The Australian National University
Job Title: PhD Student
She is an Astronomer: How many years since you got your maximum degree?
Eriita Jones: I received a Bachelor of Philosophy in Science with Hnrs in 2007; now I am a graduate student.
SIAA: What drove you into an astronomy career?
EJ: I think there were two main influences which gave me a passion for astronomy. The first is my parents. Although they always encouraged me to follow any path I chose, they certainly made sure that there was a lot of science in my early childhood learning. My mum in particular used to take me for walks and show me things like the difference between moss and lichen and the way ants behaved in collecting food and constructing their homes; we would collect shells from the beach and then look them up and categorize them and she would teach me about the planets and the stars. Because of my parents I have always been fascinated in nature and in trying to understand the phenomena in the world around me. The second influence which drove me to astronomy was Star Trek. When I was young my Uncle, who had the entire Original Series and was collecting the Next Generation series of Star trek, used to live with us. I used to watch episodes with him and I fell absolutely in love with Star Trek (especially with Spock and Captain Picard) and since then I wanted to be the Science Officer onboard the USS Enterprise – exploring the galaxy and meeting aliens.
SIAA: Do you feel it was more difficult for you to get a job or a promotion in comparison with male astronomers?
EJ: I am at a very early stage in my career and so far I have not felt any impediments (or advancements) due to my gender. I have certainly noticed that women are under-represented both in astronomy and in physics more generally. In a cohort of several hundred students who I began physics with at the ANU, many were women. However by the third year of physics courses the percentage of women was very small (I think five of us graduated together with a major in theoretical physics). This trend was even more noticeable in mathematics. The under-representation of females in these fields is very saddening and, although there are probably many causes, I feel that they are a reflection on the way in which we socialize young girls – in families, in schools and in society in general. However I am positive that this can be addressed through programs such as ‘She Is An Astronomer’ and many other valuable programs which occur in the community and in schools. Amongst many other things, these initiatives can help teach young girls to see a broader horizon of opportunities for themselves, and to know that with education and hard work the dreams that they can strive for are limitless.
SIAA: Are women under-represented in your institution?
EJ: Women, sadly, are certainly under-represented at Mount Stromlo Observatory. According to our intranet phonelist (which may be a month or two out of date), out of 27 currently permanent astronomers, 4 of those (~15%) are women. The ratio is better amongst students, with 8 of the 28 current students being female (29%). I shared my honours year with an all female cohort of new honours students, which was the first occurrence for a long time at Mount Stromlo! Furthermore, there is a total of 13 men, no women, in the observatory’s mechanical and electrical engineering staff. There is one woman amongst the 9 people in computing staff.
SIAA: What is your family status?
EJ: I am an only child with two parents in full-time employment. I currently have a partner but no dependants.
SIAA: Have you had any career breaks?
EJ: No I haven’t yet had any career breaks. So far in my career I have been lucky enough to be able continue straight through from high school, through my 4 year uni degree and through to the start of my PhD. Although many people do not wish to follow that path, I was always keen to reach my dream of studying and researching astronomy as quickly as I could. I have been immensely privileged – through the support of my family, ANU and Mount Stromlo - in not having to worry about finances and thus not needing to take a break or slow down my degree in order to undertake part time work. I know and have met many women who have suffered the frustration of having to delay their academic dreams due to external pressures such as financial, health or to support family members and partners, and I am very grateful that I have not experienced this.
SIAA: How many hours per day do you normally dedicate to work?
EJ: I work a minimum of full time hours – 8 hours per day, five days a week. I also often work in the evenings and on the weekends so in a good week I would probably average 10 hours per day during Mon-Fri.
SIAA: What recommendation would you make to young women starting their career in astronomy?
EJ: The most important recommendations I would make to a young woman starting their career in astronomy would be to go out of your way to meet other researchers in your field and in your institution. Research benefits greatly from collaboration and working closely with other scientists not only improves your understanding and the quality of your work, but it can also give you a network of support throughout your career. Astronomy is a difficult career path and it would be especially hard to reach for you dream of being an astronomer if you did not have mentors to guide you along the way.
I would also like to share two of my favorite proverbs. One was said by Hal 9000, the Artificial Intelligence from 2001 A Space Odyssey: “I am doing everything I can, which is all, in my opinion, any conscious entity can ever hope to do.” The other is: “A being’s reach must exceed its grasp, or else what’s the universe for?”
SIAA: What have been your career highlights so far?
EJ: My career has only just begun, but certainly a highlight for me so far would be attending conferences, particularly the annual Australian Mars Exploration conferences as Mars is my primary research interest. Attending and presenting in front of an academic forum is a very special experience. It is wonderful to hear from and meet researchers in your field, to learn from them and to receive feedback – both essential constructive criticism, and encouragement and validation of your work. Most of all, it is stimulating and exciting to be surrounded by people who share many of your experiences, your passion and your dreams.