Kirsten Banks is a rising star of astrophysics, getting people excited about the universe and the importance of combining contemporary and Indigenous knowledge in STEM.
Learn about her path to becoming an astrophysicist and why she thinks continuous learning is so important in this career profile for secondary students.
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Kirsten Banks might be early in her PhD in astrophysics, but in many ways she is the astrophysicist of the future. The proud Wiradjuri woman is bringing together Indigenous knowledge and modern understanding of the universe, she’s already appeared on national TV with Professor Brian Cox, and is a star on Tik Tok with her hilarious space facts.
But this isn’t even where she thought she’d end up. In high school she persisted with Physics despite being the only girl in her class, and then thought she’d end up in engineering. But she decided to change course and realised she had a passion for space. And no one was going to stand in her way.
Now she’s bringing thousands of years of cultural understanding together with modern astrophysics to discover the mysteries of the universe. And she’s having fun doing it.
How did you end up studying a PhD in astrophysics?
I started out my career path by studying a Bachelor of Science with a major in Physics but that’s not what I originally wanted to study.
I actually wanted to study aerospace engineering, but when I looked at the course program you don’t actually study aerospace engineering until third year. How disappointing. I wanted to study aerospace engineering right away, not wait until three years into the degree! So instead I went with Physics because at least I’d be learning physics from day one.
A PhD in astrophysics also wasn’t always on the cards for me. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my degree in my first year or two, but when I started getting more into science communication I thought a PhD was a good “next step”. Plus, how cool does Dr Kirsten Banks sound?! So by the end of my undergraduate degree I applied to join the Honours program and now I’m in the first year of my PhD. Just over three more years until I’m officially Dr Kirsten Banks.
How do you use what you learnt in school?
In school, I was the only girl left standing in my Physics class and I think that prepared me well to work in the very male-dominated field that is astrophysics.
School sets up a great foundation for learning and digesting knowledge, but I learnt a lot more in university than I did in high school. That isn’t just because you learn more things in a degree at university but you’re also forced to figure out things for yourself in university which is a very important learning experience.
One thing that really surprised me and inspires me about working in science now is that you’re constantly learning something new. In high school science classes I got the impression that scientists know what the answer is before they start an experiment. But now I realise that is not the case at all, more often than not when I’m looking at my data and see something that doesn’t immediately make sense I say, “Wow, that’s interesting!”
What’s really cool about working in scientific research is that you’re constantly pushing the boundaries of knowledge.
So what does an astrophysicist actually do during a day?
Well, that depends on whether I’m working during the day or the night.
On a typical day, I wake up, make myself some tea, and start looking at my scientific data. A lot of my work can be done from my laptop so I can do it almost anywhere!
Coding is very important in my research. My favourite part about coding and looking at my data is making pretty plots and figures. There is a level of creativity when it comes to making scientific plots, you need to make sure you’re presenting your data in an understandable way not only for yourself but for others in the scientific community and I find that strikes a very creative nerve in my body!
On the other hand, sometimes I work at night when I’m collecting data with a telescope. Usually, that means waking up after 12 pm (my training as a teenager sleeping in past midday has finally paid off), making some tea and getting ready for the night of observing. Once you get the hang of it, observing is pretty straight forward.
There’s surprisingly a lot of down time when observing too because we observe our targets for at least ten minutes at a time, sometimes even up to an hour at a time if they’re really faint targets. I sometimes work during the downtime, but honestly, there’s often a tab open on my laptop playing Netflix to pass the time!
Why is it important more Indigenous people get opportunities in science/astronomy?
Science and astronomy is part of our culture; Indigenous people were the first scientists and astronomers of this land. Our astronomical knowledge dates back tens of thousands of years and that legacy lives through us.
On top of that, everyone deserves a chance and the opportunity to pursue their dreams, goals and ambitions but that’s very difficult when those opportunities just don’t exist for some people. We need to better as a community to make sure everyone gets a fair go so that everyone gets the chance and opportunity to chase their dreams.
How much is traditional Indigenous knowledge linked with a modern approach to astrophysics?
The links between Aboriginal astronomical traditions and contemporary astronomy are everywhere, some are obvious and others are incredibly subtle.
While some Aboriginal astronomical knowledge may seem like simple stories there is science thinly woven into them.
There is a beautiful story about the Southern Cross, which is a tree, and the southern pointers, that represent two cockatoos. When the tree (Southern Cross) was put up into the sky the two cockatoos followed the tree into the sky because that was their home, and they’re constantly following their home in the sky.
What’s beautiful about this story is that it reflects how these stars move in the sky due to the rotation of the Earth. As the Earth rotates, the southern pointers always follow behind the Southern Cross in the night sky. The night sky is a canvas for our stories and the science is still right there.
Do you think astrophysics will have changed in 10 years?
I think astrophysics will be more inclusive and collaborative in the future. With more inclusivity and collaboration I think we can achieve great things.
My biggest hope for the astrophysics community, in terms of discoveries, is that in ten years time we know the composition of dark matter. Other than that, I’m sure many new great discoveries are right over the horizon!
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