THE job description of out and proud astronomer Lisa Harvey-Smith may sound like something straight out of an episode of Dr Who, but she has just about the coolest gig in the world.
As a research astronomer at CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science, Harvey-Smith is helping to create the $2 billion international Square Kilometre Array (SKA), which when completed will be the world’s biggest telescope.
[showads ad=MREC] “We’re going to be doing a kind of time travelling,” she said.
“We’re going to look back to the first stars and galaxies that ever existed in the universe.”
As one of the few out astronomers in the world, Harvey-Smith is at the top of her game and has presented with world-famous astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and a few weeks ago opened for legendary astronaut Buzz Aldrin who was in Australia doing a live circuit of shows.
“It was a thrill just being able to share a stage with a true global icon… I’m still getting over it,” she said.
In 2012, the 37-year-old was named one of Sydney’s most influential people by the Sydney Morning Herald’s Sydney Magazine and is the chair of the Astronomical Society of Australia’s Chapter for Women in Astronomy.
She was also recently the recipient of the CSIRO’s highest honour, the Chairman’s Medal.
Born and raised in Essex, England, she discovered her passion for astronomy by accident at the age of 12 when her dad gave her a piece of newspaper moulded to see the planet Mars.
“I found it fascinating and exciting, I was reading loads of books and I was hooked,” she recalled.
Harvey-Smith had the time to indulge her newfound obsession after deciding to not attend school and learn at home.
“I chose to learn at home because of the school uniform, because I would’ve had to have worn a skirt and I couldn’t have done that,” she said.
“I knew from four I wouldn’t wear dresses… and that’s reasonably important looking back to my gender identity.
“I don’t put a label on [my gender], but I don’t feel female or male.”
When Harvey-Smith officially came out at the age of 17 she knew her “family would be wonderful”.
“It wasn’t easy,” she said.
“But that’s the only way to empower myself, it’s the way to grab your power when you’ve been disempowered.”
Harvey-Smith is also aware of her privilege living in a gay-friendly city like Sydney and has turned down opportunities to work overseas in places where she wouldn’t feel safe.
“In the professional community you can be safe with your close colleagues,” she said.
“But when you work in an international environment, you meet people from other countries where it’s illegal to be gay.
“I’ve sadly refused invitations to speak in countries, like in Madagascar, where I don’t feel safe.”
She believes LGBTI rights have come a long way since her university days in the late 90s when she was very politically active and she feels she is now a role model for young people by virtue of the fact she is an out, female astronomer.
“There’s a reticence to be out in every circumstance,” she said.
“The world feels like a really different place, it’s so much better when you’re out because you can be empowered to some degree.”
During the 2015 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, Harvey-Smith hosted Stargayzing, a fun and educational slideshow to teach people about astronomy, which for the first time allowed her sexuality and work to come together.
“We made it fun. People had cocktails and canapés,” she said.
“It felt special, there’s a lot of important things in my life so it was really nice to bring those two parts of me together.
“We look to be whole people… it feels good to be an out, gay scientist.”
The importance of being open about her sexuality dawned upon Harvey-Smith in 2014.
“I told my coming out story to 250 young people at the Luminosity Youth Summit in Port Macquarie,” she said.
“The magic really happened when some of the youngsters approached me afterwards — a couple of them in tears — and were brave enough to tell me the first chapter of theirs.”
**This article was first published in the January edition of the Star Observer, which is available now. Click here to find out where you can grab a copy in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide, Canberra and select regional/coastal areas.
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