Episode 54: The African Network of Women in Astronomy

With Prof Mirjana Pović, Prof Vanessa McBride, Dr Priscilla Muheki and Prof Carolina Ödman

In this week’s episode we are joined by fours members of the board of the recently established African Network of Women in Astronomy (AfNWA).

AfNWA is an initiative that aims to connect women working in astronomy and related fields in Africa. AfNWA aims to guarantee the future participation of girls and women at all levels in astronomy and science developments in Africa. Their main objectives are improving the status of women in science in Africa and using astronomy to inspire more girls to do STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics).

Mirjana, Vanessa, Priscilla and Carolina chat with us about how AfNWA came about and some of the exciting achievements thus far!

Two exceptional women in science were recognised in the inaugural awards of the African Network of Women in Astronomy. The early career award went to Dr. Marie Korsaga, Burkina Faso’s first woman astronomer and the senior award went to Prof. Renée Kraan-Korteweg from South Africa.

This week’s guests:

Episode Links:

AfNWA: https://afnwa.org/
AfNWA Awards: https://afnwa.org/first-ever-african-women-in-astronomy-award-winners-announced/


By Justine Crook-Mansour

[00:16:56] Daniel: Welcome to The Cosmic Savannah with Dr. Daniel Cunnama

[00:17:04] Jacinta: and Dr. Jacinta Delhaize. Each episode we’ll be giving you a behind-the-scenes look at world-class astronomy and astrophysics happening under African skies.

[00:17:13] Daniel: Let us introduce you to the people involved, the technology we use, the exciting work we do, and the fascinating discoveries we make.

[00:17:21] Jacinta: Sit back and relax as we take you on a safari through the skies.

[00:17:30] Daniel: Welcome to episode 54.

[00:17:31] Jacinta: Hi everyone.

[00:17:33] Daniel: Today we’re joined by a wonderful collection of woman astronomers from the African Network of Women in Astronomy.

[00:17:40] Jacinta: Yes. And before we get started in that, I just wanted to mention our previous episode on space lasers with the LADUMA survey…. if you haven’t heard it, check it out… episode 53, where we talk about the discovery of a mega-maser with the MeerKAT telescope. And that has actually now made it onto CNN. The press release has been spectacularly successful. And yeah, very excited. Congratulations to Marcin Glowacki and Sarah Blyth and everyone involved.

[00:18:06] Daniel: Including yourself.

[00:18:07] Jacinta: Well, mine… yeah… I was slightly involved. I was a co-author at some point. Yes, but anyway, back on to today’s episode. So we’re talking kind of about not necessarily astronomy itself, but about astronomy as a collection of people, and in particular minority groups in astronomy, and further in particular, women in astronomy. And now, Dan, it was your idea to do this episode. So I just sort of was wondering kind of what your thoughts are on this and why you suggested doing this episode?

[00:18:39] Daniel: I think we all know that there’s a gender gap in science and in astronomy in particular where, you know, women are not equally represented. And that’s something a lot of people feel passionately about and trying to improve. I have a daughter. She’s very interested in astronomy, even though she’s only six. And she may or may not –

[00:19:00] Jacinta: I think that has something to do with her dad, perhaps.

[00:19:02] Daniel: Um, yeah. Maybe.

[00:19:05] Jacinta: Didn’t you get them a quantum physics book for kids?

[00:19:10] Daniel: Yeah. When they were like two or three. I’ve got rocket science too. And then this weekend, we were up in Sutherland actually. And we managed to do some fossil hunting… found some dinosaur bones, which actually aren’t dinosaur bones. They’re therapsid bones and we’re getting –

[00:19:27] Jacinta: They’re what bones?

[00:19:28] Daniel: Therapsid. So I learned something interesting.

[00:19:30] Jacinta: What’s that?

[00:19:31] Daniel: Exactly. Right. So dinosaurs are reptiles and they kind of split off from the proto-mammals 315 million years ago or something. And these things we find here in South Africa, they look like dinosaurs, they look like reptiles, but there are actually things called therapsids, which evolve into mammals. Which very interesting, you know? Yeah. So anyway.

[00:19:57] Jacinta: Well space and dinosaurs, the two most fascinating topics ever… combined into one in Sutherland. So did you actually see the telescope?

