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Lourdes Verdes-Montenegro

Dr Lourdes Verdes-Montenegro posing with images of the planets

Dr Lourdes Verdes-Montenegro has been at the forefront of Spain’s involvement in the SKA project for many years, coordinating Spanish participation through the Institute of Astrophysics of Andalucia (IAA-CSIC) in Granada, where she is a senior scientific researcher.

A highly regarded researcher on galaxies in extreme environments, Lourdes is also a strong proponent of Open Science and reproducibility as a route to improving access and equality, giving regular talks on the subject at an international level. We spoke to her about all these things, plus what inspired her love of astronomy, the health challenges which affect her everyday life, and how we can all contribute to inclusivity at work.

Let’s discuss your early years, Lourdes: where did you grow up, and was science always a part of your life?

I was born in Switzerland, my family were immigrants from Spain, and from the age of five I grew up in Madrid. That’s the time I started looking at the sky. I went with my family to a friend’s summer house in the countryside and the skies were very dark. My two brothers and I would look at the stars and at how complicated everything was. I wanted to understand what’s up there. I remember we talked about what we would do if an alien ship came down, and I said I would jump in and try to find out everything! Then a cat passed by and gave us a fright, and we were saying “OK that’s just a cat… imagine ET”!

That’s a scarier prospect! So when did you realise you wanted to be an astronomer?

I was about 11 or 12. I had a little diary where I wrote about things like the 1970s TV show Space: 1999, which I found very exciting, thinking about life on other planets. In my diary I found old newspaper cuttings about observatories in Spain and things from around that time too. Some years later I understood that physics was a way to follow astronomy, so I studied physics. In that time Isaac Asimov books played a relevant role too.

Talk us through your route to the SKA project.

Even before I graduated from university, I went to the Institute of Astrophysics of Andalucía (IAA-CSIC) to find out if I could do some work there. I started doing some astronomical work at Sierra Nevada Observatory in Granada, doing photometry of variable stars, and one day in the library I met a new researcher at the institute who was a radio astronomer (José M. Torrelles). I ended up doing my PhD with him, so I entered the radio astronomy world, first studying our galaxy and then other galaxies in my postdoc in Marseille with Albert Bosma.

It was clear to me that understanding the 21cm line [emitted by neutral hydrogen in the Universe] was very important to understand how galaxies interact, so I arrived at the SKA from the science point of view. When I learned what the SKA was going to do, I thought “wow, that’s what I need as an instrument.”

Also when I became assistant director for instrumentation at the institute, it became clear to me that if you want to use an instrument in the best possible way, it’s best to be involved at the conception and not when it’s already built, so you can really understand how it works. So this all took me to the SKA Project.

You mentioned your research on galaxies at IAA in Granada. What excites you most about that field?

To tell you the truth I think anything would be exciting to me because I love everything in astronomy, and other fields also.My own project, AMIGA (http://www.amiga.iaa.es/), is a study of isolated galaxies and also galaxies in compact groups. Having very well-defined samples is very important to understand a process, because you minimise many external influences so you can focus on what’s happening because of a galaxy’s internal evolution, so for me these galaxies in extreme environments are ideal laboratories. The isolated are at one extreme, and the dense compact groups at the other.

These compact groups have five to 10 galaxies which nearly touch together, and they’re in not very populated environments, so kind of the equivalent to isolated galaxies. I’m particularly excited since I recently got PI time with MeerKAT to study the atomic gas in these groups. So this year I expect to learn a lot more about these groups with this impressive SKA precursor.

“We need to move out of the hero culture. For me, Open Science is against this idea; there’s not one hero, we all should be the hero to do the science, to fix the problems of the planet.”

Open Science is a real focus of your work. Why do you feel it’s so essential?

It started from my own needs in trying to reproduce science. For example, I’ve always tried to be very organised but often I found it hard to reproduce my own work from some years ago, or when students or postdocs moved to a new job and I wanted to build on the work they did, it was not straightforward. I realised this was a general problem, even before “the crisis of reproducibility in science” was widely known, and mentioned in many journals. Along the way I discovered other things. If you do Open Science you allow other people to validate your work; you’re exposed, but we don’t only do science to be right, we do it to find the “answers”. Transparency means other people can give you feedback to improve your work, it’s more efficient and knowledge flows more easily to society as well. This past year we all realised that’s so important.

Lourdes in 1991, during the final year of her PhD, with a telescope at the Sierra Nevada Observatory in Granada.

Lourdes in 1991, during the final year of her PhD, at the Sierra Nevada Observatory in Granada. She often volunteered to help with observing at the observatory.

You have also spoken about how Open Science can improve equality.

Yes and also inclusivity. We know many institutions in the developing world don’t have access either to publish or to read journals that you have to pay for, for example. Open Science means you are less restricted by economic capacities. In addition, sometimes people’s work is hidden by the hierarchy, so with transparency you favour inclusivity.

I also realised that we need to move out of the hero culture – the idea that someone very powerful external to us is going to come and “save the planet”. For me, Open Science is against this idea; there’s not one hero, we all should be the hero to do the science, to fix the problems of the planet. Opening research and its materials and tools favours the collective effort.

How can the SKAO contribute to that?

