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Kristine Spekkens

Prof. Kristine Spekkens

Prof. Spekkens specialises in galaxy evolution and cosmology. (© 2020 Kristine Spekkens. All rights reserved.)

In late 2020, the Canadian astronomy community was busy finalising its Long Range Plan, a 10-year vision with the SKA front and centre as a priority for astronomers. Prof. Kristine Spekkens, Canada’s Science Director in the SKA Board, was closely involved in that process.

Based at the Royal Military College of Canada and Queen’s University, both in the eastern city of Kingston, Ontario, Kristine chairs the Canadian Astronomical Society’s (CASCA) committee on equity, diversity and inclusion. She talked to us about improving access to astronomy, the search for dark matter, and her time representing Canada on the sporting stage.

Thinking back to childhood, Kristine, were you always fascinated by science and space?

Certainly by science. What fascinated me most about astronomy was that the way very mundane things work on Earth could explain the way that vast and extreme things work in the Universe; for example, the way that my coffee cup falls and breaks when I drop it also explains how galaxies evolve.

When did you decide astronomy would be your career path?

In high school I was fortunate to have passionate science teachers, particularly my physics teacher who was very influential, and that formed my decision to pursue physics and then astronomy at university. I went to quite a small public school in a relatively nondescript suburb of Toronto, so the impact that really passionate teachers can have has not been lost on me. My father was a physical chemist, so I also took lots of inspiration from him.

Sport has been a big part of your life – tell us about your achievements there.

That’s right! I played netball for Canada from 1993 to 1999. Netball may be more familiar to folks in Commonwealth countries than others! My position was Goal Shooter, and I was really privileged to play in some international tournaments, the highlight being the Commonwealth Games in 1998 in Malaysia.

Did you ever think of choosing sport over astronomy as a career?

Not seriously, it’s always been a balance for me. After netball I played volleyball for my undergraduate university and ultimate frisbee for my graduate university. I think I’ve always had a fascination with strategising as a team to accomplish a goal. There are some parallels there with astronomy, but at the end of the day I’m very glad to be an astronomer.

“I’m fascinated by the process of building a facility like this, in a strongly collaborative way, with different nations, cultures and ideas coming together to build this instrument of the future.”

Let’s talk about your research specialisms: galaxies and cosmology. What particularly fascinates you about these areas?

I’ve always been interested in Milky Way-like spiral galaxies and using the gas in them as a tool to explore their underlying structure. A lot of the hydrogen in galaxies is in an atomic state that emits a spectral line we can detect with radio telescopes like the SKA. The frequency of that line tells us how fast the gas is orbiting around the galaxy centre, which allows us to infer the galaxy mass distribution through the law of gravity.

Kristine with one of the prototype SKA-Low antennas in Western Australia.

At the future SKA-Low site in Western Australia. (©2020 Kristine Spekkens. All rights reserved.)

We know that most of the mass in galaxies isn’t in the components you can see, like stars and gas, but in the dark matter which you can’t see, so it’s dark matter that drives much of galaxy evolution. Putting it all together, atomic gas mapping is a really powerful tool for inferring the properties of dark matter despite its invisibility, and therefore for studying how galaxies evolve.

Dark matter is such a hot topic – do you have preferred theory for what it could be?

The idea that it’s some kind of exotic new particle that extends the standard model of particle physics is attractive, although it may well be that the Universe itself is more exotic than we’re imagining right now. The “smoking gun” would be a detection in a particle accelerator like the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, but astronomy has an important role in placing constraints on the properties of dark matter. Thanks to astronomy we have a fairly good idea of how dark matter behaves in galaxies like the Milky Way, irrespective of what it actually is.

What do you find most exciting about the SKA?

In my field, the SKA really is a major leap forward in terms of the capabilities we’ve had for the last couple of decades. The desire to map billions of galaxies like the Milky Way was one of the original SKA science goals identified right at the beginning.

I’m also fascinated by the process of building a facility like this, in a strongly collaborative way, with different nations, cultures and ideas coming together to build this instrument of the future. That’s why I’ve naturally gravitated to some of the positions I hold within the SKA; it’s important not only to do research in astronomy but also to contribute to how astronomy gets done.

“Astronomy has broad appeal across different demographics, cultures and generations, which makes it a powerful tool for increasing EDI within science in general.”

Speaking of your SKA roles, how do they complement each other?

