“Raising generations in astrophysics: the daily struggle”– Conny Aerts the 2022 Kavli Laureate

By Jessica Ahedor

Jessica Ahedor interviewing Conny Aerts the 2022 Laureate in Astrophysics

Oslo, Norway – Conny Clara Aerts, a Belgian Astrophysicist nearly gave up on her dream and career and would have missed out on, with all its prestige, the opportunity of becoming the third woman to be awarded the famous Kavli Prize in Astrophysics in 2022.

Her work in asteroseismology – the study of alternations in stars; and helioseismology – the study of stellar pulsation in the sun – became known as another branch of Astrophysics in the world’s history.

“I almost gave up when I gave birth to my daughter. The demand at work and that of a mother were just too much for me. But what kept me going was the fact that many people look up to me and giving up will be disappointing and denying them access to the knowledge that will shape the world”

As a professor of astronomy, Conny and two other colleagues, astrophysicists Roger Ulrich and Jørgen Christensen-Dalsgaard, emerged as the pioneers and leaders in the development of helio- and asteroseismology, a field that has laid the foundations for solar and stellar structure theory. Their work revolutionized human understanding of the interiors of stars and their impact on the temperatures on earth.

“Stars have many resonant modes and frequencies, and the path of sound waves passing through a star depends on the speed of sound, which depends on local temperature and chemical composition.”

In an exclusive interview with www.scijgh.com shortly before receiving the prestigious award in astrophysicist from the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters at the Kavli Prize week 2022 in Norway, Conny Aerts explained that “because the resulting oscillation modes are sensitive to different parts of the star, they inform astronomers about the internal structure of the star which is otherwise not directly possible from overall properties like brightness and surface temperature.”

Their work in helioseismology and asteroseismology

Blending the study of the swinging sun and other cosmological surfaces with scientific modeling, the laureates joined data-analysis modules (such as pattern recognition, time series analysis, and statistical modeling) with physics and chemistry. The fussing of these scientific fields brings about the precise knowledge of the physical make-ups of lunar interiors. Roger Ulrich started the theoretical foundation of the field, while Conny Aerts and Jørgen Christensen-Dalsgaard expanded its reach to stars of all masses in various evolutionary stages.

It is what I call a daily struggle as an “astromama”, said Conny, while laughing it off as she narrated her challenges to www.scijgh.com. “There were two redefining moments for me, as of the time I was defending my PhD and the time of pregnancy through to birth”.

My husband and I are in academia and as a first-time mother, things were tough, but my eyes were on my dream. There was little knowledge of the internal rotation of massive stars then. My Ph.D. thesis was on a mathematical method for identifying rhythms from spectroscopic time series data. Though the idea was propounded by Luis Balona in 1986, mine comes with a new version and arithmetical implementation of this method, in addition to its first applications on hot, massive pulsators.

Defending my work took place earlier than scheduled as I was sure it might trigger public scrutiny. I wanted to join my husband at the Harvard School of Public Health, so while living in Boston I got funding for a two-month research stay with Professor Stan Owocki at the University of Delaware to learn the theory of radiation-driven winds of massive stars. We returned to Belgium in 1994, a decision caused by our pregnancy as all my job applications in the USA had failed coupled with the high costs of living, and daycare in Boston with only one income.

Our dual-career project was better treated in Belgium where my partner got a permanent faculty position while I got a competitive three-year junior postdoctoral fellowship of the Research Foundation Flanders (FWO) to perform blue-sky research of my likings, focusing on the discovery of hundreds of hot gravity-mode pulsators from the European Space Agency’s Hipparcos satellite among other variable stars throughout stellar evolution.
I got another competitive three-year senior fellowship At FWO and it also extended my position for a year to recompense for my two pregnancy leaves. My FWO funding covered the period between 1994 and 2001 and it allowed me to become the scientist I wanted to be: an “astromama” and an asteroseismologist with a plan to develop that branch of stellar astrophysics for stars of intermediate and high mass.

But, as a young mother at the Institute of Astronomy–again an outlier–my seven years in postdoc were the toughest period of my career with two young kids to take care of. The job situation made me suffer from physical exhaustion. I was basically doing all the tasks as a faculty member already – lecturing, Ph.D. supervision, project management, chairing of international conferences – notably the pulsation conference I organized in 2001 in Leuven with loads of committee work. I still undertook work trips abroad to gain international experience but in a format that suited me. The work trips would be short (less than two weeks) in duration as long as our kids depended on their parents. One of us would always work in Belgium to be at home with our children after school closed. Often, as partners, we crossed each other at an airport or a train station.

But the revered mathematician and Astrophysicists said the world has evolved as have the various modes of knowledge applications that make learning and working less tedious. As a result, computational-based calculations have made the charting path towards astronomy simpler than it used to be.  “When we started many years ago, there were few tools to use. I believe it is part of the reason many women and girls shied away from following their dreams and passion. The good news is, now thanks to evolution, we have what it takes to know almost everything with the help of computer programs.”

The three laureates will share a $1 million and a gold medal received from the King of Norway. The Kavli Prize is a partnership between the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, the Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research, and the American-based Kavli Foundation.

It is an honour to be awarded the Kavli Prize in astrophysics. It brings tribute to the dedicated efforts of all my team members over so many years and recognizes the success of my inclusive team approach at KU Leuven. This award is also a great encouragement to develop new rigorous mathematical methods to tackle asteroseismology of the fastest rotators in the Universe, Aerts said.

Challenges of women in science

McKinnon et al. suggested that gender biases and stereotypes are common in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. This remained a hindrance to attracting and keeping the progress of girls and women in STEM education and careers. In most African countries, including Ghana, there are additional challenges that women in science face. They are treated as a threat for daring into “masculine careers” because of socio-cultural beliefs.

Speaking to a cross-section of Ghanaians about their perception of women in STEM careers, some say women in STEM don’t respect therefore they cannot be married, while others are of the view that it is awful to see women in “masculine occupations” because they tend to behave like men.

“Career paths in the sciences are challenging and women who excel in them ought to be celebrated and not degraded. The biological make-up of women is an added stress. They write the same exams as their male counterparts who by nature will not suffer any biological pain or even have their careers obstructed by pregnancy”.

There is little or no support to attract and cushion them knowing that their path involves a lot of dedication and monetary resources. I see them compete with other students for space to sleep on campuses, while others commute to school on a daily basis despite the accumulated stress” bemoaned Prof. Nana Ama Brown Klutsey, climatologist and a senior lecturer at the department of physics, University of Ghana.

She also added, “If I had my way, I would modify how exams are written; how their needs could be prioritized, especially their learning environment, and the needed support because building a science career is a tough journey on its own.

That notwithstanding, there is no clear-cut policy on science education and motivation in Ghana. There were many initiatives attempted to address these biases and stereotypes, including the use of visible role models; however, these efforts also failed to stand the test of time. The National Science, Technology and Innovation Policy, which aimed at providing a framework for stimulating innovation in the economy, could not see its full implementation under successive governments.  Meanwhile, the latest draft of the country’s Science, Technology, and Innovation policy is yet to be launched for implementation.”

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