This month EPWS gives the floor to Dr. Mirjana Pović. Dr. Pović is a Serbian-Spanish astrophysicist who works on galaxy formation and evolution at the Ethiopian Space Science and Technology Institute in collaboration with the Instituto de Astrofísica de Andalucía in Spain. She is also an honorary lecturer at the Mbarara University of Science and Technology in Uganda. She was the inaugural laureate of the Nature – Estée Lauder Inspiring Science Award in 2018 and the inaugural Jocelyn Bell Burnell Inspiration Medal in 2021.
EPWS: What made you want to go to science? How did you decide to choose your discipline and your particular field of research? Did you have an inspiring model (parent, relative, teacher, literature, etc.)?
I always loved science at school, but I didn’t start thinking I might becme a scientist until I joined the University. However, astronomy became to me much more than science. When the Balkans civil war started in the former Yugoslavia, I was 9 years old, and when it ended, I was almost 20. During all this time, living in a crazy reality out of which we were not able to escape, the night sky above our heads was a place to dream about another kind of world and to not lose hope that better times will come. I observed the night sky very often, and I was having so many questions, like what are really the stars, how far away are they, or why do they emit light. I didn’t have answers to any of these questions at that time, nor the means to find them, but I remember promising myself that one day I would understand them all. I believe that all these questions helped me to fall in love with astronomy and science, and to become curious.
When I started high school, I was so lucky to have an amazing physics teacher, Milenko Dabic, whose passion for physics and teaching was so inspiring, and from whom for the very first time, I was able to learn more about astronomy. In my last year of secondary school, I managed to attend a small astronomy course in Belgrade, to meet for the first time professional astronomers and to start visiting regularly a small public observatory. All of these influenced me to study astrophysics at the University of Belgrade. After the following four years of my studies and a short research visit to the University of Durham in the UK, I also knew that I wanted to continue learning, do my PhD, and become a scientist.
I am enormously grateful to my three mothers, who always pushed me to study, although they themselves didn’t have a chance to do so. And I am grateful to the public system of education that was there in old Yugoslavia, Serbia, and Spain. If I didn’t have an access to free education, I would never be able to study and become a scientist.
My life role model was and still is my granny, Ruza Mosorinac, with whom I grew up. She didn’t have a chance to go to school, but growing beside her I learned to persist in my dreams, to always focus on a good side of everyone and everything, to appreciate difficult situations in life as an important source of knowledge, and do not have a fear of challenges.
EPWS: What do you work on? How important is your research topic for science development or society?
My research focuses on the study of nuclear activity in galaxies, morphological classification and morphological properties of galaxies, star formation in galaxies, and galaxy clusters. Most of my study has been done in the field of active galaxies, which are some of the most luminous sources in the Universe, and therefore very important for studying how the Universe was in its early stages and for understanding how galaxies formed and evolved across the cosmic time. Active galaxies are characterized by very complex and particular physics. Their research contributed over the past decades to the development of physics, related instrumentation, and imaging techniques at other parts of the electromagnetic spectrum, such as at high energies and in the radio regime, and many of these are nowadays used in different applications and fields, including medicine, agriculture, and communication sector.
In addition, over more than 10 years, I worked on development in astronomy, science, and education in different parts of Africa, through different projects and initiatives related to research collaborations, human capacity development, institutional development, policy work, women in science, and outreach. How through astronomy we can benefit our societies and contribute to development in education and science in Africa, became some of the most important aspects of my work over the last years.
EPWS: What is your greatest success as a researcher (and as a teacher if you teach), the one you are most proud of?
I am very happy with the opportunity that I have to share knowledge with our people in Ethiopia and Africa, and that I had a chance to participate actively and contribute to some of the very first astronomy developments in different African countries. It has been a long journey of almost 15 years, and not always it was evident to me how through astronomy we can contribute to make our world a better place for all. But nowadays I don’t have doubts anymore that astronomy is a powerful tool to fight poverty in the long term, through education, science, and technology developments.
Could you share the memory of a great personal satisfaction during your research career with us?
The most touching and exciting moment in my professional career was when Ethiopia launched from China its very first satellite in December 2019. At that time the country was already going through very severe socio-economic, political, and environmental challenges. Being able to launch its first satellite was a source of hope for the whole nation, young and old generations. I was so proud of my colleagues, and very grateful that I had a chance to participate in the development of the Ethiopian Space Science and Technology Institute from its very beginning and see that launching of the very first satellite happening.
EPWS: In which country/countries have you been doing research?
During my professional life as an astrophysicist, I have had the chance to visit different institutions and different countries, meet people and make friends all over the world. The principal countries where I worked are Spain, Ethiopia, and South Africa, but during shorter terms I also worked in Uganda, Rwanda, Israel, and UK.
EPWS: What is your agenda for the coming months?
We recently founded the African Network of Women in Astronomy (AfNWA) under the African Astronomical Society (AfAS). Making together with my colleagues AfNWA to become a strong network will be one of my priorities in the coming months. Another priority are always my MSc and PhD students, and I will continue dedicating a significant part of my time to them and to the research that we are doing together and in collaboration with many of our colleagues from different countries. I will continue with lecturing and will have to give several MSc and PhD courses. We also have in the coming months to finalise a small book that we are preparing for the secondary school children and students about the technological impact of astronomy and space science in fighting COVID-19 and similar viruses, funded under the Office of Astronomy for Development. As one of the co-conveners of the Astrophysics and Cosmology Working Group under the new African Strategy for Fundamental and Applied Physics (ASFAP) we will have a lot of work in the coming months with the strategy planning and development. Finally, I also have to finish two research papers that I am currently working on.
