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Shari Breen

SKA Operations Scientist Dr Shari Breen is also an expert in star formation, and was recently awarded an Australian Research Council Future Fellowship, one of the country’s most prestigious science awards. She told us about her journey from childhood on a Tasmanian farm to the SKA Headquarters, the importance of championing diversity, and why she loves a baking challenge.

Tell us about your early life Shari – were you always keen on science?

I grew up on farms in Tasmania, an island off the south coast of Australia – I’m one of five sisters. We were often doing dumb experiments like pulling apart a phone and putting it back together! I wasn’t particularly fascinated by space, but I do remember as a child seeing Saturn through a telescope for the first time, which was pretty awesome.

How did you end up getting into astronomy?

I was quite a latecomer to it, although I had a natural aptitude for science. At university I studied maths, physics and chemistry, and sort of fell into astronomy because the University of Tasmania had radio telescopes, which is pretty unusual. One of my lecturers was a radio astronomer so I started doing radio projects, and that’s what ultimately led to me pursuing a PhD.

Shari spent her childhood on farms in rural Tasmania. (Credit: Shari Breen. All rights reserved.)

Why did astronomy appeal to you over the other sciences?

With astronomy it seemed like there were such basic questions that we didn’t know the answers to, so that was attractive because you feel you can really make a contribution. I got hooked on trying to figure things out; the fact we don’t understand how stars form is pretty mind-boggling considering we want to study things like galaxies. If we don’t understand how the small scales work then how can we truly understand the big scales?

How did your career develop after your PhD?

I went straight to CSIRO’s Astronomy and Space Science division where I’d obtained a Bolton Fellowship [Australia’s longest-standing prize fellowship], which was great because you could do any astronomy research you want. That instilled a real love for telescopes, because I was working with all the national facilities at our disposal: the Australian Telescope Compact Array, the Parkes telescope, Mopra and the Australian Long Baseline Array. I spent six years at CSIRO before moving to the University of Sydney, and it’s from there that I joined the SKA.

You’re an active researcher in the field of star formation – tell us about that.

Most of my work has centred around the use of masers as probes of star formation. Masers are like space lasers which emanate from gas clouds. They’re extremely bright and emit at radio frequencies, so they can penetrate the dusty parts of the Milky Way – that helps us to locate new stars and tell us about how those regions evolved. I also lead a project called StarFISH – Star Formation in the South Hemisphere – to map the dense gas structure of our galaxy, which can give us a really clear view of its spiral arms. Everyone chooses cute animal names so I chose a starfish!  

“I have certainly been tested during my career – I have had people question my abilities and ambitions – but the science has always picked me back up and reminded me why I love my job.”

How did you get involved with the SKA?

I was involved through working with the precursor instruments, particularly one of the ASKAP surveys. I love science but really love telescopes, so SKA HQ is a pretty obvious place to work from that perspective – getting to know the telescopes right from the get-go. Now day-to-day I’m writing and reviewing documents around how we’re going to operate the SKA. That’s essential to work out how much it will cost to run and maintain, to plan how many staff you’ll need at particular times, and so on. And because we’re going to operate it for at least 50 years, it’s very important!

Shari at Australia’s famous Parkes telescope (Credit: L’Oréal Australia and New Zealand)

Do you find people are surprised when they learn you grew up on a farm?

Sometimes, but I find that interesting. People might think that country bumpkins are a world away from astrophysics, but is that really true? Isn’t it more to do with the environment you grow up in, your access to knowledge, the encouragement around you? I always had those things. My dad is a civil engineer and my mum has a science degree, and they were definitely open to us doing whatever makes us happy. So I might have been driving a tractor, but I might have been thinking about maths while I was doing it!

My school was not fancy – agricultural studies was compulsory in years 7 and 8, we used to go to our school farm in our gumboots and school dresses. But that wasn’t really restrictive to me. That said, it was really important for me to go back there a couple of years ago, when I did a session allowing the students to use the Parkes radio telescope live. It was important to me to show them I came from this school, and now this is what I’m doing in my career. To make sure everyone knows there isn’t a restriction placed upon them just because of where they grew up or which school they went to.

What advice would you give about following this career path?

The honest answer is be sure you want to do it, and then work hard at it. If you love it, it doesn’t really matter what anyone throws at you. I have certainly been tested during my career – I have had people question my abilities and ambitions – but the science has always picked me back up and reminded me why I love my job. You have to know that you’re capable and stick with it through those moments.

One of the most important things is to be exposed to science. Astronomy is the gateway drug into Science, Technology, Engineering & Maths; lots of people who think they’re not interested in science, see a pretty astronomy picture and are interested straight away. It’s also something people can connect to; if you’re talking about very small scales in biology, people can’t necessarily understand that, whereas everyone can see the stars.

You’re also a L’Oreal UNESCO for Women in Science Fellow – what do awards like this mean to you?

The initial award was $25k to aid my science, but the best part was that it opened some doors for jobs in the future. After the initial award we also decided to match up PhD students with former recipients to mentor them into the workplace. These kinds of awards go some way to levelling the playing field for women. This one puts the spotlight on a group of women every year – we’re in the newspapers and on radio stations, and hopefully some kids see us and think: “Actually scientists look like everyone, and I can be a scientist.”

“Being a part of the next-generation radio telescope, you can’t really do much better than that.”

How do you think astronomy is doing in terms of diversity, and the SKA in particular?

A lot of astronomers and institutions are working really hard to correct some past wrongs, but we still have a long way to go in some areas. My impression has been that the SKA is doing comparatively well in terms of national representation and gender diversity, but it would be great to see more women in senior leadership roles. Diversity is important because you need people who think differently in order to attack any problem that you’re working on. Gender is a big part of that, but also nationality, culture, background, age – the more diverse group of people you have, the more representative solutions you’ll find.

As well as being an award-winning astronomer, Shari is a keen baker – seen her celebrating her cat Murphy’s first birthday. (Credit: Shari Breen. All rights reserved).

What’s the most exciting thing about being part of Team SKA?

The colleagues are a large part of my enjoyment here – the people are super great, and my job is also really varied. Being a part of the next-generation radio telescope, you can’t really do much better than that.

How have you found the transition from Australia to SKA HQ?

Cold [laughs]. Although it snowed today so that was magical! I’ve spent a lot of time in Manchester over the years so from a personal perspective the transition hasn’t been too difficult – apart from missing my cat, Murphy Daniel Juan-Carlos Breen. Work-wise it’s been a learning curve but I do like a challenge. There are a few Aussies here which makes me feel at home, and it’s also the most welcoming place I’ve ever worked. People came to my office just to introduce themselves and I’ve never experienced that before.

When you’re not in the office how do you unwind?

I like socialising. Travelling, exploring, being on beaches. Baking too – the more difficult the cake the more the enjoyment. If it takes all day and has eight different layers, that’s a challenge I like. I enjoy baking for people’s birthdays in the office, and it’s embarrassing for that person so I quite enjoy that part too!

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