[00:20:06] Daniel: Oh yeah. So I spent a few days up in Sutherland. We were showing around some visitors. We had a couple of artists visiting and maybe we can chat to them in a later episode. And yeah, we spent a couple of nights up there, had a look at the telescopes, spent an evening in SALT and, yeah, always cool to see the Sutherland sky.

Anyway, back to the task at hand. We’re talking about women and astronomers. And I was recently at the African Astronomical Society General Assembly, which was held here a few weeks ago in Cape Town. And I got chatting to Professor Mirjana Pović, who is one of the board members for the African Network of Women in Astronomy (AfNWA) . And we got talking about the work that is being done by AfNWA and, you know, what we could do to improve this gender gap and the role of women in astronomy. So we spoke a little bit about that and decided that this would be an excellent episode for The Cosmic Savannah. So Mirjana suggested that not just herself, but some of the other board members for AfNWA join us.

So today we will be joined by Mirjana, but also Professor Carolina Ödman, who is from Cape Town, from the University of the Western Cape and IDIA,  as well as Vanessa McBride, from the Office of Astronomy for Development, and Dr. Priscilla Muheki from Mbarara University in Uganda. And all four of them, as well as a few others, form the board of AfNWA. And they’ll be chatting to us today about the incredible work that AfNWA has done in the two years of its existence thus far, and some of its plans for the future.

[00:21:45] Jacinta: Yeah, there are several extra board members, but they couldn’t all make it to our chat that we had. And we had some unfortunate network connection problems with Priscilla. So you’ll hear that we don’t quite manage to respond to all of the things that she said. But apologies for some of the quality of the audio. But hopefully you can still understand what’s being said and yeah. Shall we get to it?

[00:22:12] Daniel: Yeah.

So today we are joined by the board of the African Network for Women in Astronomy. We’re joined by Professor Mirjana Pović, Professor Vanessa McBride, Professor Carolina Ödman and Dr. Priscilla Muheki. Welcome to The Cosmic Savannah.

[00:22:33] Jacinta: Hi everyone.

[00:22:34] Mirjana: Hello. Thank you very much guys for inviting us.

[00:22:38] Daniel: Mirjana, perhaps you can start and just introduce yourself, maybe some of your work. And then I know that there are seven members on the board. Perhaps you could just mention the other members who weren’t able to join us today.

[00:22:51] Mirjana: Yes. Thank you, Daniel. So I’m an Assistant Professor working at the Ethiopian Space Science and Technology Institute, and also Associate Researcher at the Instituto de Astrofísica de Andalucía in Spain. And, since 2017, I’ve been also Honorary Lecturer at the Mbarara University of Science and Technology.

My field of research is extra-galactic astronomy, so I’m focussed on studying the properties of active galaxies in particular. And then I dedicated quite a lot of time on studying the  morphological properties of galaxies, star formation in galaxies, and then properties of galaxies in galaxy clusters as well.

Beside that, Africa is really my big passion and I’ve been involved in different projects related with human capacity development, institutional development across Africa, mainly in East African countries over the last 13 years, and especially the last six/seven years since I’m based in Ethiopia.

So the idea for creating the African Network of Women in Astronomy was there for a long time in my head. And then in 2019, when I received the Nature Research Award for Inspiring Science, that was the week, the moment when for the very first time, I saw that there are now possibilities that we can maybe create this kind of network bringing together women that are working in astronomy on the continent, and I decided how I could get it to work to put in this kind of initiative. And that’s actually how all the process started, you know. So I got in touch with, at that time, five women that I knew from before. I knew how energetic they are, how motivated and inspired they are.

And I know that we share the same the vision and ideas that we do – want to empower girls and women on the continent through astronomy. And also, as I mentioned previously, to bring professional astronomers together so that we can really guarantee the active participation of woman astronomers in all the development of astronomy that is currently going on, you know, being really one of the emerging science fields on the continent.

So I got in touch with Somaya for representing the northern part of the continent. And during the week to Vanessa and Carolina representing the southern part, and Priscilla from Uganda for representing the eastern part of Africa, and then Nana from Ghana for the western part. Very recently, a few months ago, Salma also from Senegal, she also joined us. So now, currently there are seven board members.