The SKA like other world observatories is often driven by science but it happens because of the interplay between science, technology and governance. It’s on that stage that entities like the Board and my role as Science Director can have an impact: how one takes the science drivers for a fabulous new facility, combined with the technology that enables that science to be done, and the governance required to build partnerships that can make that technology happen on a global scale. 

Recent months have seen a spotlight put onto equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) efforts in all sectors. As the new chair of the CASCA Equity and Inclusivity Committee, how do you view the situation in astronomy?

Astronomy has broad appeal across different demographics, cultures and generations, which makes it a powerful tool for increasing EDI within science in general. There have been some strides made in the past decade or two; for example, the gender balance is a little better now in many professional institutions, and there’s also an increased awareness of how issues like implicit bias affect EDI.

But it’s also abundantly clear that there’s a lot of work to do beyond continuing to strive for gender balance. There are systematic inequalities built into many aspects of society including academia, and they have not been effectively confronted within professional astronomy. It’s absolutely clear in North America and elsewhere that Black, Indigenous and Peoples of Colour are strongly underrepresented in astronomy, and that this underrepresentation is part of a much larger pattern of systemic discrimination against these groups that we have to address.

Are there some key EDI actions that you feel the SKA should prioritise?

The SKA partner countries are inherently diverse, and the concepts of EDI are enshrined in the SKA Observatory Convention. From the very beginning it has been recognised that a diversity of nations and peoples need to come together to make the SKA a reality. As a result, the SKA could be a model for how world observatories tackle issues related to inclusion. That stems not only from engaging with Indigenous and local populations where the SKA will be built, but also from using the SKA as a vehicle for addressing systemic inequalities in all of the partner countries.

Certainly in Canada there are systematic barriers to access and participation in astronomy, in particular for Indigenous peoples, and one goal of the Canadian Long Range Plan is to make recommendations for overcoming those barriers in the next decade. In Canada, we’re developing a plan for how to leverage SKA participation not only for education and outreach but also for inclusion. That involves sharing the SKA vision across demographics and providing opportunities for telescope and data access to under-represented groups, but also learning about how other cultures view and understand the Universe in a complementary and sometimes more powerful way. The SKA’s Shared Sky exhibition [of Indigenous astronomy art] is a good example.

Every country involved in the SKA partnership has a role to play in making astronomy more accessible and inclusive. A key action for the SKA is to coordinate, support and promote initiatives across the partnership in addition to developing its own practices for enhancing diversity within the Observatory.

How can education and outreach contribute here too?

The two are distinct but go hand-in-hand. A strategy where EDI initiatives dovetail with education and outreach initiatives could be a really powerful way forward. It would allow us to build partnerships both with current professionals and also with younger generations that then see themselves in a field that maybe they haven’t thought of before. The common thread is opportunity – I’ve been extremely fortunate to have opportunities to grow and to learn and follow my passion, and ensuring that more people from a diversity of backgrounds have that opportunity is what’s important.

Kristine and her daughter on hoverboards

Kristine, seen here with her daughter Ella, is keen on outdoor pursuits, including hoverboarding with her family! Kristine is keen on outdoor pursuits, including hoverboarding with her family! (© 2020 Kristine Spekkens. All rights reserved.)

On that topic, what advice would give to those at an earlier stage in their STEM careers?

I would say mentorship comes in lots of different forms, and as much as it’s important to see people with whom you identify in professional roles to which you aspire, I think it’s possible to have mentors that may reflect one aspect of your passion, personality or demographic, and maybe not another. I had sports mentors, and that can translate into other parts of life. If I can strive to be a good Goal Shooter maybe I can strive to be a good astronomer too…

With so much going on work-wise, how do you wind down outside the office? Have you picked up any new hobbies during the COVID-19 lockdown?

I’m a reasonably avid knitter so there’s been time for that. During lockdown in Canada we’ve come to appreciate the beauty of staying here and being outside enjoying nature. Fewer cars on the road have given us a chance to rediscover our bicycles and other more eclectic forms of transportation. I’ve been known to ride around on battery-operated things too.

What kind of battery-operated things… like a scooter?

More like a hoverboard! It’s been great, I have two young kids so we’ve been enjoying getting outdoors as much and as safely as possible. You can go about 20km on a hoverboard and it’s been a nice diversion from the humdrum of daily life. I’m working on getting the whole family involved, so the hope is that family hoverboard rides are not too far in the future!

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