Renée is currently a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Astrophysics at Princeton University. She has established a fund and mentoring program to bring young South African female science undergraduates to the US for summer research. She also participates in the Prison Teaching Initiative in New Jersey and formed the Hope-Princeton exchange which brings female students in astronomy to work in Princeton over the summer. She was named one of the Mail and Guardian’s 200 Young South Africans for 2012, and is a 2014 TED Senior Fellow. In January 2016 she will join the faculty in the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics and the Dunlap Institute at the University of Toronto.
My Definition Of Success | To me success is the ability to enjoy what you do and to learn. To feel fulfilled in how you spend your hours and to learn something exciting that you can share with another person. I’m lucky that I’ve been able to remain a professional scientist, and so I get to keep doing science and asking questions about the universe. But we get to ask questions in a variety of professions. Successful people have a delight in the work that they do and a drive to keep going when it gets hard.
I Am Driven By | I am driven not only by a desire to understand how the universe works, but also by a desire to teach others and to grow new students into a questioning mindset where they are curious and passionate about knowledge and learning. I want to give the opportunity for learning to as many students as I can, particularly those who haven’t been nurtured in science in the past.
We live in an amazing universe and we have brains that are sophisticated enough both to ask how the first stars in the universe formed and also to make music and art about it. We are so incredibly lucky! We have language and logic and mathematics and creativity – I want to use those things as much as possible to enrich my own life and the lives of those around me.
My Highlights | Obtaining my PhD in Astrophysics from Oxford was a real highlight. It was a strange feeling, because I’d been working at it for three years, and it is a gradual process, but then one day I was at the graduation ceremony and they conferred the degree on me and my eyes welled up with tears because I realised that I had actually endured a lot to get there. I think we often play up the hardships and downplay that successes, but it is important to celebrate those small things.
I also have this incredible joy when I solve a problem that I’ve been struggling with for a while, or publish a paper that has taken a long time and been arduous.
Now I’ve come to the point in my career where I will be taking students and supervising their research, and I’m very proud and pleased but it is also a huge responsibility going forward.
A Key Talent | I think the talent that has been the most useful in my career as a scientist is my persistence and determination. Sometimes the rewards are spaced very far apart in time. Sometimes you need to struggle at a problem for a very long time, trying different approaches at solving the problem. When they don’t work time and time again it is easy to get despondent, but that ability to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and try again is essential, and means that you eventually solve the problem. It’s also important to know when and how to ask for help. Sometimes you are struggling with a problem that someone else has already solved, and it is important to know when to look and ask, or when the problem needs to be fixed by you personally. I like thinking of science as a sort of detective hunt, searching for clues and solving riddles along the way.
The Characteristics Of Success | I am good at communication, and so I give lots of talks to my colleagues about my work. This is important as a way of advertising what you have done, but also because they can give you feedback about new avenues you haven’t yet explored. I also am very passionate and interested in a variety of things, which means I like to work on lots of different projects. This is very fun because it means I’m never bored, but you must be careful not to spread yourself too thin or you will struggle to make progress on anything!
Principles I Live By | I want to make things better for those around me – so I want to treat people with kindness and respect even if I don’t always agree with them, or even understand their point of view. I think this is important at home and in the workplace. I want to make sure as a woman in science (there are still not that many women in science) that I make it easier and more inviting for other cis and trans young men and women of all races to enter the astronomy community. Building a more inclusive environment for the future means a great deal to me. I’d like to hope that things are a little bit better when I am finished my career in astronomy.
Dealing With Doubt | Self-doubt is a really tough one, because it can affect people in different ways. In academic circles we often talk about Impostor Syndrome (the belief that soon someone will realize that you don’t deserve to be here). I’ve actually had two encounters that really help me. First of all I got a coach, so a professional who I can speak to about my career and strategy on a short-term basis. This is something that was offered to me through the TED Fellows program, and really changed my life! Working with the coach I realized that I was taking in information wrong, so filtering out the good stuff and keeping only the negative stuff. She helped me to reform how I talk and listen about myself. The other thing is I started doing improvisational comedy. This really helped me because rather than talking about ‘fake it til you make it’, which is what people often say about these issues, I was able to treat this like more of a new reality to inhabit. I actually blogged about my thoughts in more detail here.
Resources I Use To Stay Inspired | I actually use music a great deal to change my mood. Sometimes when I am stressed and don’t believe in myself I listen to ‘classical power ballads’ (the music from the movie The Gladiator helps me!) or upbeat tunes to remind myself that it is going to be ok.
On Inspiring Others |I personally find that if people are connected to the vision (the “why” using language from the book ‘Man’s search for meaning’ by Victor Frankl) behind what you do they are much more likely to push forward on the goals. I try to make sure that I am connected to my own vision, but then also try and push and remind those working with me of the goals that we share. Also, laugh when you have to and cry when you have to. I think the more humanity, compassion and empathy we can bring to our interactions the better we do at achieving great things!
I Am Inspired By | My mom inspires me a great deal – she has an incredible ability to keep going even when things are tough (we often use the expression KOKO, or Keep on Keeping On, in my house). She’s always had unwavering faith in me and my abilities, and always pushed me to be happy but never told me what I could do or should do. She made me believe I could do anything I set my mind to. I am also inspired by the female scientists that worked very hard, with little reward or recognition in the past, women like Lise Meitner and Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin. The instrumental work of these women was often overlooked by the field.