[00:25:43] Jacinta: Thanks for that Mirjana. And congratulations on your award. We will now move on to Vanessa who might be a familiar voice to some of you. She was our guest on episode 26 of The Cosmic Savannah. So welcome back, Vanessa. For any of our new listeners, could you introduce yourself again and tell us a little bit about yourself and tell us about some of the aims of the African Network for Women in Astronomy.

[00:26:07] Vanessa: Thanks, Jacinta. Hi Dan. Yeah, I’m Vanessa McBride and I’m from the Office of Astronomy for Development. I’m based in Cape Town in South Africa. And I also have positions with the South African Astronomical Observatory and Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Cape Town.

So I think when Mirjana came to us with the idea of, you know, forming this network, it was really something I think that all of us as board members were quite passionate about. And, you know, this idea was kind of a great vehicle to move that passion forward. And so I think, you know, one of the things that is a key focus of the committee, or actually this sub-committee of the African Astronomical Society now, is really to provide those important opportunities for networking for women, right. To, you know, To be able to access a network that can provide, for example, career advice, or can provide an introduction to someone who might be looking for a job in astronomy or who could provide a network for dissemination of opportunities, whether it’s for graduate studies or whether it’s for resources to help with anything related to astronomy or science.

So I think those are some of the important aspects that we wanted to look after in our community, our growing community of women in astronomy in Africa. And so kind of to do that, we’ve got various ways, you know, through, for example, a a mailing list, which we use to, you know, disseminate some of these opportunities. But also through, you know, visibility at the conference and on the website of the African Astronomical Society and the website that Carolina has set up for us, which is AfNWA.org.

[00:28:05] Daniel: Thanks Vanessa. Carolina perhaps you could address the next question. Firstly, just introducing yourself. And then, we know that there is a big gender gap in science and obviously in astronomy too. And I know that AfNWA is not only for women astronomers. I’m a member of AfNWA myself, proud to say. And perhaps you can just talk a little bit about that gender gap, why it exists in astronomy and science in general, and what AfNWA is trying to do to try and reduce that gap.

[00:28:37] Carolina: Hi everyone. My name’s Carolina Ödman. I am an Assistant Director in charge of development and outreach at the Inter-University Institute for Data Intensive Astronomy. And I’m also an Associate Professor at the University of the Western Cape.

So there is a large gender gap in science, as most people know. But I think it’s also clear that the gender gap is not due to a lack of interest in science from girls and women’s sides, but rather the result of systemic issues. You know, the involuntary consequences of having tight-knit networks, like sort of boys’ clubs and things like that. And people… because astronomy is a very collaborative science and people like to collaborate with people, they like associating with and so on. And so the historical gap comes from the fact that professorships and academic positions were originally only available to men. It’s in the history of science. It’s rather a fairly recent development that women are even acknowledged when they contribute to science.

It is a fantastic career to have to be a researcher in astronomy, and women are obviously just as good at it as men. And so what we’re trying to do to address this massive gender gap is to strengthen the position of women in astronomy through networking. This network is really playing the role of a glue among African women in astronomy, especially in Africa where we can be quite isolated from one another. And so it’s very important for us to stay in touch, to stay in touch with the latest developments stay in touch with opportunities, raising awareness of woman astronomers across the continent among groups who wouldn’t necessarily, say, think about them.

And as you said, Daniel, we’re very inclusive. Our membership is not limited to women at all. And I think we very much invite men in this conversation and are very glad to see that quite a few men have joined the network, indeed.

[00:30:54] Jacinta: Thanks for that Carolina. And last but not least, we have another familiar voice… Priscilla Muheki from Mbarara University. And we spoke to Priscilla in episode 10, which was one of my favourite episodes ever. And so we actually reran that as episode 44 recently. Welcome back to The Cosmic Savannah, Priscilla.

[00:31:13] Priscilla: Thank you Jacinta. And I’m glad to be back on The Cosmic Savannah. I am Priscilla Muheki from Uganda and I teach at Mbara University of Science and Technology. I was last here as a PhD student, and I’m glad to be back after finishing that. I do my research on stellar activity on the coolest stars in our galaxy, and try to understand how this activity kind of fake the existence of another habitable place in our galaxy, as we explained in episode 10.

