Why working in astronomy doesn't have to seem so out of this world

  • The Armagh Observatory and Planetarium (AOP) is an astronomical research institution based in Co Armagh. It is currently the oldest scientific institution based in Northern Ireland and currently has around 25 astronomers researching within it.

    Sync NI spoke to AOP's Erin and Courtney in a recent Tech Craic podcast episode, about their roles within the planetarium, and how they became involved in astronomy.

    Open since 1789, the planetarium has been running for over 200 years. However, due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, it has been closed for the majority of the past year.

    This is tough for any business, but particularly an educational environment like AOP, as they are losing opportunities to educate visitors.

    However, since lockdown began in March 2020, they have not stopped working and simply moved many programmes online. This has included online sessions with schools using astronomy software, using new and improved tools they have gained over lockdown to demonstrate.

    Social media is a huge contributing factor towards informing children about astronomy as well, with the rise of using social platforms to educate, such as TikTok.

    Erin Higgins works as an astronomer within the planetarium. She said, "Whenever I was younger, I went to the observatory for work experience. I always felt the building was beautiful. I completed a Bachelors in Physics at Queen's University Belfast and then completed a PhD."

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    As an astronomer, every day is different for Erin. She explained that there is usually a lot of travel involved in her job, including a lot of conferences regarding work on new frontier science. This allows her to collaborate with other astronomers to share ideas.

    Erin and Courtney addressed the fact the science industry can often be viewed as a male-dominated industry.

    Erin stated though that her "teachers throughout school were very supportive.”

    She explained that they encouraged her to follow a career path that suited her interests such as astronomy, in comparison to a more traditional route for an academically thriving student, such as medicine or law.

    Erin added that when she began her PhD, she was surprised to be surrounded by so many fellow female students, in an industry she suspected would be dominated by males.

    Although this is not always the case for a large number of female students seeking job opportunities in scientific industries.

    The gender gap in STEM careers is still prevalent, with gender stereotypes being fed into children from their early years, regarding 'male and female careers.'

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    According to Catalyst, a global non-for-profit which helps build workplaces that work for women, the few women who begin careers in the STEM industry often work within male-dominated workplaces, risking high rates of discrimination.

    Their contributions are often ignored, they experience isolation caused by lack of access to women peers, role models, and mentors and they are paid less than their male co-workers.

    Working in astronomy and studying outer space as a full-time job often seems far-fetched to those not in the industry, but Erin and Courtney hope to continue shining a light on how interesting and achievable a career in the field is.

    They also spoke on Tech Craic about ongoing developments on Mars, and the possibility of life on Mars in the upcoming decades.

    Listen to Courtney and Erin's full interview on Tech Craic here. 

    About the author

    Rosa is a Sync NI writer who is currently studying journalism at Ulster University. She has an interest in technological advancements and Women in Tech. To connect with Rosa, feel free to send her an email or connect with her on Twitter.

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