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University of Saskatchewan students remember forgotten women astronomers

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WATCH ABOVE: Lecture for women astronomers who did not receive enough credit – Feb 12, 2020

By the time she died in 1848, Caroline Herschel discovered three nebulae and seven comets. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, she was the first professional female astronomer.

But even though she conducted many of the calculations needed for his work, she spent most of her life in the shadow of her brother, Sir William Herschel.

Rina Rast, a University of Saskatchewan student, was part of a group presenting a special lecture dedicated to remembering forgotten astronomers like Herschel.

“I want to give them something, even if it’s now 200 years later,” she said.

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Rast and six other women hosted Illuminating the Stars: Shining Light on Forgotten Women of Astronomy on Tuesday evening, a lecture given to mark the International Day of Women and Girls in Science.

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The speakers, who all study or studied science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) spoke about astronomers who did not receive enough credit or who have been attacked because of their sex. The subjects were chosen, one speaker said, from a long list.

“I think it’s very important to be doing this presentation and raising awareness for women in STEM,” Maia Wallis said. Wallis, like Rast, studies physics with a specialization in astronomy.

Aside from Herschel, the presenters also spoke about Mae Jemison, a doctor, engineer and author who is also the first black woman in space and Beatrice Tinsley, who, as a 26–year–old graduate student, publicly challenged and corrected one of the most eminent astronomers in the world.

Several scientists and students at the University of Saskatchewan celebrated the International Day of Women and Girls in Science by speaking about forgotten scientists, like Mae Jemison, the first black woman in space.
Several scientists and students at the University of Saskatchewan celebrated the International Day of Women and Girls in Science by speaking about forgotten scientists, like Mae Jemison, the first black woman in space. Hanna Bardo / Canadian Press

“I think it was really brave and sets a good example that it’s ok for women to speak up,” said Samantha Faith VanDeventer, who is applying to veterinary school and who spoke about Tinsley.

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Tinsley later theorized that the universe was infinitely expanding and was proven right a quarter of a century later.

The lecture was as much a celebration of the scientists’ accomplishments as it was a commemoration of the challenges they faced.

Katie Bouman was another subject of the talk. Bouman wrote the algorithm that helped provide the first-ever images of a supermassive black hole in 2019.

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A photo of Bouman reacting the image went viral and shortly after she and her contributions were attacked, with people posting online that a male colleague deserved the real credit.

“It’s really disheartening,” said Wallis, “because I look at Katie Bouman and I think she’s brilliant. She must be so smart with all of the things she’s accomplished… and then to have that stripped away from her just because she’s a woman, it scares me.”

“Watching in disbelief as the first image I ever made of a black hole was in the process of being reconstructed,” Katie Bouman said in a Facebook post accompanying this photo, April 10, 2019.
“Watching in disbelief as the first image I ever made of a black hole was in the process of being reconstructed,” Katie Bouman said in a Facebook post accompanying this photo, April 10, 2019. Katie Bouman / Facebook

Wallis said she has also faced discrimination because of her sex. She told Global News that male students have dismissed her ideas only to later take credit for them when they were correct.

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“It didn’t feel fair,” she said.

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She explained that she was very nervous to go into the STEM field because she had heard stories of how tough they were for women. And she said that she had been told since elementary school that women were good at English and that men were the ones good at math.

Wallis told Global News that it’s her curiosity that keeps her going.

“Science is very important and we need it so innovate and expand our understanding so we can live better lives. So why would we shut people out of that? We should all be involved in science,” she said.

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“It’s an incredibly rewarding field once you get past the negative parts.”

VanDeventer and Rast both said they were also, at times, discouraged by the treatment other women had experienced.

“The problems are still here, and if they’re still here after hundreds of years I think they’re going to keep being here,” Rast said.

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Rast said learning about other scientists who have overcome discrimination was inspiring.

“If people like Caroline Herschel can do it, I can do it. And physics and astronomy is ultimately worth doing.”