[00:31:50] Jacinta: Priscilla, what does the AfNWA mean to you? And can you tell us more about what the gender imbalance means to you as a female astronomer in Uganda.

[00:32:00] Priscilla: Well, I found a home with AfNWA, a place of growth, exposure, learning, mentoring, and so much is possible. One interview actually once asked how I was able to be on a board with only senior scientists, yet I was still so junior. And all I said was it’s because they are not just sowing seeds for today, but also for the future generation. We can only be better than who we are through the right mentorship and support. And this is exactly it.

So as it is world over, gender imbalance is as real in Uganda. You have to work so hard in order to prove yourself, your worth, as compared to most of male counterparts. Sometimes ideas and thoughts are not just considered for their worth, but sometimes talk to the gender of the person presenting them. And of course, this is a big problem. Astronomy in particular is still a developing field in Uganda, but of course the imbalance in gender is already visible. Out of the approximately 10 PhDs in astronomy in Uganda, only two of us are females. And that’s why we are trying by all means to reach out to as many girls as we can so as to bridge this gap.

[00:33:23] Daniel: Thanks Priscilla. Carolina, you and Vanessa both mentioned some of the activities, including the wonderful website you’ve put up to strengthen the network. What are some of the other activities that the AfNWA is aiming to do or has already undertaken in the last year since its establishment? Mirjana, perhaps you can answer that.

[00:33:43] Mirjana: Yes, thanks Daniel. I have to say that when we officially started in January 2021, we had like a very ambitious list of activities that we would plan for the last year. And all of us, we are so happy and proud that actually many of the activities we managed to carry out during the very first year, taking into account that all across, our volunteers and all of us are extremely busy as well.

So basically, besides just a lot of effort has been there in creating the networking, launching the whole initiative, there are other activities that we started. One of those was starting with the virtual trainings. So Priscilla, Somaya were mainly behind that. So in 2021, we organized the free virtual trainings, improving the CV writing, and then one training in how to make successful presentation… that Jacinta was the one who gave the training and we are really grateful for that. That had a great impact.

Then we also organised several sessions about women in astronomy in general, not only AfNWA. One of those was organised also last year in December. I’m doing the Africa Europa Summit preview and we had a three-hour session about not only AfNWA, but about women in science movements in Africa in general, with 11 societies/networks that have been presented in STEM  in general. We also organised a special session about women in astronomy in Africa during the sixth meeting of East African Astronomical Society last year.

We also started with outreach activities. So we asked members to basically record small videos that now we are trying to put everything together and then that can be used in primary/secondary schools for promoting astronomy, but also for giving more visibility to women in astronomy and science.

And one of the big activities for the last year that we managed to do was to actually start with AfNWA awards. So Vanessa was the key person running that. We believe that these awards that are given to early career and then senior astronomers, female astronomers in the continent, we really give on one side more visibility to the work women in astronomy are doing, but on the other side also inspire many others. That was the principal aim of the awards.

So these are some of the activities that we launched last year. For this year, we have also big plans. We have one big activity that is preparing the very first book about women in astronomy in Africa. And we wanted that book to be finished and published just before the 2024 General Assembly. And we believe that with that book, again, we can inspire, give more visibility to women in Africa, inspire many others, and also generate an income. The small funds that can be there to support the other activities of AfNWA, and then African Astronomical Society as well.

[00:37:03] Jacinta: Thanks for that, Mirjana. You mentioned the awards and of course this year the inaugural awards were given out, and South Africa’s Professor Renée Kraan-Korteweg is the first winner of the African Network of Women in Astronomy Senior Award and Burkina Faso’ss Dr. Marie Korsaga received the Early Career Award.

Vanessa, I know that you had a lot to do with setting up these awards. Can you tell us a bit more about what the idea was behind them and what are your thoughts on that?

[00:37:35] Vanessa: Ah, thanks Jacinta. I think the idea with the awards is really, to echo what Mirjana has just said, to recognise the scientific achievements of a women who are working in the astronomy arena in Africa, but also to recognise the contributions that they’ve made broader than their research. So often these women have paved the way for other women or students or people who are not able to access astronomy or have really worked to grow the field somehow. And so our idea with the awards was to recognise those contributions, but also to provide some support, some financial support. So the awards come of course, with the publicity of them. And they also come with a financial award and that’s been made possible through the AfNWA budget that Mirjana spoke about – the award that she won, but also through the support of the international science program of a Uppsala University in Sweden.

