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National Science Week: Stars in their eyes

National Science Week: Stars in their eyes

17 August 2023

Astronomer and 2022 ARC Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA) Fellow, Dr Kathryn Grasha researches how galaxies form and evolve over cosmic time and this is one of the most fundamental questions in all of astronomy. Dr Grasha looks at the chemical histories of galaxies.

All fields of astronomy rely on this comprehensive understanding of how elements, or what astronomers call metals, are formed within the hearts of stars.

“We have the original primary elements; hydrogen and helium from the Big Bang Nucleosynthesis and all other elements we see were formed in the hearts of stars. When these subsequent generations of stars form and then evolve and die, via supernova, this will deposit elements throughout the cosmos,” Dr Grasha said.

“Understanding how this formation and distribution happens is fundamental to understanding how planets like Earth form.”

Dr Grasha sees her research benefitting Australia in several ways.

“We go outside in the nighttime sky, and we can take my work and ask, how do these big diverse range of galaxies exist? How does the oxygen we breathe form? How are these transported across the cosmos to go and create a planet like what we're living on now?”, Dr Grasha said.

Dr Grasha is also training the next generation of scientists, and equipping them with useful skills, including data analysis, coding and critical thinking.

“These skills are crucial for the economy and for the labour force. We will have a better economy, a better culture and a better country if we have young people that excel with these technical skills,” Dr Grasha said.

Dr Grasha said she was inspired by her high school algebra teacher, Mrs Garcia.

“My first role model was probably Mrs. Garcia. She was my first female teacher that I had in math and science classes. One day she brought in her biology lab books from when she went to university, and I just remember looking at them and being so impressed and saying I want to do what you do, and I want to be as inspiring as you are and work to inspire the next generation of scientists.”

Dr Grasha’s interest in astronomy came from a curiosity-based pursuit of knowledge.

“In Australia we have this wonderful view of the nighttime sky where we can see the Milky Way, we can see our satellite galaxies, the large and small Magellanic clouds. Everything we see in the nighttime sky is made from light that's formed in the hearts of stars. And this begs the question: who are we, in the grand scheme of the cosmos and who we are within the really small piece of the universe puzzle?” Dr Grasha said.

Dr Grasha obtained her PhD from the University of Massachusetts five years ago, and at the time the ARC Centre of Excellence for All Sky Astrophysics in 3 Dimensions (ASTRO 3D) was being established and hiring an immense amount of talent from overseas. The prospect of working for ASTRO 3D is what attracted Dr Grasha to Australia.

“I didn't originally come to stay, but I just love the science and I love the people and the culture. And here we are five years later and I'm still here!” she said.

ASTRO 3D is a seven-year $40 million Centre of Excellence project funded by the Australian Government through the Australian Research Council (ARC). The Centre brings together more than 250 world-leading astronomers to understand the evolution of matter, light and the elements, from the Big Bang to the present day.

ASTRO-3D is training young scientific leaders and inspiring high-school students into STEM subjects to prepare Australia for the next generation of telescopes.

Dr Grasha says one of the benefits of astronomy is that it creates knowledge, and basic foundational research creates knowledge.

“This is important because the creation of knowledge is about endless possibilities. And we don't create knowledge in a vacuum, we build upon the work that's done by other people centuries, sometimes even decades, before us,” she says.

“One of the beauties of curiosity driven scientific exploration is you can't see the future and some of the greatest breakthroughs that we've had scientifically come from seemingly arbitrary questions that we have asked, like the invention of cameras.

“Also look at Parkes Observatory, which witnessed humanity's first steps on the moon. The CSIRO invented wi-fi to help transfer large data sets, and GPS so you can tell where you're going. All of this takes physics and relativity. It’s about asking the questions that we know now with our limited information and taking our love of science and taking data analysis and critical thinking of what our limitations now are to go and help lay the foundations to create something bigger and better that we just can't envision that can happen in the future.”

As Dr Grasha said, science belongs to everyone and we all do better when everyone rises to the challenge.

Happy National Science Week.

ARC’s Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA) scheme provides focused research support for early career researchers in both teaching and research, and research-only positions. For more information on DECRA visit: Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA) | Australian Research Council

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