Gamilaraay astrophysicist Karlie Noon is passionate about Indigenous astronomy and was the first Indigenous woman to obtain degrees in both physics and mathematics from the University of Newcastle in 2016. The multiple award-winner completed her Masters in Astrophysics in 2019 at the Australian National University and the same year was an ACT Young Australian of the Year finalist and a Eureka Prize Emerging Leader finalist. In August 2020 she was appointed the first Astronomy Ambassador at Sydney Observatory, where she will work with the Powerhouse Museum to develop a portfolio of science-engagement activities.
We sat down with Karlie to ask her about her inspiring career, research and aspirations for her time at the Observatory.
Congratulations on the appointment, Karlie – we are really looking forward to working with you! What first inspired you to become an astrophysicist?
Thank you – I am so excited to share our mutual love and passion for the sky with people all across Australia!
One of my first experiences with physics was when I was about 19 years old and I read A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking for a third-year philosophy course I was doing at university. I had no idea what physics was before reading that book and it absolutely blew my mind. I enrolled in a physics and maths degree the following semester.
You mentioned before that your interest in maths is what led you to doing physics and astronomy. What do you love about maths?
I think I fell in love with the idea that maths is the language of everything around us. It is magical that we can use maths to make predictions about the universe.
It also helped that I was pretty good at maths, despite doing terribly in every other subject [at school]. I’ve always enjoyed the satisfaction you get from solving a problem.
You have deep knowledge of both western astrophysics and Aboriginal astronomy. What has the experience researching in both of these areas been like?
When I first started in science and maths at university, it was incredibly daunting. Even though I’d always had a passion for maths, my knowledge was nowhere near university level. I tried to teach myself year 12 advanced physics and maths in the two months before semester because I had so much catching up to do.
It didn’t get easier when classes began, as it was very isolating being one of the only girls in the room and not having the strongest maths and physics background. I enjoyed what I was learning but attending the classes was a big source of anxiety.
As I got further into my undergraduate studies I started catching up to my peers, receiving high distinctions which gave me a huge amount of confidence. This confidence helped me take the leap into doing a postgraduate in astrophysics, which I absolutely loved. I can’t wait to continue research, and I definitely feel a lot more comfortable existing in the world of STEM.
Having a way to explore the significance of my own ancestry within the field of astronomy has also helped me overcome a lot of these hurdles. Knowing that my ancestors were the first astronomers keeps the impostor syndrome away. It reminds me that this space is for me and others like me. Acknowledging the scientific knowledge held by First Nations people is an incredibly important act of truth-telling that I’m excited to be a part of.
Who are some of the scientists or mentors that have inspired you in your career?
There are so many! In my earlier years, I gained so much inspiration from the queens of Ancient Egypt, such as Nefertiti and Cleopatra. They were extremely strong and powerful women. Coming from a matriarchy, these were two qualities I admired from a very young age.
Today, I look up to people like Wiradjuri STEM journalist Rae Johnston, who is an amazing communicator; Palawa woman Angie Abdilla, who uses Indigenous practices to inform technology and design; and Munanjahli and South Sea Islander professor Dr Chelsea Bond, for her work in discussing race and racism within the Australian context.
What was the topic of your master’s research?
My research considered the dynamics [the study of how objects move in relation to the forces around it] of the Milky Way galaxy in an attempt to gain insight into the gas consumption of the galaxy. Gas consumption is a huge important factor in understanding the past, present and future of a galaxy.
What are other topics you would love to research in the future?
I love studying dynamics. A massive part of my master’s degree was trying to put my feet into the shoes of the Milky Way, to build up an intuition for how the galaxy moves. Pretending to be a rotating spiral galaxy is a lot of fun!
A major part of your role at the Observatory is in science communication. What is your ethos or approach to science communication?
There are a few main principles I depend on in my work. These include having integrity, a personality, and making things entertaining for people as well as being educational. I believe what brings all of this together is having a purpose, something that is bigger than myself.
What is one thing you’re looking forward to as Astronomy Ambassador at Sydney Observatory?
One thing I am really excited about is showing people how they can integrate stargazing into their lives. I think a lot of us have lost our connection to the outside world and stargazing is a great way to get that connection back!
To stay up-to-date with Karlie’s work, check out her Ambassador page here and catch Karlie’s next livestream from Sydney Observatory on 24 October 2020.