Yeah. So these are really an opportunity for recognition and for inspiration of women who are working in this field. We also have had really fantastic input through our panel of adjudicators for the award. It’s really a very high-profile, international panel that comprises actually three either present or past presidents of the International Astronomical Union, all of whom are actually happen to be women on this panel. So I think it also, having such a high-profile panel provides the awards with its own sense of prestige, and really means that those who are winning these awards can be incredibly proud of these achievements.

So we hope to offer this Early Career Award on an annual basis going forward. And the Senior Award probably either every second year, or that’s still to be decided.

[00:39:37] Daniel: Brilliant. Thanks Vanessa. And congratulations for achieving. I hope that it’s something which really becomes established and I’m sure it will be incredibly prestigious going forward. Priscilla, maybe you can just tell the listeners how they can get involved, both male/female, and how they can find out more about AfNWA, and what we as astronomers can do to support this endeavour.

[00:40:02] Priscilla: Oh yeah. We welcome everyone to join us as the efforts of AfNWA need to be a concern of all, not only those who identify as females. You can join us by filling out the membership form on our website. And also visit the website, that is www.AfNWA.org to get more information about AfNWA, our activities, our goals. And of course, by joining us, we know that there’s a lot to learn. There’s a lot to share despite your gender. We can always learn from each other on how we can improve the status quo of females in astronomy. Especially in Africa.

I think astronomers need to take on the mandate of AfNWA with keen interest. This is possible through supporting supervision and mentorship of female students, sharing opportunities for advancement in career and research with these students, advocating for support for ladies who are taking breaks for family or other social responsibilities… as we are aware in the African setting, there is so much expectation that a lady who finishes at least their first degree should think about having family. And so most girls or ladies have been put in a position where they have to choose between the two because of conflict of interest. And of course, because they don’t want to live with the stress of you’re not sure where you’re belonging, they tend to give up one thing for another.

So if it were possible to offer as much support to such a portion of ladies who would want to venture into both maybe family and research or advancement in career, it would be very good. Because sometimes it’s not that people want to really take breaks, but because circumstances don’t and not favourable, they end up taking breaks or leaving the career forever. Yet, actually there’s so much that they could have contributed to science through their research and through their advancement in career.

And then also sometimes if these people who take breaks want to resume their career, they find so many challenges, especially with getting scholarships because of the career gap, because of, for instance, age. And yet I think sometimes it’s not just about the gap, it’s not about the age, but it’s about the ambition. It’s about the dream of this person. And if they’re ready to work for it. I think that’s what is most important. It’s not about whether they had to take five or six years break. If they’ve come back and they want to advance, what kind of support are we willing to give them? I think this is a very big question that all of us as astronomers, especially those who are in positions of authority, who are in positions of supervision, need to think about critically.

[00:43:22] Jacinta: Mirjana mentioned at a book is coming out. Carolina, could you perhaps tell us a bit more about that?

[00:43:28] Carolina: Yeah, sure. This book is really going to feature the human stories behind the woman astronomers across the continent, because as you can imagine the path to becoming an astronomer in Africa is not as clear and as laid out than in other parts of the world. And so each and every one will have an incredibly interesting story to tell. And those are stories of resilience, stories of courage, stories of passion, and stories of science. And so that’s really what we want to highlight with this book and to show also the, you know, diversity of woman astronomers across Africa. Because it may sound like, you know, just one category, if you will, woman astronomers in Africa. But within that is incredibly beautiful diversity of people that we look forward to showing.

[00:44:23] Jacinta: I am absolutely so excited to see that. That’ll be wonderful.

[00:44:27] Daniel: I think that on this podcast, we really are very excited about astronomy and particularly in Africa, which is why we run the podcast. And this is just one of the many, many projects which is happening in Africa in every part of astronomy.

AfNWA is as part of the African Astronomical Society, which we have mentioned before. And Mirjana, maybe just in closing, you can just explain a little bit about that. The African Astronomical Society was set up just in the last few years, and there are many, many initiatives coming out of that. We’ve spoken about the African Planetarium Association too. So Mirjana, perhaps you can just say a couple of words about AfAS and the incredible work it’s doing in other fields.

