The SKA Organisation’s project scientists provide an essential link between the engineering world and the science community, ensuring that the SKA’s design will enable astronomers to realise its science goals.
Dr. Rosie Bolton, SKA Regional Centre Project Scientist, has been working on the project for more than a decade, so who better to ask about the challenges and opportunities of this vast international effort? She talked to us about public speaking, gender equality, and why she started a lunchtime running club at SKA Headquarters.
Did you always want to be an astrophysicist? What triggered this career path?
When I was about six my grandfather showed me the Milky Way and explained that it was our galaxy. That idea about the Universe beyond our day-to-day existence really stuck with me. I loved science and maths at school, doing experiments, seeing how things fit into place, so I just continued to choose options that I found interesting.
What did you do before joining the SKA?
I went to Cambridge University – actually, I applied only semi-seriously, not expecting to get in, as not many people from my state school went there, but it was a great place to study. I took a natural sciences course before specialising in physics, and stayed on to do a radio astronomy PhD too, because the project sounded interesting.
After that I worked in industry as a consultant physicist developing high-tech consumer products. It was a fun place to work with lots of variety, and many brilliant physicists and engineers, but it wasn’t quite challenging enough to hold my interest.
Luckily for me, Cambridge University was given some funding to participate in an early SKA design study so I re-joined the group in 2006 to work on that, and stayed there until I joined the SKA Organisation in 2018.
Tell me about your role and where it fits in the wider organisation.
I’m the Project Scientist for the SKA Regional Centres, which will be a globally distributed network of data centres that will store the SKA’s data products and give scientists access to them.
The regional centres are a relatively new concept within the project and at the moment their funding falls outside the current budget of the SKA. But there are huge benefits to member countries being part of a regional centre initiative – for example, the centres will provide a platform that will enhance international collaborations and boost multi-wavelength science.
What is the most exciting thing about the SKA for you – why did you want to be part of it?
SKA is a huge project and the complexity of it excites me. I want to be part of the team that delivers and runs the SKA Observatory [the intergovernmental organisation that will succeed the SKA Organisation]. It’s a slow process to bring it about but I’ve been working within the project for over a decade now and have seen real progress, not just in the design, but with new HQ being built and precursors and prototype instruments delivering great results.
You must have faced some challenges during that time. What’s been the biggest?
Personally I’ve had to get more used to talking publicly, which I find challenging but rewarding. My scariest moment was having to travel alone to Barcelona to prepare and deliver a summary of the challenges of SKA computing in front of an audience of about 2000 people on only a few days’ notice! But it’s only by doing scary stuff that we get better at it, and that experience has already been valuable; delivering the big SKA keynote address at the SC17 conference was much less scary as a result.
What’s it like to work on such an international project, collaborating across time zones?
There are pros and cons: I’ve met some lovely people and now have friends across several continents. On the down side though, I’ve spent a lot of time in meetings and video-conferences, some necessarily at uncomfortable times of the “day”.
“We need to make sure there’s absolutely no pay gap between men and women, and that organisations like the SKA have diverse representation on decision-making boards”
Astronomy is still a male-dominated field – why do you think that is, and how can we encourage and enable more women to pursue a career like yours?
This is a difficult question and one that I think about a lot as a parent. I try to never assign gender to any career role when I talk with my six year old. I make sure that when we play with Lego there are female rocket pilots, engineers and train drivers, and we often discuss how it’s not OK to use gender, skin colour, or any characteristic to make any sort of judgement about what someone else can or can’t do.
I think that parents and teachers need to reinforce this. If our children are going to achieve gender equality then everyone needs to become a feminist.
STEM organisations can improve things by deliberately reaching out to female and minority groups to ensure the broadest range of qualified candidates apply for jobs.
We also need to make sure there’s absolutely no pay gap between men and women, and that high-profile organisations like the SKA have diverse representation on decision-making boards. All employees should undertake unconscious bias training, especially those with recruitment or line-management responsibilities.
Is the SKA Organisation making progress in this area, in your view?
It is moving towards this, and I’m encouraged by the work in the Equality and Diversity Working Group, but there are some areas in the organisation where women are under-represented, and others where men are under-represented.
“In a time where career expectations are moving away from a 40-year single job, STEM subjects give valuable flexibility.”
There are so many career paths open to young people nowadays – how would you convince them that a career in science, technology, engineering or maths (STEM) is worth pursuing?
STEM subjects are very much worth studying, although you should always follow your interests in life, whether that be building rockets, running a business or writing poetry – and you could do all of these things. However, if you enjoy science and maths and are deciding between a science career or an alternative one that uses numerate skills, like accountancy or banking, I’d argue that experience in STEM will give you a broader range of possibilities.
Plenty of astrophysics PhD students complete their PhDs and then follow the money to work in banking, but economics students don’t often find themselves building telescopes a decade later. In a time where career expectations are moving away from a 40-year single job, STEM subjects give valuable flexibility.
You’ve started both a pie club and a lunchtime running club at SKA HQ – what prompted that?
I’m a country lass from Norfolk so I’ve really enjoyed the move to Cheshire, and I love getting out at lunch time to enjoy its beautiful countryside.
My idea with the running club is that it should be a good equaliser – anyone is welcome and we leave our SKAO roles at the door and head off across the fields. We run at a pace that is comfortable for everyone and make sure that no one is left in a ditch! It’s early days – the test will be if anyone ever comes with me when it’s raining. Hopefully the running helps to cancel out the pies!
What about outside work, how do you unwind?
I’m a keen cyclist and I like dreaming up excuses for long cross-country bike rides – I’m currently planning a visit back to Norfolk by bike. Somewhat more sedately, I love beekeeping and gardening – I’m nerdy about my herbaceous borders!
Watch Rosie and SKAO Director-General Prof. Phil Diamond delivering the SC17 keynote address below. Titled Life, the Universe and Computing: The Story of the SKA Telescope, it explains how far radio astronomy has come in a short time!
Also in this section