Professor Patricia Whitelock talks about her journey to becoming an astrophysicist

Success is not a straight line. It happens through constant effort and mistakes are part of the journey. In this article, you will hear from Prof. Patricia Whitelock and her journey to becoming a renowned astrophysicist and a leader in Science. You will see that her success was not without its share of challenges and failures, but the constant effort and passion gave gratifying results. Please read more about her achievements here

Q:  Have you always wanted to be an astronomer?

A:  Only since I was about 9 or 10 years old.

Q:  What are some of the challenges you’ve faced on your path to becoming an astronomer?

A:  I struggled most when I was very young because it took me a long while to learn to read and even longer to learn to spell; these are things most people sail through and don’t remember. So early in life, I failed at some of the most crucial things needed for learning. Fortunately, my parents were always supportive, though mystified as to why anyone would want to be an astronomer.

I was born and brought up in England and at age 11 I failed the eleven-plus exam, which suggested I had no academic ability. This was a test of English, Arithmetic and IQ; it was only the English part I failed, but it was a major setback.  Fortunately, at high school, I had some wonderful teachers, for science, mathematics and English, who supported me in selecting the right subjects and passing at the right level.  At university, I had good teachers, but I also developed friendships with fellow students, mostly men, and we helped each other.  I graduated with first-class honours.

Q: Being the first woman to become the president of SAIP, what challenges did you face?

A:  When I first started attending SAIP meetings, around 1985, the environment was not friendly towards women at all, and a contrast to my general experience at astronomy meetings. At the SAIP social events, it was normal practice for the senior Council members to tell extremely sexist jokes, of the sort you would never hear these days.  It was also not uncommon for people to start their talks with “good morning gentlemen”, even when there were a few women in the audience. 

The first time I ever attended a SAIP Council meeting in 1990, after being elected head of the astrophysics group, but not yet a Council member, one of the Council members tried to order a drink from me thinking I must be a waitress. Things changed gradually and when I was elected onto Council, in 1997, I felt very welcome. Indeed, by the time I was elected President, in 2001, I had very strong support from others, all men. At the time I was elected President, I was fortunate that Edmund Zingu was elected as the first Black Vice-President. Edmund was very wise and he and I worked very well together.

Q:  What did you enjoy about leading SAIP?

A:  The main challenge at the time was the very depressed state of physics in South Africa, with little funding and difficulty attracting students into the field. I started the “future of physics” initiative, which Edmund Zingu, as my successor, saw through to completion. This gradually led to the strengthening of the discipline in many ways. It has been wonderful to see the various sub-disciplines thrive and the number of women involved increase, although the numbers of women in physics remain small. Astrophysics does better than most other areas in this regard.

I was the first astronomer to be President of SAIP, and this was an exciting time for astronomy. The Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) was almost complete and we were working towards South African participation in the Square Kilometer Array (SKA). It was particularly good to be able to invite Ron Ekers, Director of the Australia Telescope, from whom I had first heard about the SKA in 1989, to give a keynote lecture at the SAIP conference and to meet the scientific and political role players in South African astronomy.

I did not dream at the time that South Africa and Australia would eventually share the honour of hosting this telescope, but I believe I played a role in making that happen.

Q:  What are the best lessons from your leadership roles in the science world?

A:  The successes that I am happiest about all involved working with other people, and particularly in persuading other people to work together. I think in particular of the National Astrophysics and Space Science Programme (NASSP). We started this in 2001 and brought together the top people from astronomy and space physics from all over South Africa. NASSP is a PhD feeder programme preparing students to do research in multi-wavelength astrophysics or space physics. We could only be internationally competitive because people from different institutions were prepared to work together, sometimes against the wishes of their home university.

We are so very much stronger together than we are alone.  Make allies and make friends, work across boundaries and divisions and develop pathways that enable everyone to win. It’s amazing what you can achieve if you don’t mind who takes the credit!

Q:  In your experience, are women well represented in leadership roles in Astronomy?

A:  No, but it is improving. Women are increasingly well represented in astronomy, although it varies around the world. There have been women Presidents of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) and women Presidents of most of its Divisions and Commissions. There are women directors of observatories and heads of astronomy departments in universities. Women are still outnumbered by men and there are countries where they are greatly outnumbered, but the situation has improved dramatically in my lifetime.

For my first 20 years in South Africa, I was the only woman with a PhD on the staff of the SAAO. Now about 40% of the research staff are women, including some senior managers. There has been a woman, Renée  Kraan-Korteweg, head of the Astronomy Department at the University of Cape Town. There are no black women in senior positions yet, but there are some very good ones around, so that will happen soon.