[00:45:11] Mirjana: Yes. Thank you, Daniel. So basically, the idea of AfNWA and then when the African Astronomical Society was re-established in 2019 came more or less in quite a same time. So basically the first year in 2019, where we still were between the board members actually discussing the ideas, how to do it, what is the approach to use and so on. So in that time, AfAS was already started building itself as a society. So when, from our side, we were ready actually to really put out the network and to build, to start with network, we actually heard that we do share all the same ideas. So we came with the proposal for the African Astronomical Society executive committee and the secretariat that we actually start with AfNWA as one of the sub-committees of AfAS because the objectives of AfAS… there was also the point to empower minorities, for empowering the underprivileged groups, and then to empower girls and women as well. So, as I said, it is always better that we work all under the same umbrella and we found a very positive feedback from the executive committee and that’s how actually everything started.

And we really grateful to the African Astronomical Society for the support, for the help that we have been receiving over the last year, in particular from the secretariat that is really doing a great job. And then the past executive committee. We hope that with the new executive committee to continue like that, and we really feel very strongly to be part of this African Astronomical Society and, you know, giving really the voice to the African astronomers and scientists.

[00:47:03] Jacinta: Well thanks everyone for joining us and persevering through internet connection dropouts and problems, and that when this is what we, of course knew we’d get ourselves into when we’re trying to do a multi-Zoom across all of Africa at the same time. But thanks very much for joining and thank you so much for all of your work Mirjana in the idea and setting up AfNWA in the beginning, and to all the board members for driving it forward. And congratulations for doing that. If you could give one last message to listeners, what would it be? Perhaps Mirjana, we start with you.

[00:47:41] Mirjana: My message would be that we all try to do as much as we can, whatever that is in our capacity to actually promote the importance of the equality in science in all possible terms, including gender. And with our daily activities, we actually try to do as much as we can to really reach that in the future. So that in the future, we really are able to achieve the equality in all possible terms, including geographical distribution, age, but then also gender. That is very, very important.

[00:48:17] Jacinta: Thanks, Mirjana. Vanessa.

[00:48:19] Vanessa: Yeah, I think from my side, just to note that gender equality is not just a woman’s problem, it’s a problem for all of us in society to manage. And so for that, I’m very thankful that we have so many focused men and people of other genders who have joined the society and who are committed to working on this.

[00:48:39] Jacinta: Beautiful. Thanks. And Priscilla.

[00:48:42] Priscilla: I will just conclude with a quote from Hillary Clinton and this is the all ladies. “Never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world to pursue and achieve your own dreams. And so no one should tell you otherwise.” Thank you.

[00:49:03] Jacinta: Thank you. And Carolina.

[00:49:05] Carolina: So I would really like to see an Africa where any young girl or young woman liking the stars and interested in science and in astronomy feels that she can do it and it’s for her as much as for anyone else. And I think we have collected an incredible number of beautiful, brilliant young role models that we will continue to showcase as much as possible to get the message across.

[00:49:35] Jacinta: Thanks so much. Thank you, once again, everyone for joining us. And this is truly The Cosmic Savannah all across Africa, woman astronomers, and the African Astronomical Society, bringing everyone together. It’s awesome to see, and it’s very exciting to be a part of. So thank you all once again. And thanks for being on The Cosmic Savannah.

[00:49:53] Daniel: Yeah, thank you everyone. We really appreciate it. And I think we’ll make a point to get the AfNWA award winners on one of the upcoming episodes of The Cosmic Savannah. And we look forward to your book.

[00:50:06] Mirjana: Thank you very much Daniel and Jacinta. That was really great. Thank you so much for the invitation and for giving us the visibility as well and all the work that you are doing.

[00:50:21] Jacinta: Well, thanks for organizing that, Dan. A lot of really impressive women there. Really excellent role models and really leading the way for many other women to join astronomy in the African continent, which is really exciting.

Sort of as a woman in astronomy myself, I never really had a female role model, especially during kind of my PhD years, undergrad and PhD. And I never really, I mean, you never really miss what you’ve never had. And so I certainly didn’t see it as an issue. I definitely had amazing male role models, but then kind of moving into my post-doctoral positions where both of my subsequent hosts were female astronomers and just it does make a difference to be able to talk to someone who’s kind of had some sort of similar life path to you and has similar issues. And just having that support, it really does make a difference.

