CSIRO Australia Telescope National Facility
Job Title: Staff member
She is an Astronomer: How many years since you got your maximum degree?
Llana Feain: 3 years.
SIAA: What is the most senior position you have achieved?
SIAA: What drove you into an astronomy career?
LF: I needed to pick up a subject in first year and it occurred to me that I knew absolutely nothing about astronomy. So I did an astronomy course. The lectures were so interesting and the astrophysics was also very stimulating. I had excellent and supportive tutors when it came time to choose to focus more on astronomy.
SIAA: Do you feel it was more difficult for you to get a job or a promotion in comparison with male astronomers?
LF: No, personally I have not felt this difficulty at all. I have been blessed with very supportive, wonderful mentors throughout my career. Having said that, women are clearly under-represented with respect to males in senior astronomy positions; I still can’t work out where this comes from but being mindful of it is important throughout your career.
SIAA: Are women under-represented in your institution?
LF: For CSIRO as a whole (of which the Australia Telescope National Facility is one scientific division) women make up a good proportion of the total (45%) at the post-doc level. This fraction drops quite remarkably at the more senior levels; 22% for permament research scientists, 14% for senior specialists and technical services and a mere 8% in research management. Having said that, these figures came out 2 years ago and since then CSIRO appointed its first female CEO so things are certainly getting better!
SIAA: What is your family status?
LF: Partner, no children [yet].
SIAA: Have you had any career breaks?
SIAA: How many hours per day do you normally dedicate to work?
LF: It depends on if I am travelling, observing or just in the office. I would say anywhere between 8 and 14 hours.
SIAA: What would most help you advance your career?
LF: I would really like the time (say one day per week) to spend purely learning new techniques and reading literature and visiting, learning and working with experts in all different fields about what is new and exciting in astronomy at the moment. I would like to learn about research areas that I currently know little about (like X-ray astronomy and Gamma-ray astronomy).
SIAA: What recommendation would you make to young women starting their career in astronomy?
LF: When I started my career in astronomy, I heard a lot about how hard it is to get a permanent job and how much travel you would have to be prepared to do in order to find a job. This is certainly true… to some extent. Having to pick up your family and move states or countries every 3 years is a real possibility and so it's certainly worth considering whether you are prepared to do this. Having said this, there are always options available to those who are not able to (or not prepared to) move around constantly. And these options are becoming more and more viable as women (in particular) decide they cannot move for personal reasons. My advice would be to those starting a career in astronomy to talk to other women in senior roles in your country (and around the world) and listen to their experiences and talk to them openly and honestly about your wants, needs and plans. Most people/institutes (in Australia because I can’t speak for anywhere else) are very happy to accommodate any issues that arise in order to support your career in astronomy!
Remember that most astronomers are truly not interested in your gender whatsoever and many probably do not even notice! But do not accept inappropriate behavior of any kind if you are unlucky enough to meet one of the tiny, tiny, minority who still don’t get that women are just as capable as men in the physical sciences.
Find a role model and mentor who will guide you through your early career. I can’t say this one strongly enough. Be prepared to question research when you don’t understand and be confident in standing up for yourself when your (considered) opinion doesn’t reflect the status quo. Many a paradigm shift happens when the bulk of the community aren’t looking!
SIAA: What have been your career highlights so far?
LF: Well I am only still early in my career so I hope that I have not had my heyday as yet! But in my relatively short career there are a few highlights that come to mind which I am especially proud of:
- In 2007, I won the Inaugural L’Oreal For Women in Science Fellowship for my role in the Global Jet Watch project; a research driven outreach project to put telescopes into girls schools across the world to study a famous micro-quasar system called SS433 and stimulate the next generation of girls into science.
- I have recently completed a very large observing campaign, using the world’s best radio telescopes, to make the very first high-resolution image of the closest galaxy to us with an active supermassive black hole (Centaurus A). This data will reveal so much astrophysics about black holes and their influence on the environment. I am very proud of my role as the lead investigator of the large collaboration involved in this work.
- In 2008, I accepted the role of Project Scientist for a new radio telescope CSIRO are building in Western Australia (the Australian SKA Pathfinder). This position is a very exciting, stimulating role and I am really enjoying myself being part of building such a wonderful new facility, which will be crucial in answering some fundamental questions in astronomy about galaxy formation and evolution.