If you thought Trinidad and Tobago was a dot on a map, 29-year-old Dr Alexandra Amon knows Earth is just a speck in the cosmos. She is a cosmologist studying the origins and development of the universe. A graduate of the University of Edinburgh, Amon won the prestigious Michael Penston Prize for the best doctoral thesis in astronomy or astrophysics completed in the United Kingdom during 2018 with her thesis, Cosmology with the Kilo-Degree Lensing Survey.
Now she's a Kavli Research Fellow at Stanford University in California and leading a team of international experts analysing data to determine just what the universe is made of.
Amon spoke with Business Day via e-mail to talk about her experiences as a woman in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and how she's trying to encourage and inspire more young women to join the field.
What inspired your love of science?
I’ve always loved maths, but for me it was space that sold it. It represents the big unknown and the most fundamental questions: How did the universe begin? What’s out there? These questions make us human.
I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I was desperate to be an astronaut, to be out there. That couldn’t work out, but I discovered the wonder of learning about space, from planet Earth.
It’s a pretty fantastic consolation prize to get to speak at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, and even to be offered a job there.
What is it about astronomy that fascinates you the most?
I was first attracted to this field that seemed to constantly be turned upside down, debunking often egotistical theories – like the discovery that Earth wasn’t the centre of the universe, or that our Milky Way galaxy was one of many in the cosmos.
Now, I love the perspective it gives: it’s hard to comprehend the vastness of our cosmos and our place in it. One one hand, it is an incredibly humbling field.
But at the same time, it's hard not to be passionate about how special this is: in the grand story of the universe, our tiny rock grows forests and harbours life – this is all we have and we must protect it.
More than that, we humans, in such a short amount of time compared to the grand story of the universe, design cameras as big as cars, launch them into space and image distant worlds. My job is a privilege and an opportunity that anyone should have – so I get a little fired up about the field’s big issues with diversity.
Tell us (go easy) about your main focus of research/study?
My research focuses on what the universe is made of, and how it evolved to form complex and beautiful galaxies and stars that we observe when we look up.
Most of our universe is dark: 95 per cent of all the stuff is dark matter and dark energy, and we don’t understand what they are.
Right now I play a leading role in a huge international team, the Dark Energy Survey, working through an enormous dataset to understand this grand puzzle (and I have always loved jigsaw puzzles, this really isn’t very different!). With cutting-edge technology, we’ve measured the shapes of and distances to 100 million faraway galaxies, and use that to test models for how our universe works.
Tell us about your journey.
I wouldn’t be where I am without a national scholarship – I’m so grateful for that opportunity to go out into the world and represent our country on a platform that’s new for us. It’s special to see people’s eyes light up to hear about the Caribbean, and to watch them google map our islands. Being the only woman of colour in my undergraduate degree and PhD programme – so different to our sweet melting pot of culture – I think contributed to feeing often behind and not good enough.
There were setbacks along the way too – like everyone has their own challenges – I had a stroke in my master’s year. I think this made me work harder – I wanted to learn more and do something useful. I guess it’s working out – I was the first woman to win that Royal Society prize in over a decade. To be honest, I still pinch myself every time I step onto Stanford campus.
What was it like at home? Were your parents science-minded? How did they encourage your curiosity?
You know the Caribbean saying, it takes a village.... I’m lucky to have a village, including the BeeWee aunties that worked with my mum. But really, I wouldn’t be where I am without all of the people who lent a hand when things were tough.
Tell us about some of your more interesting/exciting assignments.
Well, being an astrophysicist takes you to the most remote areas of the world, literally! The largest telescopes are on mountaintops in the middle of nowhere.
My first “observing run” was at the Australian Anglo-Telescope in the Warrumbugnle National Park in Australia. After our first night of work, we left the telescope dome at sunrise to get some sleep and there were kangaroos outside!
My favourite experience was heading to Cerro Tololo, Chile, to observe for the Dark Energy Survey – it was just incredible. It’s hot and dry and 2,200 metres up, and then the sun sets, and the telescopes open their domes, like guardians of the sky, and the stars come out.
Do you feel like schools in TT were equipped to really develop your love of science, especially as a girl?
I think St Joseph's Convent, Port of Spain played a huge role! That school teaches you to work hard, and I think being all girls in some ways protected us from the sexism of the world. Back then, it was so normal to have mostly female science teachers.
Did you have to face any major challenges, especially because of gender or even race/ethnicity in your STEM journey?
Ha, is the sky blue? It’s a white man’s world and physics is reputably one of the worst on an international platform. The number of minorities drops the higher you go. It’s a leaky pipeline.
I’m grateful that growing up in diverse Caribbean communities cultivates tolerance and acceptance of people with various backgrounds. Now, we just need patience as the rest of the world catches up.
Are you starting to see a pivot in the way women are embracing STEM studies, including more encouragement to join the field and recognition for contributions?
Things are changing, but we have a long road to go in physics: not just to dismantle the outdated idea of a scientist, but to build structures that protect minorities, create opportunities for people from developing countries, and advocate for change in the STEM world. This is an uphill battle but one I’m determined to fight, alongside my research.
Who were your role models/inspiration (male or female)? Were any of them local?
Oh, so many! Dr Camille Alleyne, our only NASA rocket scientist has been a guiding light. As a student, I first saw her give a talk at UWI and was honestly too intimidated to introduce myself, but years later I reached out. Our fields are quite different between academia and industry, but her patient listening, and encouragement to “take up space” has not wavered.
There are others: both my PhD adviser (Prof Catherine Heymans, Edinburgh) and current boss (Prof Risa Wechsler, Stanford) are world-leading experts in our field and unbelievable supporters in navigating this challenging field – and they happen to be women!
I've been lucky enough to feature on a PBS documentary series, and Al Jazeera – I hope that I can light the spark for the next generation, to pay forward what Camille stood as for me.
What would you say to a little girl who wants to do what you do?
There are so many weird and wonderful careers in science – and so much that we as humans still have to understand: be brave and bold in your dreams. The universe is the limit.
There’s no replacement for hard work, but more importantly, we must learn to use our voices – they’re absolutely valuable in these fields, especially those of strong Caribbean women who have so much to offer.
Follow Alexandra on Instagram @astroalexamon, where she regularly shares facts about outer space.