What you’ll discover in this blog post:
  • Which role models inspired some of ESO’s astronomers and engineers and why
  • The achievements and influence of these inspirational female role models in science and engineering
To mark the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, we spoke to astronomers and engineers at ESO to find out who their female role model in science or engineering is and how they inspired them in their careers. We highlight those inspiring figures in this blog post.

Margaret Burbidge

"My favourite female role model is the astronomer Margaret Burbidge," says Paola Amico, a system engineer for the Extremely Large Telescope instruments. Margaret Burbidge was one of the founders of stellar nucleosynthesis, the now well-established theory that chemical elements are formed by nuclear fusion within stars. She later worked on galaxy rotation curves and quasars, discovering the most distant astronomical object then known.

Paola, whose own background is in astronomy, explains, “Margaret Burbidge started practising astronomy well before I was born and died last year at 100 years old. She was an observational astronomer in the times when women did not have access to telescopes.” Women were not allowed at the observatories, with the reason given that the facilities catered to men only. As an observer, Margaret Burbidge applied for the fellowship at Mount Wilson Observatory but was refused as she was a woman so her husband, Geoff, a theoretical astronomer, applied and got the job. Margaret took a fellowship at Caltech instead and would accompany her husband to the observatory, posing as his assistant. In fact, Margaret operated the telescope while Geoff worked in the photographic dark room. Paola, who also supports the Department of Communication as Science Liaison adds, “She was well known for opposing discrimination in astronomy and without her and a few others including Vera Rubin paving the way, the astronomy world may have been very different for women now.” Margaret Burbidge was the first female director of the Royal Greenwich Observatory and the first woman to receive a Bruce Medal.

Their determination and commitment opened observatories to women like Paola, where she met her role model, “I had the privilege of supporting her observing runs at the Keck telescope in Hawaii in her eighties, which was odd, since professors usually send students to do the night work. She was new to the technologies, like remote observing with modern telescopes, and with humility she learnt and took her data. Supporting her is one of my favourite memories, her example is what I try to follow to this day.

Antonella Natta

Her passion, work attitude and perseverance, but also her joy at seeing results from new research, have been and still are an inspiration for me and many colleagues,” says ESO Support Astronomer Carlo Felice Manara about his role model, Antonella Natta.

Antonella Natta is an emeritus professor at the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies, having previously been a researcher at INAF in Florence, Italy. “She is one of the founding people of our branch of research, and carried out pioneering studies of young stars and their protoplanetary discs, in both theoretical and observational work,” explains Carlo who, when not supporting astronomers observing with ESO's Very Large Telescope (VLT), conducts research to understand how stars and planets form.

I have learned most of what I know about how to carry out astronomical research from her,” says Carlo, who has worked with Antonella Natta since the beginning of his PhD. “Even nowadays she is the person I call when I have a new idea, a doubt, or I need some motivation or direction in my scientific career.

Lucia Debrouckère

As a child, my role model was ‘grande dame’ Lucia Debrouckère, who was the first female professor of science in a Belgian university and by then around 70 years old,” says Françoise Delplancke-Ströbele, ESO Project Engineer, who maintains a technical overview of several instruments for the VLT. As professor of chemistry at the Free University of Brussels, Lucia Debrouckère set about reorganising the chemistry department to attract teachers from abroad and make it more conducive to teaching and research. Françoise adds, “She changed the teaching to be based more on experiments and projects than on theoretical lectures, which is so important for me as an engineer.” Lucia Debrouckère was awarded the Wetrems Prize in 1953 for her research and sat on various bodies including the Belgian Chemical Society.

When I was 7 or 8 years-old, she gave me the books that probably sparked my interest in engineering.

Lucia Debrouckère had a direct influence on Françoise, now also Executive Officer of the Directorate of Engineering, coordinating the programmes for internships, studentships and fellowships in engineering at ESO. “My parents, who had studied with her, invited her to our place regularly and she was always attentive to me as a full person, despite my young age, and impressed me by her humanism.” Lucia Debrouckère also influenced Françoise in her career, “When I was 7 or 8 years-old, she gave me the books that probably sparked my interest in engineering, which were on building cathedrals, medieval castles and cities.” As well as science, Lucia Debrouckère was also committed to defending freedom, contributing to the efforts of the Second World War in London and becoming the first president of the World Committee of Women Against War and Fascism. Françoise concludes, “She was an excellent model to follow scientifically and, more importantly, morally.

