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SPOTLIGHT: Dr Odman-Govender

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Dr Carolina Odman-Govender, is a Swiss-trained engineer turned astrophysicist and Professor of Astrophysics at the University of the Western Cape. Dr Odman grew up in Switzerland, and it was here where she was inspired by her high school physics teacher and decided to pursue a career in the sciences.

Dr Odman studied physics at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne and graduated in 2000. She earned her PhD at the University of Cambridge, where she was a member of Trinity Hall. She then became a postdoctoral scholar at Universita degli studi di Roma "La Sapienza". She has also acted as a consultant for UNESCO, working on the impact of science and technology in society.  

In 2005, Dr Odman joined Leiden University as an international project manager, where she worked with George Miley. Amongst other achievements, this involved setting up the Astronomy for Africa taskforce and leading Universe Awareness (UNAWE). Universe Awareness is an outreach programme that inspires children about astronomy, reaching over 400,000 children in over 60 countries. She joined the Square Kilometre Array project at the South African Astronomical Observatory in 2010. Dr Odman was made Director of Academic Development at the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences in 2011. In 2012 she received an award from Science Magazine the Science Prize for Online Resources in Education (SPORE) award for her work on Universe Awareness. She was part of the team that created Galileo Mobile project.

It was only necessary to shed a light on a woman in STEAM who has acheived immensely in the field of astronomy and physics. The GFPA team had the honour of interviewing Dr Odman to get some insight on what it takes to attain such an outstanding career.

Can you give us a little background about your childhood, your background in Switzerland and most importantly, where the love of physics started. I understand it is said you were inspired to pursue a career in the sciences by your high school teacher, could you tell us more about this?

I was born and raised in a small town in Switzerland, I went to school in the area. Switzerland is very different from South Africa, everything including the trains works. I was lucky enough to go to schools that were well equipped. We basically had everything that we needed to thrive. I studied at an engineering university in Lausanne. I always had a dream to do two things, one of which was to be a thinker (the other was to fly – it didn’t happen). So, I thought I’d go to university and study philosophy and then humanities. My friends and I used to have philosophical debates. I found this frustrating because we ended up just debating the meaning of words and did not get anywhere in terms of ideas. That is one of the reasons why I studied physics. I felt like that would allow me to be able to not just debate on matters but also broaden my mind.

Thanks to my high school teacher, I discovered the power of physics. My eye-opening moment was when my teacher demonstrated how Einstien’s physics, which I thought was unattainable, works. We know that the helium atom is made of twice as much stuff as a hydrogen atom. So, we added the mass of two hydrogen atoms from the periodic table, thinking that it would equal the mass of one helium atom. However, there was a difference! Our teacher used this example to show how Einstein’s equation E=mc2 is applied. The difference was energy – the missing mass had turned into the energy that kept the Helium atom together. This equation was the symbol of how difficult science is but there we were, understanding it. That was like magic! My teacher made it easy to understand and from that moment onward, I decided that I was going to study physics.  I believed that it would challenge my thinking and take me to places that I never thought possible, and it has. Studying physics is one of the coolest things I’ve ever done. My teacher was passionate about physics and because of that, he got so much joy from sharing the passion and teaching. There are many passionate teachers in South Africa as well. However, they have one of the most difficult jobs since they mostly work in environments where there are not sufficient resources. I have a great admiration and respect for teachers!

I was fortunate enough to live next to a facility where one of the biggest physics experiments in the world was happening. They were conducting nuclear research. This kind of monumental facility and the work they did became part of the identity of the area where I lived. It was always there in the background that something amazing is happening. As a result, my interest in physics was always encouraged. In fact, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project is doing the same in South Africa. When people know about SKA, there’s an awareness that something cutting edge is happening right here.

A woman of your calibre, I understand it took a lot of hard work to get to where you are today. What do you think are the secrets behind getting to where and who you are today? What are some of the notable challenges you have experienced along the way considering STEAM is a highly male-dominate field?

I believe that I realised the challenges that I faced in hindsight. When you’re in a situation, it is sometimes difficult to pinpoint the challenges right there and then. Many of the challenges are implicit and not so obvious. The explicit challenge was that it took a lot of discipline and hard work doing maths. However, there’s no such thing as maths being difficult, it just takes practice and hard work and if you have the discipline to do it, then you become good at maths. When I was doing my undergraduate studies, there were only ten percent of women on campus, 90% of the students were male. The university only offered engineering fields of study. There were no art students or other fields of study considered to be more “feminine”, so the campus was very male dominated. I couldn’t wear what I wanted on campus because if you wore a dress or shorts, then there were catcalls from the men. I always wore long pants on campus as a result of that. I only realised that that was not OK many years after I left campus.

