Laurie Rousseau-Nepton, an Innu out to conquer the stars

An inspiring astrophysicist Laurie Rousseau-Nepton, an Innu out to conquer the stars
Credit: Laurie Rousseau-Nepton
Astrophysicienne inspirante Laurie Rousseau-Nepton, une Innue à la conquête des étoiles
Laurie Rousseau-Nepton, an Innu out to conquer the stars

Series: An inspiring astrophysicist 

This is the start of a series of interviews with Québec women who work in astronomy, woman who’ve made a name for themselves in a field dominated by men. We hope that these accounts will encourage girls to pursue careers in science.

On March 8, 2020, on International Women’s Day, I had the pleasure of meeting Laurie Rousseau-Nepton. A native of the Mashteuiatsh reserve in the Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean region, she’s the first Québec Innu woman to earn a doctorate in astrophysics. Here’s what she agreed to share with me.

Why astrophysics?

“My journey’s been dotted with waves. I always felt I was being steered towards a career as a scientist. Astrophysics is one of the most philosophical sciences, because it tries to find answers to fundamental questions that human beings ask themselves. When I was little I was already asking my parents tons of questions about natural philosophy.”

The spark

“When you’re a child, you’re not aware that you can become an astrophysicist. It was on a cool evening in early summer that everything started for me. My father woke me up in the middle of the night to see the northern lights! Even though he didn’t know why or how the lights appeared in the sky, that was a magical moment I’ve never forgotten. You have to remember that in Québec, this was quite a rare phenomenon.”

A passion from father to daughter

“Quite a few people influenced me to become a scientist and astrophysicist, but it was mostly my family and especially my father. He’s a civil engineer, and my passion for wanting to build things and my manual dexterity I get from him. He always maintained that I’d become an astronaut. Well, it didn’t exactly turn out that way, but almost! Plus he’d predicted that my sister would become a doctor, and she did. So there again he got things right!”

My road to the stars

“At Cégep I was attracted by physics, a science that presents plenty of challenges but that offers fantastic freedom when it comes to problem solving. Then I spent my whole university career at Université Laval, where I finished in 2017. Camelle Robert, who was my supervisor up to my doctorate, encouraged me to keep on going. My master’s and Ph.D. project involved collaborating on the development of the SpIOMM instrument (an imaging spectrometer at the Mont-Mégantic Observatory). The aim of that project was to study the formation of stars in galaxies. My role consisted in refining the observation methodology with the prototype of the SITELLE device (an improved version of the SpIOMM, located at the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope). As this was a unique piece of equipment in the world and the project was as much instrumental as theoretical, all this allowed me to develop a rare expertise in astrophysics. Bear in mind that astrophysics is a highly competitive field: choosing the right Ph.D. topic is very important.”

Where has all this got me?

“Today I’m a resident astronomer at the Canada-France-Hawaii Observatory, which is situated at the summit of the volcano Mauna Kea, in Hawaii. At the moment I’m leading a project called SIGNALS (Star formation, Ionized Gas, and Nebular Abundances Legacy Survey), intended to study chemical abundances and their evolution in galaxies ‒ star formation, in other words.

“Our SIGNALS mapping tracks some 40 to 50 galaxies near the Milky Way, and within two and a half years we’ll have observed 50,000 areas of star formation, which will give us a massive data sample that can be used to study their differences and their characteristics.”

Girls, get a move on!

“What am I most proud of? I’ve never given up, I haven’t taken a step back, I’ve kept on climbing the ladder. I’ve hung on to the little encouragements and forgotten the negative as much as possible. If I had a piece of advice to give girls interested in going into whichever scientific field, it would be to always believe in your abilities and to ride the wave. If I had one for adults, it would be to encourage girls more, to push them in the direction of science, to make an effort when talking to them so that you don’t unconsciously discourage them. It’s the little gestures that make a big difference.”

The entire interview was first published in the journal Hyperespace, the magazine of the Société d’astronomie du Planétarium de Montréal.


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