As part of our Women’s Month series of profiles, Primarashni Gower spoke to University of Pretoria (UP) graduate Shilpa Ranchod, who is pursuing a career in radio astronomy, about her current research and why women in science need to support one another.
Tell us about yourself and the research that you are currently doing.
I was born and raised in Cape Town, and completed my BSc in Physics and Astronomy and my BSc (Hons) in Astronomy and Space Science at the University of Cape Town. I then went on to do an MSc in Physics at UP as part of the UP Radio Astronomy Research Group. I am currently doing my PhD in Physics at Wits University, and will be continuing at the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany. My research involves studying the evolution of distant galaxies, particularly the role of neutral hydrogen gas in their evolution, and how this differs for different galaxy environments. My PhD research will focus on the role of magnetic fields in the evolution of distant galaxies.
What inspired you to pursue a career in radio astronomy?
I have always been fascinated by the mysteries of the universe, and the fact that there is so much that is still not known about it. Towards the end of high school, I became interested in having a career in research, but I didn’t know much about astronomy as a career option until it was introduced to me by a friend who was also considering studying the subject. In the first year of my BSc degree, I learned about MeerKAT, which was still being built at the time, and the amazing potential for discovery using this new instrument. This inspired me to pursue a career in radio astronomy.
What does your family think about your career?
My father is a medical doctor and my mother is a lawyer. But there wasn’t any pressure to become a doctor or lawyer. My family has always supported my career choice and are very proud of my achievements.
How do you spend your days in terms of research?
A lot of my research time is spent analysing data, and writing code for data analysis and visualisation. I also attend seminars and colloquia, which have increased now that they can be accessed virtually. Most of my time is spent writing (for my thesis and papers), and reading papers.
Why do you think there is a shortage of women in science?
During my undergraduate years, I found that the physics and maths classes were composed mostly of male students, and they tended to dominate the space. This can be discouraging for women who would like to pursue careers in these fields. Science is for everyone, and should not be dominated by a particular demographic.
What do you think should be done to encourage women to follow careers in science?
Funding is an important factor for keeping many people in science, particularly women. Another important thing is to have more women, especially women of colour, in senior academic and managerial positions as role models for young scientists.
What advice do you have for women in scientific fields?
Having a support group that consists of other women in your field can be extremely valuable. It is very important for women to uplift each other, and for more senior academics to mentor and support early career scientists.