Astronomy and related fields are at the forefront of science and technology – answering fundamental questions and driving innovation. To mark Women Astronomers Day here are some of the amazing Swinburne women helping to improve our understanding of space.
Professor Virginia Kilborn
Inaugural Swinburne Chief Scientist Professor Virginia Kilborn has always been fascinated by space. ‘I grew up near Ballarat and we had beautiful clear skies,’ Professor Kilborn says. ‘I would always look up at the stars and wonder ‘what is out there?’
When she got to university, she realised astronomy could be a career. Today, she is a respected radio astronomer who explores the evolution of galaxies. She uses radio telescopes such as the Australian SKA Pathfinder to observe the hydrogen gas in galaxies to study galaxy formation and evolution.
Professor Virginia Kilborn was recently appointed as the inaugural Swinburne Chief Scientist.
Professor Jean Brodie
Director of Swinburne’s Centre for Astrophysics and Supercomputing, Professor Jean Brodie 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.
‘I use globular star clusters, the “fossil record” of the state of the early Universe to understand how galaxies formed over cosmic time,’ Professor Brodie says. ‘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?’
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.
Associate Professor Deanne Fisher
Deputy Director of the Centre for Astrophysics and Supercomputing, Associate Professor Deanne Fisher is the lead investigator of two surveys studying galaxies that are forming extremely high densities of new stars. These galaxies form stars at rates that are 10-100x faster than what we see in the Milky Way. She is particularly interested in how the explosions of supernovae impact that star formation.
“When a cloud of gas makes a bunch of new stars the youngest, most massive of those stars will explode,” Associate Professor Fisher says. ‘These are called supernovae and are very violent events. That explosion launches gas out of the galaxy and can disrupt the formation of new stars in the area around it. It is a very important process for understanding how galaxies change over time.
‘I got my PhD at the University of Texas and then held a fellowship at the University of Maryland, before coming to Swinburne, where I obtained a Future Fellowship and am now an Associate Professor. I am the only openly transgender faculty member in Australian astrophysics, and one of only a handful worldwide.’
Dr Rebecca Allen
Dr Rebecca Allen completed her PhD in astrophysics at Swinburne. Her research focuses on understanding the evolution and growth of galaxies over time, going all the way back to when the Universe was barely a billion years old.
Now the project lead for microgravity experimentation at Swinburne's Space Technology and Industry Institute, she is also investigating how to conduct science in the extreme environment of space. Dr Allen is also leading an initiative, supported by the Australian Space Agency, for students in Year 10 and above to compete to send experiments to the International Space Station. ‘It’s not just about teaching science to students, it’s normalising women in science,’ says Dr Allen.
When not sending things to space or studying it, she uses her scientific expertise and enthusiasm to communicate the wonders of the Universe to others and to create inspiring and transformative learning experiences.
Dr Rebecca Allen leads an initiative, supported by the Australian Space Agency, for students in Year 10 and above to send experiments to the International Space Station.
Dr Michelle Cluver
As our telescopes have become increasingly sophisticated and powerful, astronomers have been able to look deeper into our universe and observe galaxies across cosmic time. Yet, because they evolve over aeons of time, we still find ourselves asking the question — are galaxies being shaped by their environment? Does the cosmic neighbourhood of a galaxy affect its characteristics and how it changes over time? Or is this a minor influence on their overall ageing process?
‘My primary research is to look at galaxies in different environments and look for evidence that they are in the process of actively transforming,’ Dr Cluver says. ‘If we can establish exactly where (and when!) this might be happening, we can better understand the physics that may be driving this change.’
Dr Rebecca Davies
Dr Rebecca Davies joined Swinburne in 2020 as a postdoctoral research associate.
‘My research examines how the properties of galaxies have changed over the history of the Universe, using distinctive chemical fingerprints in the spectra of light they emit,’ Dr Davies says.
‘Currently, I am investigating how supernova explosions and rapidly growing black holes transformed the infant Universe from a sea of neutral hydrogen into a rich set of galaxies containing a wealth of chemical elements.’