Billy in the Dandenong Ranges. I’d also heard that the gravitational wave group at Monash was growing at an impressive rate and doing some really cool work, and I wanted to get involved. The coffee in Melbourne really is the best, so I definitely made the right decision!

Debatri: I was at university when the news of the first detection by advanced LIGO came up. It was fascinating, we were all so excited and had the department t-shirt printed with the GW150914 signal. When I started applying for PhDs, gravitational waves kept popping up in my mind. There were still not a lot of positions available, but when I saw this advertisement and spoke to my supervisors Jarrod Hurley and Matthew Bailes, I knew this was my project. Within three days of starting my PhD, GW170817 – the first ever double neutron star merger, detected in both gravitational and electromagnetic radiation – happened. My excitement was immense, it was a dream come true to witness this progress of science.

Dan: That was such an awesome discovery! Back in September Australia played a pivotal role in another discovery… The detection of a black hole 150 times as massive as our Sun! What special role do you think Australia has to play in the search for gravitational waves?

Debatri: OzGrav has been phenomenal in the research of gravitational waves. The nodes of our centre have the unique combination of instrumentalists developing new techniques for detections, data analysts thoroughly engaged in multi-faceted software creations, theorists who rigorously compute the astrophysics behind the signals and a dedicated outreach team who painstakingly fashions newer methods of communicating the science to general audiences. Some of us are also a part of the LIGO, Virgo, KARGA (LVK) collaboration and were engaged in the direct analysis of the observations as well as trying to unearth the story that caused the magnificent merger.

Isobel: Australian universities are integral to the entire pipeline for gravitational wave detection. There are people here who design components for the detectors, others who make computer programs that comb the data for signals, others who analyse the signals, and still others who work out what consequences our findings have for our broader understanding of the Universe… and then there are the folks who work on the pure general relativity theory, or on electromagnetic counterparts, or other related topics. We’re all tied together by OzGrav. Given that we’ve got so many experts across the whole of the field here in Australia, it’s only sensible that we’ve also come up with a design for a gravitational-wave detector based right here!

Dan: It’s great to hear you explain how important OzGrav’s impact has been on the worldwide hunt for gravitational waves. Now let’s talk a bit about Homeward Bound. You have both been accepted into the sixth Homeward Bound program… What an incredible achievement! Can you tell us a bit about how you found out about the program, and what motivated you to apply for positions?

Isobel: I found out about the program from the powerhouse that is Professor Susan Scott, an alumnus of the second Homeward Bound cohort. She spoke about the program at the first OzGrav annual retreat I attended, only a couple of weeks after I moved to Australia. Susan’s passion for the project was infectious, and I knew from the minute she started talking that I was going to apply. Before I fell in love with gravitational waves I’d been set on pursuing a career in sustainable software engineering, and to me, Homeward Bound seemed like an unmissable opportunities.

Debatri: I discovered it through the internet and when one of our then PhD student’s OzGrav’er Lilli Sun participated in the programme. Later I got to know Susan Scott, one of our chief investigators, who was part of an earlier cohort.  The initiative tallies with my personal goals – learning leadership skills, encouraging under-represented communities to pursue STEMM careers, creating environmental awareness. It was the idea that I need not be on the backseat wondering what changes might benefit science, society and the environment, but could actually participate in bringing a change that motivated me to apply.

Dan: What were you doing the moment you found out you’d been accepted into the program? What was your reaction at that moment?

Debatri: I was also going through my emails in the afternoon when I found about it! I had a delayed response as I was still processing the fact that I had actually been accepted. It was an uncanny feeling that I am going to be a part of this amazing journey – both in terms of leadership skills, actually delivering something for the society and environment and journey to Antarctica!

Isobel: I was trying to work out when I would know the outcome of my application, and was searching my inbox for previous correspondence... As it turned out, I’d missed the email telling me I’d been offered a place by almost a week! It was a big moment – I immediately told my husband, my family, and my supervisors, who were all excited about it and calmed me down!

Dan: It must have been an exciting moment! Can you tell us a bit about the program itself?

Isobel: Homeward Bound is a global leadership initiative that aims to connect 1,000 women in STEMM by 2026 – each cohort since 2016 has contained about 100 women. It provides training in leadership strategies that work for the best interests of both people and the planet. The idea is to increase the number of women in leadership positions in the currently male-dominated fields of STEMM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine).