Marie Skłodowska Curie

Marie Curie is my role model because she is the perfect example of a genius scientist performing science research in various disciplines and making discoveries that changed the world,” says Christophe Martayan, ESO astronomer, who supports the observations of the worldwide astronomical community on ESO’s Very Large Telescope.

Marie Skłodowska Curie was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize and then a second in another discipline. Her first Nobel Prize was in Physics in 1903, shared with her husband Pierre Curie and Henri Becquerel for their pioneering research on radioactivity. Marie Skłodowska Curie then won the 1911 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering two radioactive elements, polonium and radium, found using techniques she invented. She remains the only person to win the Nobel Prize in two scientific fields. Christophe, who researches the evolution of massive stars in different environments, explains, “I like the idea of not being restricted to a single discipline or area of research but being curious, learning and becoming knowledgeable by studying different areas, to perform the best possible work and discoveries.

Marie Skłodowska Curie faced sexism (she was only included in the Nobel Prize in Physics after her husband complained of her omission), xenophobia and religious intolerance but she persevered. “As well as science, Marie Curie was dedicated to her country and people,” says Christophe. During the First World War, she saw the need for radiological centres near the front lines and developed mobile radiography units, which came to be known as petites Curies ("Little Curies"). She set up France’s first military radiological centre and directed the installation of 200 radiological units at field hospitals in the first year of the war. Marie Skłodowska Curie was the first woman to become a professor at the University of Paris in 1906. She founded the Curie Institutes in Paris and Warsaw, which have built on her pioneering work to develop radiotherapy treatments for cancer, saving many lives.

Shouleh Nikzad

I actually only met Shouleh Nikzad shortly after starting as a detector engineer at ESO at one of the Scientific Detector Workshops. I think the biggest impact for me was seeing someone be so successful at something I think is really important – developing the best detectors for astronomy,” says Elizabeth George, whose own work focuses on building and characterising the focal planes of different scientific instruments to ensure that they work as well as possible. “I realised that it is not enough to be technically excellent but that you have to also be good at working together with and getting the support of many different groups to be successful.

I think the biggest impact for me was seeing someone be so successful at something I think is really important.

Shouleh Nikzad is a Senior Research Scientist and Principal Engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where she leads the Advanced Detector Arrays, Systems, and Nanoscience Group. Her work focuses on designing detectors that better capture high energy photons so fewer photons are “wasted” and astronomers can better “see” in ultraviolet or X-rays without needing larger instruments, reducing their cost. “She is adept at finding technological gaps where new detector developments could really increase the quality of science possible, and then passionately pursues these strategic developments,” says Elizabeth. One key achievement is Shouleh Nikzad’s development of curved imagers, inspired by the shape of the human eye, which allows high quality imaging on very large telescopes and means high quality cameras can fit inside smartphones. For her work, Shouleh Nikzad has won numerous awards, including the NASA Outstanding Leadership Medal in 2020. Elizabeth adds, “Her blend of technical brilliance, strategic project development, and management skills are something I aspire to.

Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin

I discovered Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin only later in my career. Even though her contributions to astronomy are unarguably important, I don't remember ever hearing of her during my studies. For me, she highlights how the credit to important scientific discoveries can be lost, especially if they are made by minorities,” says Heidi Korhonen, astronomer for ESO's VLT on Cerro Paranal.

For me, she highlights how the credit to important scientific discoveries can be lost, especially if they are made by minorities.

Heidi, whose role as Operation Staff Astronomer at ESO’s Paranal Observatory involves ensuring the high quality of observations, adds, “When Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin started her career about 100 years ago, women were very rarely admitted to universities, but she persisted and became the first woman to lead a department at Harvard University. She made fundamental contributions to astronomy by discovering that the stars are mainly made of hydrogen and helium.” Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin presented this in her doctoral thesis but was dissuaded from including this conclusion as it contradicted scientific wisdom at the time. Independent observations later proved her correct. Otto Sturve, director of Yerkes Observatory, in his 1962 book Astronomy of the 20th Century co-authored with Velta Zebergs, described Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin’s work as “the most brilliant PhD thesis ever written in astronomy”.