[00:51:16] Daniel: Do you feel like it’s improving?

[00:51:18] Jacinta: I feel like it is. Yeah, definitely. I think with every generation, things certainly improve. The percentages of women in the areas improve. Obviously it’s very dependent on the institutes themselves, on the countries themselves. You know, I’ve lived and worked in countries that were kind of less progressive in that way and more progressive in that way. But I think as a whole, it’s definitely moving towards positive things.

Myself, I’ve never really had an issue at all with regards to my gender. If anything, it’s perhaps even been a bit of a positive because I guess I could stand out. I definitely was one of the few women in my classes, in my workplace for quite a long time. But that’s for myself in my personal situation has proved a lot. But I definitely know of a lot of female colleagues who have had some really tough times. And so these issues are real. It did take me quite a long time to realise that because I was just very fortunate to have never have had gender-based issues, but now I know a lot wiser and I know how lucky I am. But having said that, I do think that the culture is changing for the better.

[00:52:25] Daniel: Yeah. I really liked what Vanessa said and that gender equality is not just a woman’s problem. It’s not something that, you know, women should be aiming to achieve. It’s a problem for all of us. And the fact that AfNWA is not just for women, and for men to join too. We should probably aim for equal representation in AfNWA, you know, it really is everyone’s concern and something we should all be pushing to improve.

[00:52:52] Jacinta: Yeah. So what do you think is the role of men in the fight for gender equality? What are your thoughts on that?

[00:53:00] Daniel: I think that the one thing that men can really do, and it’s the same for anyone in a position of privilege is firstly just to recognise your position of privilege and that others may not be in such a privileged position. And once you do that, you realise that that other people may be struggling just because of their gender, their race. They may be having a different experience to you. And having that awareness can definitely help and in empathy for a start and being a little bit more understanding of other people’s challenges, and then it allows you to address them.

So trying to encourage and support people as much as possible. And, you know, we spoke about it a couple of episodes ago in terms of mental health. And I think that it’s a similar sort of thing. You really want to be aware of other people’s situation and how you can possibly help them.

[00:53:56] Jacinta: Yeah. And to be proactive in that process as well, rather than kind of passive. And I think that’s what makes a big difference. So I would just like to say, thank you, Dan, for initiating this episode. I think that that’s really meaningful to me and I’m sure to many other people. And so that’s one great example of how to help is to sort of provide a platform for people in minority groups. And how certainly talking about things like this has helped me to do so for people in other minority groups that I’m not part of, such as different races, different community, the LGBTQ community, and sort of things like this. Yeah. And so I think it’s always important to be a proactive ally to others, which I think is great.

[00:54:37] Daniel: And just wonderful to hear all the work that’s been done by AfNWA. You know, it hasn’t been around for long. Already it’s making massive strides. The awards. I think we will definitely try and get hold of both Maria and Renée and speak to them about their awards and the work they’ve done.

But, you know, just really bringing women to the forefront and allowing a safe space for young woman astronomers to create a network, find encouragement and access the tools and resources they need to succeed.

[00:55:09] Jacinta: Yeah. And I also wanted to give another shout-out to Mirjana. She was very sort of humble, but she’s actually received so many awards and what she does is really incredible.

[00:55:19] Daniel: Yeah, absolutely. So, you know, we spoke to Mirjana and she’s, you know, based at the Ethiopian Space Science and Technology Institute, but she was also the inaugural laureate of the Nature and Estée Lauder Inspiring Science Award, which she was awarded in 2019. As well as the inaugural Jocelyn Bell Burnell Inspiration medal in 2021.

And, you know, just really recognising the work she’s done in developing astronomy in science and education as a path out of poverty. And just trying to improve the quality of life for young people in Africa. It really is admirable what she’s doing. She’s dedicated her life to this, and she’s based herself in Africa so that she can do the best possible job.

[00:56:05] Jacinta: Yeah, she’s definitely an inspiring person and yeah someone to look up to.

[00:56:12] Daniel: And an ultra-marathon runner, which I really enjoy.