It is already doing it. Open Science is in the foundational principles of SKAO, it is in the Construction Proposal. Another important thing is how you measure the success of research, and reproducibility of science is included as a metric of success in the SKAO Establishment and Delivery Plan. It’s the first Observatory that I know of in the world that considers the reproducibility of the science that we will do as an indicator of success in addition to other more standard indicators such as bibliometrics. It also features in the SKA Science Data Challenge 2, so all this is sending the message of how important Open Science is.

You have been instrumental in Spanish participation in the SKA, and Spain has announced their intention to become a member of the Observatory. How do you hope Spain will benefit from this?

Firstly, I want to say it’s a community effort. We wouldn’t be here without the constant support of the astronomical community, the Ministry which was always engaged with the project, and my own institute, IAA-CSIC. In fact, in 2018 IAA-CSIC received the Severo Ochoa Centre of Excellence Accreditation, and the SKA is a key part of our Strategic Plan under this accreditation, so this demonstrates the support for SKA activities. I think I’m good at motivating people, getting the ball rolling. It has been rolling for many years now and I just try to help.

It’s very obvious that there is a benefit to being part of this major adventure in terms of science. There is research in Spain in all areas that SKAO will touch in terms of astronomy and fundamental physics. There’s also the engineering and science policy, and I noticed that we have a higher power of attracting talent since we got engaged in the SKA Project, so to be part of this global collaboration is really a benefit, and of course Spain also has a lot of expertise it can contribute.

Lourdes as a young child holding a travel box

A young Lourdes with her bags packed, ready for her SKAO adventure.

The IAA is developing a Spanish Prototype SKA Regional Centre. Why do you feel it’s important for Spain to host an SRC?

It’s important for all countries interested in doing science with the SKA because it’s going to change the way we do science. The community needs to be ready from the practical point of view for the data analysis, which will happen at the SRCs, but also to get prepared for the Key Science Projects. That involves a lot of collaboration to make the best of the Observatory’s data. Even before that, we need to support the community in precursor and pathfinder projects which already request special resources to deal with their data.

The community is distributed, the SKAO’s infrastructure will be in Africa and Australia, but the regional centres are in countries, so it implies a 100% national return on the investment while creating skills at national level, not only in science but also in areas of social impact as Big Data, e-Science or Green computing.

You’ve been doing all this work while facing significant health challenges. How have you dealt with that and what would you like people to know about it?

This is the first time I have described in detail my disease, as explaining it to people is actually one of the difficulties of having this illness. What I’ve had since 2010 is Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, which manifests as debilitating fatigue, chronic widespread pain (with a flu-feeling that gets exacerbated in “flares”, often following minor exertions) or sleep disturbances. The problem with this kind of health issue is that after so many years the cause is not understood and the diagnosis is based on symptoms, due to the absence of tests. Just washing your hair can leave you bedridden. Since there’s a higher prevalence in females it has often been considered psychological, which doesn’t help to find a cure.

When it started,I couldn’t even move, I had to lie down for months. You always think you’re going to recover, so when you are in an “up” you are tempted to think that you are finally recovering and you start things like the SKA adventure (which I do not regret at all). Currently I’m doing better than at the beginning since I’m learning to handle the ups and downs: the aim is to maintain a balance, this is for now the best ‘treatment’.

Lourdes with an antennaFor a long time you did not tell many people, is that right?

At first, I only mentioned it to my team, because I feared that people wouldn’t understand, since I didn’t understand it myself. Then, when you become older you realise that many people are going through difficult situations and will empathise. One day I decided to tell people from IAA’s administration, who then started to understand me better. Since then, they have been even more supportive.

And of course there is my team. I must say that even if I always feel tired, having this great team around me is really invigorating. There are moments in which I would like people to try to understand what having this illness means. Recently I decided to talk about it more widely, because I’m the lucky one who can have video cons or flexible working time, but there are so many people who have to quit jobs because they cannot handle it… I thought speaking about it could be helpful for other people.

What can individuals and organisations do – especially in this era of endless Zoom meetings – to ensure inclusivity for people with health issues and disabilities, some of which may be hidden or less obvious?

A very practical thing is that everyone needs to have some rest. We are jumping like crazy from one Zoom to the next one and it feels like you need to apologise because you want to have a 15-minute break: people are worried that it may look unprofessional. I think we should all recognise that we are humans. Everyone has limitations of one kind or another. In my case it’s more hidden. I also don’t mind people asking me about my condition. Some people ask how they can help. Simply knowing that people understand that you have a special health condition and are empathetic about it, helps more than one can think.

We’ve spoken a lot about your career but let’s end by discussing what brings you happiness and enjoyment beyond work.

I always liked hikes in the mountains and dancing – I danced tango or salsa for several years. I also did amateur theatre for a while but when that became quite tiring I became good at adapting! Now I do yoga, whose power I discovered during the lockdown. One short yoga session is equivalent to one dose of pain-killer, like magic! I also liked to do huge dinners for my friends before I was sick, but now I have moved to slow cooking. And family is a priority, especially my mother, since it has just been the two of us here in Granada for more than 30 years.

Another thing I like very much is reading, especially Ted Chiang-style, who writes science fiction very similar to the Black Mirror TV show, on where technology could take over our society. He even wrote a short paper in Nature on the future of science, about how machines will do science, and we will do reverse engineering to find out how a result was obtained, because machines are so fast. I mentioned at the start that I read Isaac Asimov as a child – well this is like my Asimov of the future!

All images courtesy of Dr Lourdes Verdes-Montenegro. All rights reserved.

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