Did you meet any barriers (personal/social/structural) during your career as a scientific researcher? Did you benefit from mentoring?
Yes, all of the mentioned. But I was also always able to get help when I asked for it and when it was needed. However, independently if we are scientists or we are working in any other field, above all we are women, and that means that we are not treated in the same way as men in most (if not all) aspects of our society. When we go to more ‘traditional’ countries this becomes even more evident. In that aspect, working in different African countries was not always easy. Mentoring and networking between women is extremely helpful and important for understanding our society, offering support to each other, giving us a voice, and putting strengths together to improve conscious and unconscious biases that we are all exposed to. I was lucky to have great mentors and real role models during my PhD and my first post-doc positions, Ana M. Perez Garcia, Josefa Masegosa, and Isabel Marquez Perez [EPWS individual member]. These three women were and still are fundamental in my professional career. I managed to build a lot of my self-confidence as a female scientist thanks to them.
What is the situation of gender equality in your working field? In the countries where you have been working, were there gender equalities policies and did you experience their effects?
We do have a strong gender gap in astronomy, especially after MSc and PhD positions. The numbers vary of course depending on the country. To give an example, the latest statistics of the International Astronomical Union (IAU), the largest professional organization in our field, show that only 21% of all IAU members are women. These numbers can vary, since not all astronomers are members of the IAU, including many young researchers, but it is still one of the indicators. In general, there is a strong belief that we have to improve the status of women and girls in science in the future, which is very positive. However, many of the unconscious biases are still there, and in that aspect having gender equalities policies, strategic plans, codes of conduct, etc., is the very first step. I did observe in Spain and Europe important progress in this aspect.
When we come to the countries that are exposed to poverty, everything becomes more difficult. We know that poverty is feminized and that girls and women are more exposed to it. This is then linked to the inability for many girls to complete their basic education and/or enter university. And in addition, there is a strong social pressure for them to get married and have children.
What do you suggest for a better implementation of gender equality in science?
Recently under AfNWA we submitted a list of recommendations to be considered under the possible future EU-AU Women Policy, in line with the new science and innovation strategy. Some of our recommendations are related to the need to take measures to ensure that women remain in science, putting special attention to women in their age of 30-45 years, and this is directly related to the need to guarantee more stable positions for women (and men) in science that will permit them to combine family life with their research. It is recommendable to strengthen the system of taking into account family duties and/or any justified interruption in research in all CV evaluations and to strengthen the support for the care of dependent family members during particular research activities.
We need to strengthen the system of MSc and PhD scholarships for talented women, especially in developing countries, and the possibility of having a family during MSc and PhD studies. The use of double-blind methods in short-listing candidates for jobs and scholarships (short-listing without knowing names – and hence gender) for reducing unconscious bias and/or any conflict of interest is very important as well, and also to enforce gender-balanced hiring (and other) committees. We also need to strengthen the professional and leadership skills of women researchers, and give more visibility to the work that women in science are doing, so that they can inspire many others, in particular girls.
Another fundamental point is that each country carries out the study to understand the main factors responsible for the lack of women and girls in STEM, and develop the proper measures for improving the situation in the future.
Did you experience networking between women scientists? Can you comment your answer and explain why yes or not?
Yes, during the last 10 years of my professional career. I currently belong to the Spanish Society of Women in Science and Technology (AMIT, EPWS Full Member), Society of Ethiopian Women in Science and Technology (SEWiST), AfNWA-AfAS that I mentioned above, Spanish Astronomical Society Women in Science group, and ASFAP (mentioned above), and African-European Radio Astronomy Platform (AERAP) Women in Science working groups. Through all of these societies and initiatives, I was able to see how much networking between women is important and needed. Thanks to the networks like these we nowadays have a much better picture of the gender gap in science and the specific policies and strategies how to improve the gap in the future.
If you could start again your life, would you choose again to be a scientist? What would you change?
I wouldn’t mind being a scientist again. Not necessarily an astrophysicist, maybe this time marine biologist, primatologist, geologist, or anthropologist. I appreciate so many aspects of working in science. However, I would like to see more favorable working conditions for young scientists, changing a tendency of having infinite short-term and post-doc contracts and giving them more stable positions. This will definitely make science more friendly and accessible for all, but in particular for women, who have to combine competitive scientific workload with still on average larger loads related to care of family members.
Could you leave a message to young European women scientists?
Have confidence in yourself. Stay active and curious and explore all the possibilities for learning more and having new experiences. Don’t give up when looking for new scholarships and jobs, be persistent and learn to be patient, it will help you in life.
Ask for help whenever you need it. Get involved in women science societies/associations/networks, you will be able to get more help when needed and this will also help you to build your confidence. Do not be afraid of challenges, they are a great source of knowledge and each of them will strengthen your skills and abilities to overcome other difficulties.
In relationships and conflict situations, try to use your rational side and understand the other person, this will help you to find the best solution and overcome problems while protecting yourself and your health. Believe in dialogue and communication as the most effective tools for solving problems. Care for your rights and for the rights of others.