[00:56:15] Jacinta: Yes. I’ve heard that. A woman of many, many talents.

And also if you haven’t heard of Jocelyn Bell Burnell, she is an incredible radio astronomer who discovered pulsars. And she is currently at the University of Oxford and she’s won many prizes and given a lot of the money away to supporting women in astronomy, and even for Mirjana to be kind of associated with the award for that is very high praise indeed.

So thank you to Mirjana for joining us and also for the other AfNWA board members. If you are interested in joining this, male or female, please go ahead and do so. We’ll put the links on the website. Yeah. And let’s all fight the good fight for gender equality in science and academia.

[00:57:07] Daniel: But before we go, Jacinta, how are you?

[00:57:10] Jacinta: I’m doing well, thanks. I’ve just come out of the Easter long weekend. And it was really great because I managed to see lots of very good friends who I haven’t seen in many years. The borders to Western Australia are open now. And so they were all able to come home. Many of them were planning to come home for Christmas, but it wasn’t possible then. So got to catch up with a lot of old friends, which has been really rejuvenating and lovely to see everyone finally doing really well.

Yeah. And other than that, sort of getting my head around still being in Australia for now. I was struggling with that. It’s quite hard to kind of half live in two different continents at the same time, but I guess I’m getting better at that. And hoping that I’ll be able to make it back to South Africa within a few more months. I miss everybody there, but yeah, life is good in general.

How about you, Dan?

[00:58:03] Daniel: Good. Good to hear you’re doing well Jacinta. Yeah, I hope you can make it back soon. Yeah, I’m well. Also thoroughly enjoyed the long weekend for Easter. I was up in Sutherland, as I mentioned, which is always just really good for the soul. Every time I go up to the Karoo, I fall more and more in love. And, you know, particularly this time managing to wonder round and find bones and explore. And it was just really nice to be away from the city and under the dark skies.

So yeah, feeling also refreshed. It feels like I had a little mini break and yeah looking forward to getting back to work. Yeah. Seeing what the rest of the year holds.

[00:58:42] Jacinta: Good on you. Oh, I’m envious has always. Still haven’t been to Sutherland.

[00:58:47] Daniel: Well, first get back to South Africa and then do Sutherland.

[00:58:50] Jacinta: Yep. First things first, indeed.

[00:58:54] Daniel: Well, thanks again for joining us and we hope you’ll join us again for the next episode of The Cosmic Savannah.

[00:59:00] Jacinta: You can visit our website, thecosmicsavannah.com, where we’ll have the transcript, links, pictures, and other stuff related to today’s episode.

[00:59:07] Daniel: You can follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, @cosmicsavannah. That’s savannah spelt S-A-V-A-N-N-A-H. And you can also find us on YouTube where audio-only episodes are uploaded with closed captions, which can be auto translated into over 200 different languages, including Afrikaans, isiXhosa, and isiZulu. Special thanks today to Professor Mirjana Pović, Professor Vanessa McBride, Professor Carolina Ödman, and Dr. Priscilla Muheki for speaking with us.

[00:59:35] Jacinta: Thanks to our social media manager, Sumari Hattingh, and our audio editor, Jacob Fine. Also to Mark Allnut for music production, Michal Lyzcek for photography, Carl Jones for astrophotography, Susie Caras for graphic design, and Justine Crook-Mansour for transcription.

[00:59:50] Daniel: We gratefully acknowledge support from the South African National Research Foundation, the South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement, the South African Astronomical Observatory, and the University of Cape Town Astronomy Department.

[01:00:02] Jacinta: You can subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. And we’d really appreciate it if you could rate and review us and recommend us to a friend.

[01:00:11] Daniel: And we’ll speak to you next time on The Cosmic Savannah.


[01:00:23] Jacinta: Unique New York, unique New York.

[01:00:26] Daniel: Jacob, we learned a new word today and it is vinculated.

[01:00:31] Jacinta: I wonder if it’s pronounced vin-C-ulated or vin-S-ulated?

[01:00:35] Daniel: Well, the Spanish will definitely be vincular. I’m sure it’d be vin-C-ulated. I’m going to see if I can squeeze it in the episode.

[01:00:45] Jacinta: Okay. Let’s see if you can try.

[01:00:48] Daniel: Okay, right let’s get started.