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Connecting women and opportunity

Womanthology is a digital magazine and professional community powered by female energy and ingenuity.

Connecting women and opportunity

Womanthology is a digital magazine and professional community powered by female energy and ingenuity.

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A teacher told me I was “not good enough” to study physics at university but #IDidItAnyway and I’ve never looked back – Professor Carole Haswell, Head of Astronomy at the Open University

Professor Carole Haswell - the Open University

Professor Carole Haswell is Head of Astronomy at the Open University. She leads a research team in astrophysics, focussing on exoplanets – planets orbiting around stars other than the Sun. Carole previously worked on accreting black holes, and likes nothing better than being on a mountaintop collecting astronomy data.

Professor Carole Haswell
Professor Carole Haswell – image © Maria Platt-Evans

“…You should not give up easily just because someone tells you that you are “not good enough”. Often such statements reveal more about the person uttering them than they do about the person they are directed at…”

From dreams of being an astronaut to finding my love of astrophysics

I grew up in the 1960s and my dad was very excited by the Apollo programme. I naturally wanted to be an astronaut. By the time I was about ten I realised that this was not a tremendously practical plan, particularly for a child who wore glasses. Astrophysics seemed like the next best thing.

I’ve always been very interested in the world around me, and astrophysics is more-or-less a logical extension of that interest beyond the immediate everyday world. Intellectual curiosity and fulfilment are the main drivers for me personally. I’ve had a number of intervals where I’ve considered doing something different, and when I graduated from Oxford I did seriously consider a career working to directly benefit the environment.

Increasing scientific literacy

I think working to improve the sustainability of our lifestyles is the single most important thing, this means tackling climate change and a host of other issues. As I’ve got older, I square this with my career in astrophysics by taking every opportunity I get to contribute to increasing general scientific literacy.

It is vital for a healthy 21st century democracy that people can understand scientific arguments: the most important issues are all science-related, and the only way we can solve them will be by using scientific ingenuity. Working at The Open University, which has an important widening-participation mission, helps me to justify spending my energy on the things I do.

Route to becoming a professor

My career to date has been fairly typical for a professor of astrophysics. I did a physics degree at Oxford, followed by postgraduate work at the University of Texas (yee-haw!). It was at Texas that I moved from doing theoretical work to observational work.

The McDonald Observatory in the Davis Mountains in West Texas was a wonderful place to train, and I will be forever grateful to the taxpayers of the State of Texas. After I gained my Ph.D. in Astronomy I worked at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, and then at Columbia University in New York City.

I came back to the UK for family reasons and got my first permanent job as a lecturer at the University of Sussex. For financial reasons, the recruitment of physics and astronomy undergraduates there needed to improve dramatically, and I was made admissions tutor, which is in many ways akin to a job in sales and marketing.

I was successful in that role, but for various reasons I judged my career would flourish better at the Open University, so I moved here almost 20 years ago. I have been a lecturer, senior lecturer, and was recently promoted to professor.

My role on a day to day basis

My role is quite varied, and probably a lot of it is not what you would expect. At The Open University (OU) we don’t tend to often give lectures per se, so the teaching work is writing books, websites, recording videos, and designing explanatory diagrams and multimedia learning objects. We also write and mark exams and final year projects.

Much of our effort is the administrative work coordinating the associate lecturers (aka tutors) who are students’ first point of contact. There are quite a lot of teaching-related forms, spreadsheets, and written justifications: more than you would think!

I have some postgraduate students and a postdoc who work on research with me, so we meet to discuss what we’re doing – finding planets, hurrah! Quite a lot of effort goes into maintaining the complex infrastructure needed to do research and securing the continuous flow of the necessary data.

The highlight for today has been a seminar about a collegue’s work on 1I/’Oumuamua. (See the video embedded below to share the excitement about this object!) Yesterday I booked plane tickets for my next observing trip – I’m going to La Silla, Chile, in January to find more exoplanets. The day before was spent almost entirely in a financially-driven discussion meeting on teaching-related issues.

My favourite recent moment was after a public lecture I gave at one of the local comprehensive schools. Several of the young girls in the audience, full of enthusiasm and questions, came to speak to me afterwards. I think I got my positive female role model points for the year!

Overcoming the perception that physics and maths are ‘hard’ subjects where you have to be a genius to succeed

Maths is a thing of great joy and beauty! I think we have a big multi-generational problem in that there used to be a lot of really horrible punitive practices in schools and many of the generation before me were traumatised.

I was really lucky that my dad managed to overcome the horrible experiences he had at school and do A-level maths at night school. He managed to grow his confidence, and shared that with me. I was also lucky that I went to an infant school which was renowned for its maths teaching.

We still have a problem because a lot of primary school teachers are not very confident with maths, and obviously they propagate that to their pupils. Maths is basically patterns and logic – it’s a wonderful, fun thing.

I think there are two ways we can overcome the problem: firstly, we need to get people who love maths into primary schools to teach or we need to help primary school teachers gain confidence in maths; secondly as a society we need to get over the inverted snobbery of thinking it’s cool to say: “Oh, I can’t do maths!” It’s silly, self-defeating and sends all the wrong messages to young people. No one would say: “Oh, I can’t read!” with that note of pride.

The importance of a growth mind set

I think people do have different levels of innate aptitude for various things, but what you choose to work on and develop is a very important factor. Putting in sustained effort and practicing things is the way to develop mastery.

