“We need systematic change at the top”: in conversation with Dr Leah Morabito

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Almost a decade ago, Dr Leah Morabito began work on her PhD in Leiden, using the LOFAR telescope to take high-resolution images. This recently culminated in the most detailed pictures of galaxies ever taken and created a huge pipeline for science research. I spoke to Morabito, now an Assistant Professor of Physics at Durham University, to discover how her career led to this achievement, and the difficulties faced by women in STEM.

Starting out as a maths undergraduate, Morabito did an introduction to astronomy course, and from then on was “hooked” on astronomy, switching her degree to physics. She got a scholarship from the US military for her undergraduate studies, after which she spent six years in the air force.

“I worked on an airplane called the AWACS, which has a giant spinning radar on top of it. And partly because of that, and partly because of the movie Contact with Jodie Foster, I knew I really, really wanted to do radio astronomy. So I knew from the start that I would do my military commitment to pay back for my undergraduate studies, and then I would go back to astronomy.”

Morabito began looking for a PhD in radio astronomy when she first heard about the LOFAR project. “I didn’t know a whole lot about it at the start, but I thought it sounded really good, and so that’s how I ended up at Leiden working on this.” LOFAR is a radio telescope made up of more than 70,000 antennae spread across Europe, the majority of which are located in the Netherlands. When she started working with LOFAR in 2012, they “really didn’t know how to handle the data at all at that point”.

“We started working first on just calibrating the telescope with the Dutch stations. It’s a little bit more logistically and technically easier to do that.” Since then, stations were added to LOFAR across Europe, giving the telescope a much better resolution, and resulting in a huge international effort. “I’ve come across a lot of very intelligent, very dedicated people throughout the process, which has been really nice.”

“The initial goal was to just see if we could do it, so that’s what I worked on in my PhD thesis.” During this time, Morabito achieved the record for the highest resolution image at megahertz frequencies. After successfully producing these images, the focus shifted to creating a pipeline that everyone could use. When Morabito started out with this project, it was the case that “you needed to be a black belt expert in processing LOFAR data to even make headway”. Now, however, PhD students can create high-resolution images within a year of starting their research projects. The recent news highlighted the significance of being able to make such images, as well as the prevalence of the research pipeline.

It’ll be the first time we’ve done a really large scale survey, and I’ll be using the pipeline that I’ve made

There were nine early career researchers working on their own projects using the LOFAR data calibration techniques that Morabito helped develop. I ask what her future plans using this pipeline are. “I’ve just been awarded a UKRI Future Leaders Fellowship, and as part of that project I will be doing the highest resolution all-sky survey in the radio waveband, competing with optical surveys, which is really cool!”

“Radio surveys typically have resolutions of five or six arcseconds, and this will improve the resolution by a factor of twenty. It’ll be the first time that we’ve actually done a really large-scale survey at such high resolution, and I’ll be using the pipeline that I’ve made.”

Throughout her career, Morabito has remained committed to helping promote gender equality in physics. As an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, she helped found a society for women in physics. “I think it’s really important for women to not feel alone. Out of a class of 30, only one or two of us would be women.” Morabito experienced “professors being surprised that we were still in the programme a couple years later, or our peers ignoring us when we were doing homework study groups”.

“It can feel very isolating if you’re the only woman, and so we set up this group where we could get together… and not feel so alone. Because the more we talked to each other, the more we realised we were all having the same experiences. And just that, being aware that you’re not the only one has huge psychological impact I think.”

It can feel very isolating if you’re the only woman… being aware that you’re not the only one has huge psychological impact

It has long been a challenge as to how gender representation in subjects like physics can be improved. Focus has largely been on outreach for younger women to take up STEM degrees, however, Morabito is quick to point out that the change is needed higher up: “We need systematic change at the top. I think we need to have the role models for young girls to look up to.”

“Pictures of the faculty are often a bunch of men, and then there are a couple women. If we can make that more representative, you don’t even have to interact with people to have a positive impact on women’s lives and their decisions to go into science.”

I ask if she has noticed such a change in universities in the time since she was a student. The answer is a slightly hesitant affirmative. “Astronomy has historically been a little bit better with gender representation than physics. I think people are more aware and they’re trying to effect change. But going from being a postdoc, where the gender ratio is still 40% women, to being a faculty member now where the gender ratio is back down to 10%… was very surprising, it caught me off guard.” Morabito says this level is similar to what she was experiencing at undergraduate level, where women were very much the minority in the physics department and “needed to have support networks”.

I was glad to hear that Durham is actively addressing diversity issues. “The physics department, the astronomy section in particular at Durham, has been hiring women and ethnic minorities in the recent years, so we are trying to make positive change in terms of diversity, and I’m very excited about that.”

I was keen to address that Morabito herself is now one of these role models seen on a picture of the faculty, and that her presence there will make a difference. “I’m very happy to hear that, and anything I can do to help out is very rewarding for me.”

Image: L.K. Morabito

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