Debatri: On the one hand, it focuses on the problem of under-representation of female scientists in senior leadership roles and seeks to rectify the socially constructed gender bias. On the other, the initiative aims at combatting the global threat of climate crisis. Homeward Bound aspires to bring about a much needed social and environmental policy change. Its motto is “Mother nature needs her daughters”.

Dan: You are both astrophysicists, but there is an emphasis in the program on taking action on climate change. Is this a cause that you are both passionate about?

Debatri: The issue of sustainability and the climate crisis that we have created is threatening our future generations. Since school days, when we were made aware of the pollution problem and its global climate impact, I remember being horrified like so many others. Since then though I personally did my part in being more aware. After every new documentary about the climate crisis and new articles about endangered flora and fauna and deteriorating air quality I would feel quite upset that I can only do my personal bit, which may not be enough to counteract the problem. I am extremely grateful that Homeward Bound has given me an opportunity to do more. After all, if in the upcoming decades we create a post-apocalyptic pollution ridden world, none of our successors can look and marvel at nature’s wonders.

Isobel: This is definitely a passion for me – especially as an astrophysicist, for two reasons. First, astrophysicists in general have terrible carbon footprints – five times worse than that of the average person. We fly all over the world to collaborate and network on planes that pump toxins into the atmosphere, and we use energy-guzzling supercomputers to run simulations and perform analyses. It’s therefore our responsibility to learn how to mitigate our negative impact on the planet. Second, the very business of being an astronomer is threatened by climate change. Observatories require stable atmospheric and ground conditions to operate; extreme weather events caused by global warming will put them out-of-action. We must stop harming the planet that we stand on as we look up to the stars, or we won’t be able to study them anymore.

Dan: Well, they are some really important reasons to be concerned about climate change. I hate to think that future generations could be worse off than us because of our mistakes. I have one more question to ask you both. As strong women leaders working in STEMM fields yourselves, do you have any advice for young women or men who are considering making their own careers in science, technology, engineering, maths, or medicine?

Isobel: Anyone who is considering forging a career in any of these fields – don’t be put off by the negative press! So often, we see maths portrayed as boring and dry, when it’s actually fascinating and beautiful. In films, sometimes we see science boffins talking in gobbledegook that nobody can hope to understand – because it’s all made up! Maths doesn’t have to be dry and science doesn’t have to be baffling. Not all scientists are crazy old men with big white hair, and the more we spread the message of Homeward Bound, the more true that will be.

Debatri: To the amazing young people of all genders and all races, please feel liberated to choose your own path. Do not let anyone discourage you from following your passion for science. Societal pressure is real, but at the same time nature and the universe does not care about human constructs. The internal joy of revealing its mysteries is so profound, wonderful and fulfilling that every struggle in that path becomes worthwhile.

Dan: Some inspirational words, and a great way to finish up! Thanks for chatting to us about Homeward Bound. Congratulations to both of you, and good luck for 2021!

Isobel and Debatri begin their 12 month Homeward Bound program in January 2021.

Talking to these accomplished young scientists reminded me of how lucky we are as a nation to not only have plenty of homegrown talent, but to be able to attract such gifted people from overseas as well. The Australian Space Agency and other organisations like OzGrav and the ARC Centre of Excellence for Dark Matter Particle Physics have quickly become sought after destinations for scientists from all over the world, and are helping to position Australia as a premier science nation on the global stage.

A once-in-a-lifetime experience like Homeward Bound doesn’t come cheaply though, and with just a few weeks to go before the program begins, Isobel and Debatri have been busily fundraising for the program. To get to the A\$33,000 they each need, they have started a GoFundMe with the goal of raising a total of \$12,000 but have also already received financial support from OzGrav and the Australian Space Agency. And they’ll be putting a good chunk of their own savings towards the program as well.

No doubt this will be money well spent. After the horrific summer we had just a year ago, we shouldn’t need any further reminders about the devastating effects of climate change on our nation. And let us hope that Isobel, Debatri and others like them will one day be in leadership roles where they can affect real change to the benefit of all Australians and the world.

You can help with funding here.