Conny Aerts

I have learned a lot about stars from Conny, but I have also learned about strength, confidence and leadership.

Conny Aerts has been ‘the first woman in…’ many times in her career, including for the Francqui Prize, known as the Belgian Nobel Prize, in the Science & Technology category,” says Ana Escorza, an ESO fellow with duties in Paranal, of her role model. “However, that is not the reason why she is my role model. Conny is probably the best lecturer I have had and an excellent science communicator. After attending my first Stellar Structure and Evolution lecture with her, I thought, ‘I want to be like her and communicate science like her’.” Conny Aerts is a professor at KU Leuven. As a mathematician and astronomer, she is recognised worldwide for her work on stellar structure and evolution, specifically as a well-known expert on asteroseismology. Asteroseismology is an efficient tool to learn about the structures of stellar interiors, by interpreting stellar oscillations in a similar way to how seismic waves can be used to learn about the Earth’s structure. Theoretical models developed by Conny Aerts are used to determine the ages of stars, helping our understanding of their evolution.

Ana completed her Master’s project supervised by Conny Aerts and Konstanze Zwintz, a professor at the University of Innsbruck, another remarkable female scientist that she looks up to. “I have learned a lot about stars from Conny, but I have also learned about strength, confidence and leadership. She is also an encouraging mentor. I did not work with her for my PhD, but I always knew that she was just an email away if I needed anything and that I had her support,” says Ana, whose own research focuses on double-star systems and what can happen when material transfers from one star to the other. She adds, “Conny is a person who makes a difference, she is inspiring and motivating for both female and male scientists.

Vera Rubin

As a role model I thought if she made it as an astronomer, it means there is a way for me too.

Vera Rubin is my role model, because she fought fiercely to allow women who were astronomers to go to the observatories,” says Paola Andreani, astronomer at ESO whose own research is in observational cosmology and in the formation and evolution of galaxies and quasars. Vera Rubin battled sexism during her career; she was turned down from Princeton University’s graduate programme for being a woman. She was also the first woman officially allowed access to Palomar Observatory, US, in 1964. As there were no women’s bathroom facilities at the observatory, she changed the label on the men’s only bathroom to a skirted-woman so that she was allowed to use it.

Vera Rubin pioneered studies on galaxy rotation rates, finding that at the speed they rotate, they should fly apart as the gravity due to their stars was insufficient. This was evidence of vast amounts of dark matter, matter that cannot be directly detected but whose gravitational influence we can measure. Dark matter is now believed to account for 85% of all matter in the Universe. Vera Rubin was awarded the National Medal of Science in 1993. Paola adds, “She was a fantastic astronomer who deserved the Nobel Prize and likely did not get it because she was a woman. At the same time, she did not give up her private life and was a mother of four children. As a role model I thought if she made it as an astronomer, it means there is a way for me too.” Vera Rubin is now the first woman to have a large observatory named after her.

Nuria Calvet

Nuria Calvet has been a leading researcher in the field of star and planet formation since the 1980s, a time when female astronomers in the field were unfortunately uncommon,” says Enrique Macias, postdoctoral fellow at ALMA, in which ESO is a partner. His role model, Nuria Calvet, focuses her research on the first stage of a star system’s life, obtaining observations of young planet-forming, or protoplanetary, discs and developing modelling tools to interpret them and understand how and why the amount of gas and dust changes over time.

Nuria Calvet completed her PhD at the University of California, Berkeley before working at several research institutions in Venezuela, and now holds the Helen Dodson Prince Collegiate Professorship at the University of Michigan. Enrique, whose own research focuses on planet formation, says, “She has had a huge impact on many students and young researchers. When I first met Nuria Calvet, I felt a bit lost on how to continue with my PhD project and what would come next. I had the opportunity to spend three months at the University of Michigan working with her, and I learnt not only a great deal about protoplanetary disk structure and evolution, but she also gave me very valuable career advice and helped me get motivated again. Whenever I have any question about my career or the physics of protoplanetary disks, I still go to her to help me resolve my doubts.