Professor Jean Brodie relocated to Australia in December 2020, where she is the Director of Swinburne’s Centre for Astrophysics and Supercomputing (CAS).
She brings extensive experience in astronomy and research to this new role. Her work makes use of the fossil record embodied in globular star clusters (amongst the oldest radiant objects in the Universe) to understand the formation and evolution of galaxies.
Professor Brodie is the founder and chief investigator of SAGES (Study of the Astrophysics of Globular clusters in Extragalactic Systems), an international research group that investigates globular clusters and their host galaxies with a focus on using the world’s best observational facilities to provide fresh clues.
Professor Brodie tells us about her background and why astrophysics is important and shares her views on leadership.
What is your field of research?
Extragalactic Globular Clusters and Galaxy Formation. I use globular star clusters, the ‘fossil record’ of the state of the early Universe to understand how galaxies formed over cosmic time. That is, how did the Universe evolve from the dense, uniform, ‘primordial soup’ left over from the Big Bang to its highly structured present form, full of galaxies like our Milky Way, nearly 14 billion years later.
How did you get into this field?
I did a physics bachelor's degree, then went into industry for a few years, then went back to do a PhD in Astronomy. I'd been most interested in astrophysics and biophysics as an undergraduate. I was awarded positions to do both in graduate school and was having trouble deciding which to pick. When I asked my former undergrad adviser, his advice was to do biology because it would be so much easier to get back into the workforce after having my children. I was in my twenties, unmarried and with no intention of having children (I ended up having three, but that isn't the point!).
I thanked him and signed on for astronomy. True story.
What was your experience like leading up to your appointment as Director of CAS?
I was fortunate to have the opportunity to work in many of the top universities in the world - University of London, Imperial College, University of Cambridge, University of California Berkeley and Santa Cruz. I met wonderfully interesting and accomplished people. I encountered bias and prejudice but also found colleagues with insight and a willingness to offer support. I travelled all over the world for work and loved that.
You were appointed Director in March 2020 and spent almost a year leading the Centre for Astrophysics and Supercomputing from Santa Cruz, California before you were able to relocate to Australia. How challenging was that time?
Honestly, in a personal sense, it wasn't too bad. I'm glad to finally be here and able to get on with my life without worrying about getting infected. Working remotely was what everyone had to do anyway, so it was no worse for me than if I'd been in lockdown in Victoria - indeed it was better because I had my family and network of friends nearby. The worst part was always being on the ‘wrong’ time. The time/day difference meant that I was working when others were relaxing after work, I slept when others were starting their day and Sunday for friends and family was my busiest day - Monday! It felt like I only got one day off. However, being new to a leadership role without having met many of my colleagues, in such a rapidly changing environment, and especially with such financial problems looming was not ideal, of course. I tried to remember to be grateful, keep calm and carry on!
Professor Brodie is glad to finally be on campus at Swinburne.
Why is astrophysics important? How does it fit with Swinburne’s 2025 Vision: “People and technology working together to build a better world”?
That is a really good question and at first one might be tempted to think: Oh, that's just blue-sky stuff with little tangible benefit to the world at large. I strongly believe that research for the sake of research has huge value. I was once asked why I did astronomy research if it didn't [immediately] generate a marketable product. My response was ‘curiosity’. Our human condition is about much more than mere survival. We want to know. We want to know how we got here, if we are alone, what is the fate of our Universe, and so on. Perhaps answering these questions doesn't directly affect the life of the person ‘on the street’, but to me they are some of the most important questions there are. Actually, many people on the street share this curiosity, as evidenced by the interest in our public talks and other media coverage. Our work, although impelled by the esoteric, has profound benefits in a remarkably wide range of different endeavours. We are a technology-driven discipline, so we are constantly inventing new instrumentation to allow us to reach our scientific goals. These developments spin off into the commercial world in many arenas – high-performance computing, image processing, big data handling, machine learning and artificial intelligence, financial modelling, and so on.
What are the top three projects CAS is working on and the big goal for 2021?
We are developing the world's most powerful camera (KWFI), an ultra-fast, ultraviolet sensitive instrument that will be mounted on the world’s largest and most productive optical telescope (Keck) on Mauna Kea in Hawaii. It will do revolutionary science that literally cannot be done anywhere else on the planet or in Space. This project links directly with Swinburne's broader initiatives in Space, where we intend to lead within Victoria, in Australia, and on the international stage. Many projects are germinating, including detector development, CubeSat programs in collaboration with international partners, Space instrument testing facilities, and a host of novel teaching and outreach initiatives, linked to our high profile in the Space arena. We are pushing on many areas of fundamental research in the traditional optical/near infrared wavebands, as well as in the new area of gravitational waves, in which Swinburne through the ARC Centre of Excellence for Gravitational Wave Discovery (OzGrav) is already the recognised leader.
Do you have any thoughts you’d like to share about being a woman in astrophysics, or advice for other women?
I won't lie. Being a woman in a ‘man's’ field isn't easy. There have been significant improvements over the years and many institutions, including Swinburne, are committed to equity in all its forms. It is no longer OK to display bias, but that doesn't mean it has disappeared. Many of us don't notice or choose not to notice when we encounter this bias. I personally can't stand unfairness, but one can't be annoyed all the time! I've had to fight for my rights on more than one occasion and believe me it wasn't fun. In fact, it was scary and stressful, but my advice is to stand up for yourself when you are being treated unfairly. Pick your battles (you don't want to be labelled as a whiner), make sure you have marshalled all the objective evidence that you can access and then go to the mat!
What, if any, have been your challenges navigating being a leader in astrophysics?
I am keen to see that young people have career mentors. In most of my early years, with some notable exceptions, I didn't have anyone looking after me in that way. I now see, with the benefit of hindsight, how much easier my life would have been if more senior colleagues had taken me under their wing. The old boy network was in full swing when I was an early career researcher and I wasn't even aware that I was missing out on training for leadership roles, being nominated for awards, or even advised on how to succeed in my field. I want to ensure that ECRs are nurtured and guided towards fulfilling their best potential.
What will be the biggest challenge for the next generation of female leaders?
Perhaps I am too much of an optimist, but the more the world sees competent women in leadership roles, the more those special challenges recede. Some of the basic issues are likely to endure, though. The biological necessities of pregnancy, childbirth, and child rearing are going to fall more heavily on women. The outstanding challenge is how to further influence society to accommodate these realities so that successful career paths can be achieved without giving up other important parts of life.
What advice would you give to women who want to be leaders?
Be yourself! It is sometimes said that it is tempting for women to become ‘men’ disguised as women. By this I mean, adopting behaviours commonly associated with men because they are thought to be more effective, or are even expected or encouraged, in a leadership situation. It is always good to remember that you bring special qualities to the job that others may not have. I'm going to generalise again, acknowledging that there are clear and frequent exceptions: Women are often credited with more empathy and multiplexing abilities, for instance, than men. These are important leadership qualities. Don't make the mistake of buying into impostor syndrome, just because you approach things in your own way.