An award-winning astronomer who needs both career and family
“When I was younger, I read books like Trixie Belden, where the girls thought physics, geometry and trigonometry were too hard,” says astrophysicist Professor Lisa Kewley. “I had gotten the idea from those books that physics would be too hard, but then I found I actually enjoyed it.”
Lisa’s mother had grown up in a time when this Trixie Belden mentality was the norm. “She wanted to pursue science, but was told science wasn’t a girl’s subject. She didn’t want me to have the same thing,” Lisa said. Both her parents were very encouraging of her pursuit of science. “My dad is a physicist. He encouraged me a lot.”
She studied the physical sciences at school and found her year 11 physics teacher’s enthusiasm for all things astronomy inspiring. “He would bring in these cool articles to read about black holes and worm holes. We looked at the moons of Jupiter during an experiment and went on astronomy camp. That got me quite interested in astronomy.”
After graduating high school, Lisa enrolled in a Bachelor of Science at the University of Adelaide, majoring in physics. “I was the sort of student that left studying to the last minute,” she remembers. “I had quite a lot of fun during undergrad but exam time was quite stressful.”
After completing her Honours year, which she spent unraveling the mysteries of cosmic and gamma ray bursts in distant galaxies, Lisa knew she wanted to keep pursuing astronomy as a PhD student, but “just in case” applied to join the Defence Science & Technology Organisation.
“I got a permanent job and thought if I don’t get in to a PhD program at least I’ve got something. I was working on a project to overcome ‘jammers’, which mess up the radar on airplanes.
“It was really interesting work but I got in to the ANU astronomy PhD program at Mount Stromlo, which is what I wanted. I deferred starting my PhD for six months so I could work and get some money for the move from Adelaide to Canberra.”
Lisa settled in to life in Canberra and at the Mount Stromlo observatory and found that PhD research suited her much better than undergraduate study. “I loved it. It’s really my sort of thing and it’s totally what I wanted to be doing. I hated exams. I really just wanted to be doing research. And it’s all I really want to do even now. I just want to do research.
“I don’t think I appreciated it at the time but having since moved away and worked in other places I now know what a great environment Stromlo is. It’s a very friendly, nurturing environment. I had excellent supervisors.
“My supervisor, Charlene Heisler, loved astronomy – she was really inspiring. Unfortunately she died of cystic fibrosis during my PhD. I had another supervisor, Mike Dopita, who was also very inspiring. He was a really wonderful mentor through that whole period when I was trying to get over Charlene’s death and get back into my thesis. He was just wonderful.”
Focusing her research on colliding galaxies and how it influences star formation, Lisa’s work got the attention of the academic world. She spent the last few months of her PhD working at Johns Hopkins in the United States and had successfully secured a post-doctoral Smithsonian Fellowship at Harvard University in Boston. Before she took up the position, Lisa returned home to attend to an important piece of business.
“Reuben and I got married literally weeks before we moved to Boston. I was already in the US for visits and I came back and got married a week later. Luckily my mum organized it! Then I finished writing my thesis and in two months we were gone. It was crazy! But it was exciting too.”
The newlyweds made their first big overseas move to Boston in 2001. “I really enjoyed living there and my husband enjoyed being there too. Except for the cold – it was freezing cold, which I didn’t really like much. “
While at Harvard, Lisa experienced the challenging side of academia when a paper she authored was criticised by a very senior male astronomer. Lisa’s supportive mentoring relationship with her colleague, Margaret Geller, helped guide her through.
“Margaret is an amazing scientist and a very inspiring and warm person. She explained to me ‘This is what happens when you make an impact.’ She was absolutely right. In the end I made my paper much better because I thought ‘if he thinks it’s wrong, then I’m going to show its right!‘ I made it a really robust and solid paper.
“I was so lucky to have Margaret – having mentors is a really good thing!”
Towards the end of her Smithsonian Fellowship, Lisa started looking for the next step. “I applied for a bunch of fellowships, to keep my options open. I had some different options but the Hubble Fellowship you could take anywhere. I had a chat to Reuben, who thought Hawaii sounded good because of the weather and it being a bit closer to Australia, so that’s where we went.”
Somewhat of an astronomer’s mecca, Lisa felt the Institute for Astronomy had a different feel to Mount Stromlo. “It is much larger. You can talk to lots of people about different topics. And the telescope access is great.”
Thinking they were settled in Hawaii, Lisa and Reuben bought a house and started a family. “My son and daughter were both born over there – my son just turned four and my daughter is 18 months.” Lisa remembers it took a while to adjust to having young family and a career.
“When my son was born, I used to feel guilty about how much time I spent with him and whether he would have a strong bond with me. It is hard. I think I am doing a good job and we do have a strong bond but it took me a while to figure out the balance and what I felt comfortable with – how much time I felt comfortable being home and working.
“The best piece of advice I ever read was in a magazine which said ‘lower the bar’. You don’t have to be super mum. You don’t have to spend an hour cooking every night. You don’t have to do the cleaning yourself. Just try to spend as much time with the kids. That helped me a lot. The kids won’t remember that you cooked dinner every night but they will remember you spending time with them.”
Lisa’s career was thriving in Hawaii and she was recognised with several awards by the American Astronomical Society, including the 2006 Annie Jump Cannon Award, awarded to an outstanding woman who has made a major contribution to the field early in her research career, and the 2008 Newton Lacy Pierce Prize for outstanding achievement in observational astronomical research.
“I was really happy in Hawaii and doing really well. The telescope access was really unparalleled. I’d said no to returning to Mount Stromlo around that time. We had bought a place and thought we wouldn’t be coming back. But I really enjoyed Hawaii so that didn’t bother me.
“It was three or four years later and Harvey Butcher, the Director of the ANU Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics at Mount Stromlo called and said they were thinking of hiring some mid-career academics and asked if I was interested. It was closer to family and ageing parents and having young kids changes things. We decided that it was at the right time to come back to Canberra.”
Lisa and her family packed up and returned to Canberra in late 2011. She rejoined the team at Mount Stromlo, this time on the other side of PhD supervision. “I think working with students is one of the best parts of the job. They’re really refreshing. They get excited and it’s energizing.”
Lisa practices the same style of ‘all-round’ supervision she enjoyed as a PhD student. “I feel it’s the supervisor’s role to help in all ways, not just with their project. You should be telling them what they need to get jobs or to go into a specific area. Then you’ve got to help them do it and make sure they end up well-rounded and with a job.”
“Balancing a career and family, you end up having two goals. I want my family to be happy and I want my career to do well too,” explains Lisa. “But you can do both. It’s hard, but I wouldn’t want to have a career without a family, or to have a family without a career. I could not do one or the other, I need both.”