siaa_logo_blue Brenda Matthews brenda_circle

Millimetre Astronomy Group, Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics

Principal Investigator on a Herschel Open Time Key Project


She is an Astronomer: How long is it since you got your maximum academic degree?

Brenda Matthews: It's been eight years since I got my PhD.  I got my degree at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. Dr. Christine Wilson was my PhD advisor.


SIAA: What stage of your career are you at now?

BM: I have a term position in the Millimetre Astronomy Group at HIA, after completing two postdoctoral fellowships, one at UC Berkeley and one at HIA as a Plaskett Fellow.  My research focusses on the process of star formation, including the role of magnetic fields and the timescales of the phases through which dense gas collapses to form a star, and on debris disks, which are the remnant disks left behind after star and planet formation is complete. The Solar System has two components to its debris disk: the asteroid belt and the Kuiper-Edgeworth belt of comets.  I am the principal investigator of a Herschel Open Time Key Project to search for debris disks around 446 nearby stars.


SIAA: What is the most senior position you have achieved?

BM: Associate Research Officer (a term position) at the Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics, an institute within the National Research Council of Canada. I turned down a faculty job in the UK to accept a Plaskett Fellowship at HIA in 2004.


SIAA: Do you feel it was more difficult for you to get a job or a promotion in comparison with male astronomers?

BM: Since I was hired into a term position at HIA while others are hired as permanent staff, it is difficult to gauge any difference in promotion practices. Overall, I have not felt that being a woman has been a hinderance to my career advancement. Especially early on, I believe it was a benefit, since being a woman can help you stand out in a male-dominated field and make you and your work more memorable, especially if you are doing well. Early on in my career, I dealt with the two-body issue of being in a relationship with another astronomer, which can complicate issues, particularly in the search for permanent jobs.  This is no longer an issue for me, but overall, it does affect more women in science than men (since women scientists are more likely to marry another scientist than male scientists are).


SIAA: Are women under-represented in your institution?

BM: There are very few women in permanent astronomy positions at HIA. None of the senior positions (i.e., director general of HIA, director of DAO) are, or have ever been, held by women. Less than 10% of the senior/permanent astronomy staff are women.


SIAA: What is your family status?

BM: I got married in 2008 to a wonderful man from Victoria, and we have just had our first child, a girl. I am originally from Toronto, Ontario and am the oldest of three children. I have a brother and sister, both of whom still live in Toronto, as do my parents. My parents are both highly supportive of education and encouraged all of us to pursue higher education.


SIAA: Have you had any career breaks?

BM: Yes. I have had two. When I finished my Masters degree, I took a few months off, and traveled to Africa for a short time. It was something I had always wanted to do, and I thoroughly enjoyed a camping safari in Kenya and Tanzania. As of this writing (summer 2009), I have just returned from a 3 month maternity leave for the birth of my daughter.  I was able to return to work quickly because my husband is taking 4 months of parental leave.


SIAA: How difficult did you find the return to your work?

BM: I'm still sorting that out!  Certainly my travel has been greatly curtailed for the near future. For me, the key is to have an understanding partner who accepts that travel for observing at telescopes, collaborations with colleagues and conferences is a requirement for success in astronomy. It is also very helpful to have a supervisor who appreciates the difficulties involved in balancing work and family life. The need to not be detached from the field for too long was definitely a factor in my quick return to work, however.  Since my husband and I are both employees of the federal government in Canada, we have access to up to 35 weeks of parental leave on top of up to 17 weeks of maternity leave.  I didn't even take the entire maternity leave period because I needed to get back on top of things at work, in part because several key projects I have been planning for over several years should bear fruit this fall.


SIAA: How many hours per day do you normally dedicate to work?

BM: This varies somewhat, but I try to put in a solid 8 hours or so a day. What typically happens, however, is that I end up thinking about projects or details in the evening and also checking email regularly. I can see this will diminish though since it already as in the 3 months since I had a child. In periods leading up to proposal deadlines or when observing, the days can be much longer. At these times, working days can be as long as 16 hours, after which point, I may still be awake, but a lot less work is likely getting done!


SIAA: What would most help you advance your career?

BM: Faster publishing! I have lots of good ideas and get lots of telescope time.  The key is getting those results published. I tend to be a cautious publisher, and I take my time with data, analysis and interpretation. But there are cases where faster publication is essential!


SIAA: What recommendation would you make to young women starting their career in astronomy?

BM: For those students considering astronomy, I suggest getting involved in amateur societies and putting yourself forward to work with astronomers in summer research programs. It is very beneficial to find out which topics in astronomy interest you the most, and whether you feel research is something you would be good at and enjoy.  For individuals already on the career path, I think the most important thing is to choose good projects and then get the results out to the community: doing the science is great, but you'll go further if people associate you with your good science.