Even people who appear to be just intrinsically exceptionally talented at something are almost certainly working very hard to develop and maintain their mastery. I saw an Olympic gold medal winner in my gym last night, he was doing some tedious exercises over and over again.

I think it can be enormously influential on children’s life stories to give them the feeling of being successful after practicing something. Success develops confidence and if you see that you can learn to do something which was impossible for you at first, it means you are able to rise to meet new challenges. What we say to children – and to each other as adults – has consequences. If you say discouraging things, people will often become discouraged.

I think Womanthology’s #IDidItAnyway campaign on Twitter was great, but I do worry about all the people who might have done something wonderful, but didn’t because they were discouraged. In the end, I think being kind, helpful and encouraging is one of the best things anyone can do.

Not giving up is really important! I often think that getting a Ph.D. is more a test of tenacity than anything else. I think there is research showing that deferring gratification is the greatest predictor of success in life: being prepared to put some effort in and work on something is the way to get results.

“Good enough”

When I was 17 and 18 (for the equivalent of Years 12 and 13) I had a physics teacher who I think had an unconscious bias against girls. He didn’t bother to mark his classes’ work. Consequently, he based his entire assessment of me on a single exam I took when I was unwell. He refused to write a reference supporting me to study physics at university, and said I wasn’t “good enough” to do a degree in physics.

I went on to get the best possible grades in Maths and Physics at A-level and S-level, so objectively I think he was shown to be completely wrong. I was very upset by his behaviour, but I was lucky that my parents, along with my maths and chemistry teachers supported me wholeheartedly.

I took the initiative and wrote to a prominent astronomer at Cambridge who kindly replied, assuring me that a maths degree was a good start for a career in astrophysics. So, I went to the University of Oxford to study maths.

From maths to physics

I didn’t like the Oxford first term maths curriculum very much: it seemed to me that we spent weeks proving that if there existed a number x, such that x lies between 0 and infinity, there were also other such numbers. I’m afraid this seemed a bit pointless to me. I thought about leaving university and giving up entirely on my hopes of an astrophysics career.

In desperation, by the sixth week of my time in Oxford, I turned up unannounced at the office of Professor Donald Blackwell, the Savilian Professor of Astronomy. I explained my predicament, and he supported my proposal that I should change subjects and do a physics degree instead. He was very kind and patient, and sorted things out for me, liaising with my tutors at University College.

Don’t give up too easily

I think I would say to anyone that you should be prepared to push yourself forwards and ask for help, even if that seems a bit scary. Most people are very willing to help if asked. You should not give up easily just because someone tells you that you are “not good enough. Often such statements reveal more about the person uttering them than they do about the person they are directed at.

Worryingly, there is evidence that girls may often be discouraged by their own teachers. Of course, there are probably some people who would be well-advised not to take a physics degree. If lots and lots of people independently think you are taking the wrong path, it might be worth carefully considering whether they might be right.

However, my point in sharing this part of my own story is to say that I think it is very important to be tenacious in life, and not to let set-backs stop you. Some people have more luck and an easier path than others, but in the end, I think we each have to take responsibility for our own lives and do what we can to shape them the way we want them to be.

In most things, persistence and determination are more important than innate ability. And of course, all of this partly explains why I work at the Open University – the first and best university to offer opportunities to people for whom the standard path didn’t work. Widening participation – hurrah!

Don’t be afraid to challenge negative assumptions

I think grit and determination are very important. If people tell you that something is impossible for you, get them to explain why they think so. That gives you something to address and work on, or reveals the lack of foundation for their opinion.

Try to choose to spend time with positive, open-minded people who support you. Obviously, we don’t really get to choose our teachers at school, but I think most schools have a number of really fantastic, supportive teachers: don’t be afraid to talk to them. Seek out people who have done things similar to what you want to do and ask their advice.

Define ‘success’ for yourself

There were only one or two people who, as far as I know, thought I wouldn’t succeed in a physics-based career. The deputy head teacher told my mum and dad when I was about 11 not to expect too much as girls often do well at that stage, but fall back later. I can’t help thinking perhaps he was making a self-fulfilling prophecy. My parents were wise enough not to tell me until I had a Ph.D.!

Professor Carole Haswell - Open University
With a colleague on a beach in Chile, en route to the European Southern Observatory’s La Silla site

I would say that it is important to define ‘success’ for yourself. It doesn’t really matter what other people, except for those you love and who love you, think about your choices and prospects. ‘Success’ is different for everyone, and I think the main challenge in life is figuring out what choices to make.

I often think a career in astrophysics is a daft choice, and basically I am living the choice made by a very young girl a very long time ago. It is a competitive career, doesn’t pay particularly well, and requires enormous work and dedication. But, on the other hand, astrophysics has given me epiphanous moments!

Coming up next for me and the Open University

I am leading a team-building exercise at a trampoline park next week. This is probably another daft choice given my aged knees. I need to do some organisational work for our final year project module which will start early next year, and I need to finish writing next year’s Astrophysics exam.

Most excitingly, we will be presenting an introductory free course on exoplanets on OpenLearn that perhaps some Womanthology readers might enjoy. It doesn’t assume you’ve studied maths and science previously and I hope it might convince some people of the joy and beauty of maths and our Universe…

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