Q:  Do you think society is doing well with increasing interest in Astronomy for females?

A:  I am not at all sure that it is the responsibility of society to interest women, or men, in astronomy! Society must appreciate the importance of science and the way science functions, but it is our responsibility as scientists to tell people about that, which is not always easy and we do not always do it very well. It is important to have as wide a variety of people as possible engage in science, and engage with each other about science, this means women and men across all cultures and backgrounds.

It is important to understand that science is advanced by people with different views and perspectives, discussing, and arguing about the problems that engage us. It is also important to appreciate that knowledge is not suddenly revealed in its entirety, that we will get it wrong along the way and we should not be afraid of that or to admit when it has happened. In astronomy, Pluto makes a great example.

When it was first discovered we thought it was a planet, but as we learned more and discovered many more objects like Pluto and even planets around other stars, we realized there were many bodies like Pluto in the solar system and it was not a planet. No one made a mistake, our understanding simply grew as we made more and better observations.

Q:  If you had the resources and opportunity how would you make outreach toward small communities?

A:  Early education is vital, so we need to provide and support really good teachers who will nurture children’s curiosity, and encourage them not to give up when they do not immediately succeed. I am convinced that the fact that I struggled with reading and writing early in life prepared me to deal better than many others with the really difficult challenges later in my schooling.  We could do so much more to help teachers and to honour those who are good. Then there are wonderful resources for young children, for example, Universe Awareness (, which not only encourages curiosity but also helps children appreciate the commonalities among people from different countries with different cultures.

Q:  Did you know exactly which path to take to get to where you are in your career today? Please tell us how you got here?

A:  I was born and brought up in England and did not know how to go about becoming an astronomer, nor did I know any astronomers. So I wrote to Patrick Moore, the star of The Sky at Night, a UK TV programme that I watched avidly. He responded in detail, telling me to go to university and study physics unless I was 100% sure I wanted to be an astronomer in which case I could study astronomy at London University.

It was good advice and not very different from what I tell young people now. I went to London University, did a BSc in astronomy, then a PhD in astrophysics. England is an awful place to do astronomy, so the observation for my PhD was done from Tenerife in the Canary Islands. There I met an Australian Astronomer who was a postdoc at Oxford University. Eventually, I married the Australian and we both got jobs at the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) in Cape Town. South Africa has a great climate for astronomy – in the Northern Cape, not Cape Town. I have been there ever since except for a wonderful 18 months at the Anglo Australian Observatory in 1989/90. I did research, working with colleagues from SAAO and the international community.

I also did coding for astronomical instrumentation and for reducing astronomical data. Later on, I got involved in public relations, outreach and education as well as in management, eventually as director.

Q:  If you could guide a high school female on a path to become a successful, leader figure in Astronomy, what steps would you prompt her to take? Or how would you advise her?

A:  If you want to understand how the universe works, how galaxies, stars and planets form, evolve and die, and if you are prepared to work hard to gain that understanding, then you may want to become an astronomer.

Get good advice, talk to lots of people and think hard about what you want to do and why. The advice may be conflicting so you will have to make your own decisions, but get as much input as you can. Talk to men and women; some you will relate to much better than others. It is much more important to find someone who thinks like you than someone who looks like you!   

There will be problems along the way and occasionally people you can’t work with and can’t trust, women and/or men. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do it and don’t have the ability, but do recognize that becoming a professional astronomer will be hard work and take a lot of perseverance.

In a more practical sense, it is vital that you study mathematics (NOT mathematical literacy), physical science and English at school and do well in them. Information Technology would also be very useful and you should take whatever opportunities you get to learn about computers and coding.  You should aim to go to university and study astronomy, mathematics or physics. If you do maths or physics, try to go to a university that allows you to do some astronomy courses as part of the degree. After you graduate, you will need to go on to honours, masters and PhD degrees. It’s a lot of work so it also has to be fun. There are opportunities to get out and get a good job along the way (people with good degrees in physics or astronomy are qualified to do almost anything), but it is a career path you should only choose if you enjoy it. 

Later in life, it is vital you choose the right partner, particularly if you are going to have children. You need to find someone who understands how important astronomy is to you and who will be a real partner and take his, or her, part in everything you do, including bringing up the children. Astronomers are generally internationally mobile, so it also helps to have a partner who is prepared to live in another country when you need to do so!