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Dr Carolin Crawford

Outreach astronomy and giant galaxies

29 September 2009

It was always astronomy I was into, rather than other sciences. My father was an engineer, and he would take me out to look at the satellites orbiting earth. I got bored waiting and meanwhile fell for the stars and their sheer beauty.

I was an all-rounder at school, but kept reading every astronomy book I could find. At 16 I was still not sure what I wanted to do. Until friends said ‘you’ll be an astronomer’ it had never occurred to me I could do that as a job. I took A-levels in double maths and physics, and went to Cambridge to read Maths. In those days, there weren’t many astronomy degrees on offer.

I moved to observational astronomy for my PhD. For the last 20 years I have had a series of Fellowships from research councils and other bodies including, for the last ten years, a University Research Fellowship from the Royal Society.

I am interested in the most massive galaxies in the Universe, each many times more massive than our own Milky Way. These galaxies are shaped like giant footballs, and sit at the centre of huge clusters of galaxies. At their core they host huge black holes. There are lots of unanswered questions, particularly about how the central black hole interacts with its surroundings. We use data gathered from both ground-based observatories all round the world, as well as orbiting X ray satellites such as the Chandra telescope.

Half my time is spent running the public outreach programme at the Institute of Astronomy. I organise regular observing evenings and give many talks to children and adults. People can appreciate a lot about astronomy even if they didn’t continue with science at school, so it’s a rewarding subject to communicate. I particularly enjoy doing local radio slots, and I am a regular panellist on Radio 4’s Home Planetprogramme.

This year, I became one of the six UKRC Women of Outstanding Achievement, an annual photographic award that aims to raise the profile of the contribution women make at a senior level to science, engineering and technology. I was awarded it for communication and contribution to society – a great honour!

It is great to see more women entering academic astronomy. At undergraduate and post-doctoral stages they account for around 25% of students. But it drops off to less than 10% very rapidly: for the classic academic career you have to be willing to travel, work on short-term contracts and for very long hours. This is hard for many women if it coincides with their child-bearing years. I appreciated being able to work part-time when my sons were young. I’m glad to see more young women coming in and wanting a better deal.

When I go out to schools and clubs and other venues, I am standing up as a working woman scientist - Conveying the astronomy is the main thing. But I hope there is a subliminal message that also gets through: women are in science, and they are doing cool stuff. I hope lots more young people will feel inspired to study the stars.

Dr Carolin Crawford is a lecturer at Emmanuel College, Cambridge and is Outreach Officer with the Institute of Astronomy. She is a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society and is a member of the International Astronomical Union.

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