I had always thought that the problems facing women only affected my mom’s generation and that everything was fine now. However, I have realised since that gender-based issues are far from resolved. We were still facing the same struggles as my mom’s generation when I was studying and today’s young women still fight the same fights. Progress is slow and the challenges we face are not confined to just South Africa or Switzerland, they are everywhere. I also studied at Cambridge which really seemed like Harry Porter’s school (Hogwarts). Even there, I faced the similar issues that I faced during my undergraduate studies in Lausanne.

Coming from a gold mine of opportunities in Europe, what influenced your decision to move to South Africa, and to grow the knowledge economy of Africa as a whole as you are now working as a lecturer at University of the Western Cape?

I first came to South Africa in 2004 to teach. I was amazed at the dynamism of the country, of its people. It’s still a young country but there is such an interesting mix of people. I saw young people seizing the opportunity to shape the country as it developed. In Europe it felt like one’s vote does not matter and there is not much of significance to be done since everything is so developed. So, I loved working in South Africa so much that I kept trying to find opportunities to do so and now here I am, having lived here for nearly 10 years. And I still feel inspired every day. I admire the interest that students take in shaping their identities. The have such great ideas and in fact I was impressed when they brought up the matter of decolonizing education and science. They bring questions to the table that need to be addressed and make us see things differently.

What does the job of an astrophysicist entail, particularly in the South African context? What are the major components of your job on a daily basis? And what are the skills required as someone who has your position?

I was once told that if I study physics, there are many opportunities out there, as long as I was willing to get out of physics. It sounds funny, but it is also wise. Banks like to hire people that studied physics because they’re so good in mathematics and like to understand systems. I have worked in a private company for some years before returning to academia and learnt a ot along the way. The work that I do now is predominantly development and engagement work. During a previous project, we worked on a project to improve tolerance in kids in a town that had a lot of immigrants. We developed an activity where an alien landed on earth and joined the class. This alien didn’t know the local language. We asked the kids what they would do to help the alien and their responses ranged from teaching the alien the local language and a host of other solutions. They adopted the alien and realised how difficult it must be to be stuck in a strange new place where nothing is familiar. This helped the kids relate better to immigrants and be more empathetic and helpful each time a new kid joined the school. I love this example because we used astronomy, a science, to teach the kids human values. On a day-to-day basis, I am not an active researcher astrophysics anymore, but I get to do a lot of interdisciplinary work.

Universe Awareness is an organization that strives to educate children from a young age about astronomy, and you were a driving force in establishing this movement. Other initiatives you have been involved in such as the Galileo Mobile Project, are all initiatives that strive inform and inspire young learners about astronomy, I know they are not meant just for girls but do you feel the necessity to have women in STEAM careers? What does the future look like for women who would like to pursue careers in this field?

Universe awareness started in 2005 and it’s still going strong as we speak. We have received funding regularly since the beginning. I ran the organisation for the first five years and then handed over to a new team. I think having new people in leadership is great because they bring new ideas into the organisation. The Universe Awareness programme doesn’t target girls specifically, but some of their events are aimed at girls and promoting women in STEAM remains one of my priorities. Last year I hosted a women in physics event here at UWC. This was to encourage the young women enrolled in our physics courses to network more and to discuss the challenges they’re facing, as well as breaking down pre-conceptions about what is required to be a successful woman in a science career. Women often place the bar higher for themselves than for others. The event was so insightful and such a success that I was asked to host several Women in Science events this year, not just women in physics.

How do you manage to maintain a balance between all the work that you do and being a mother and wife?

A lot of stress. I think we all stress too much. Then I got sick. Two years ago, I got diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and just recently got a clear scan. After that, I saw things differently, I worry less now. I used to stress so much about things that could go potentially wrong; my kids getting hurt, not being able to complete my work on time etc. but now, I waste less stress on thing that don’t happen. If things happen, they will happen. It’s funny how when our kids get overly excited we tell them to take a deep breath and calm down. As adults, we sometimes also need to take a deep breath and calm down.

Lastly, what message do you have for young girls wanting to pursue a career in STEAM, but more specifically in Physics.

Believe it, you can be anything you want to be. And Physics needs your talent! When they struggle under heavy workloads and feel bleak about their studies or their careers, I wish for the young women who study physics to go and teach other kids, because when they share their passion for the field, they find it again too. And they truly advance society by sharing their knowledge.

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