Women in space: How Swinburne’s Astrophysics and Supercomputing team leads the charge for equality

When Professor Jean Brodie was picking her PhD topic, her undergraduate advisor suggested she choose biophysics over astrophysics because it would be easier to get back into the workforce after having children.

“I was really furious, absolutely furious. I wasn’t married, at the time I had no intention of having children. And I thought, is that the advice you would have given to a man?”

After walking out the door, she accepted a placement in astrophysics and is now director of the Center for Astrophysics and Supercomputing (CAS) at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne.

Professor Jean Brodie is the director at Swinburne’s Centre for Astrophysics and Supercomputing. Picture: Swinburne.

This year’s Women’s History Month – held during March – has inspired discussions about ways to encourage more diversity in male-dominated industries, with many women in the STEM field saying change must start with educational institutions.

The Chief Scientist’s report found only 17 per cent of the STEM-qualified population was female in 2016, a 2 per cent increase from 2006.

Prof Brodie was always interested in science, and says her father’s encouragement when she was younger helped her to decide her career.

“When I was a child, people would ask what I wanted to be when I grew up.

My father—he had a great sense of humour—would whisper to me to say ‘nuclear physicist’ and I would do that, and people would be quite taken aback,” she said.“But I think I always got that message from him, that I could be anything I wanted to be.”

When she began her career in astrophysics, support for women in STEM wasn’t there, but she has noticed a gradual shift towards equality over the years.

“I strongly felt I couldn’t admit to any weakness being related to being a woman, because that would have been death.”

Prof Brodie is one of many women working to increase our understanding of space, as STEM industries continue to grapple with a history of shutting women out of careers and eclipsing their achievements.

Katherine Johnson’s calculations helped launch NASA’s first manned spaceflights, and earned the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015. Image: NASA.

Hidden Figures

This month, organisations like NASA are working to shine a spotlight on the achievements of women, both past and present, in astrophysics and space exploration.

Katherine Johnson (August 26, 1917 – February 24, 2020) is one of the women highlighted for her work.

NASA Administrator James Bridenstine called her “an American hero” for her contributions to America’s space exploration program between 1953-86. Her life’s work and story were the inspiration for the 2016 film Hidden Figures.

An African American mathematician, Johnson’s calculations and trajectory analysis during her time at NASA helped launch America’s first human space flights.

Johnson, alongside the first woman in space Valentina Tereshkova, and the first African American mathematician at NACA Mary Winston make up a handful of key figures who pioneered diversity in astrophysics and space exploration research.

Kim Ellis is an accomplished lawyer and research professional in the space field, and is teaching the next generation of STEM researchers. Image: supplied.

Trailblazers at Swinburne

Swinburne’s Centre for Astrophysics and Supercomputing is globally recognised for its excellence and is home to a number of women in educational and research roles.

Swinburne Dean of Science Professor Virginia Kilborn, a radio astronomer, researches the evolution of galaxies, and she says her passion comes from her love for discovery.

She says she had an “atypical introduction into STEM as a woman” because of the strong female role models in her physics tuition, from high school to university, and was encouraged to question everything.

Prof Kilborn first reflected on her experiences as a woman in STEM while undertaking postdoctoral research while pregnant, on hearing that she was the first person there to have had a child, because there were so few women coming through her workplace.

She set up the gender diversity committee and through this has been able to do a “whole heap of really great actions for equity and diversity”.

When the committee began, none of the 15 postdoctoral researchers in astronomy at Swinburne were women, but the committee pushed to change this. Now 40 per cent of postdoctoral researchers in the area are women.

Prof Kilborn says while she has had a supportive and inclusive experience during her time in the field, she has still experienced challenges due to the lack of other women in the community.

“I think you have … sometimes being the only woman in the room, and there’s a lot of unconscious bias that happens when you’re the only person who may be a bit different in that room.”

International lawyer and space research professional Kim Ellis says she has also had to work hard not to let the male-dominated spaces she works in affect her.

Ms Ellis now serves on several advisory boards and executive committees related to aerospace and technology in Australia, the United States and Europe, and has trained as part of the Scientist-Astronaut Program.

While her experiences in the field have mostly been positive and supportive, Ms Ellis says when it comes to equal representation in STEM, she still sees room for improvement.

“I think that the conversation in society about trying to improve the numbers of women that we have in STEM, I think it’s certainly louder than it used to be.”

Professor Virginia Kilborn is the Dean of Science at Swinburne and an advocate for equity in STEM. Image: Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Blasting into the future

Prof Brodie, Prof Kilborn and Ms Ellis are part of the diverse team that works to understand galaxies and teach the next generation of astrophysicists at the Swinburne University of Technology.

They all agree that encouraging women and young girls to consider STEM careers starts with showing them they can do whatever they set their minds to.

“Trying to inspire young women to be interested in these areas is all about getting into schools and actually showing young girls that women can do these types of technical things,” Ms Ellis says.

Swinburne runs several outreach programs to increase interest in their space programs, such as SHINE (Swinburne Haileybury International Space Station Experiment), which began in 2017.

The program sees Haileybury College students work with university staff to create experiments, which are then sent to the International Space Station for conducting.

Prof Kilborn, a SHINE leader, says the program’s participants are of diverse genders. “Everybody thrives in that program.”

“You get shown what you can do as an individual. And it’s not based on what your gender identification is. And so that’s really, really important for women and girls in STEM.”

She says removing barriers for women and girls to take-up STEM education and roles, such as through scholarships, mentorship and clubs, is another way to increase diversity in the field.

“Swinburne has really great programs for women and lots of opportunities as well.”

In December 2020, Swinburne announced it was pairing with Avanade to offer a scholarship for women wanting to go into STEM courses, with six students selected to receive financial support, mentorship and networking opportunities.

With the conversation around equity in the industry at the forefront—change in the diversity of STEM fields is coming.

Ms Ellis says her advice to women and young girls interested in a career in astrophysics or space exploration, is they don’t always need to take the most traditional educational routes and follow their passion.

“There are a million different pathways you can take to a million different types of jobs … you have to follow what interests you, excites you, gets you up in the morning … and keeps you awake thinking about it at night.”