She studies the stars


Have you ever heard of an asteroseismologist? We hadn’t, either.

Introduction by Kasey Jackson, photo by Rob Stevens/KU Leuven

Meet Conny Aerts

She’s won too many scientific awards and prizes to name and has studied fields and disciplines most of us can barely pronounce. As a researcher of stellar physics — including stellar structure, stellar evolution, variable stars and asteroseismology — Conny Aerts has her eyes fixed on the skies. But her multiple jobs as an educator keep her feet firmly planted on the ground. Aerts, who received her master’s degree in mathematics from Antwerp University and defended her Ph.D. in astrophysics at the University of Leuven, has studied in Europe, Chile and the United States. She’s held teaching positions in both Belgium and the Netherlands. She’s worked with the European Space Agency, is a member of the Scientific Board of the Royal Observatory of Belgium and the steering committee of the NASA Kepler Asteroseismic Science Consortium. If you’re interested in learning more about her background and accomplishments, you can read her résumé. But make sure you set aside some time — it’s an impressive and somewhat overwhelming 66 pages long.

Kiwanis magazine asked a few elementary and middle school students what questions they’d like to ask an asteroseismologist from Belgium. Here’s what they came up with.

What exactly is asteroseismology?
Asteroseismology is the study of starquakes, with the aim to understand what is going on in the interiors of stars. This interior is unfortunately not accessible, because the stars are millions of kilometers away and we only receive the light that they emit from their surface. So we cannot look “inside” the star. That is the big difference with a physicist who can do lab experiments. Our labs are far away, in outer space. But just as earthquakes allow seismologists of the Earth to deduce the physics of the iron core of our planet, starquakes allow the asteroseismologist to derive the physical conditions in the cores of stars. 

What project are you proudest of?
We made the first estimation of how the core of a massive star rotates in 2003, from starquakes measured with telescopes on Earth over a span of 20 years! This was published in the magazine Science, which is of the highest standard to announce new scientific results and discoveries. This result opened the study of starquakes of stars that will later explode as supernova at the end of their life.

I helped my Ph.D. students to make major discoveries from data of starquakes about the properties of the cores of various types of stars, both young and very old stars. These three studies were again published in Science and Nature. 

How did it make you feel to complete your first successful project?
Well, my first successful project was the development of a new method to interpret starquakes. It took me four years to develop the method, and it involved a lot of mathematics. I like that, and I’m proud that the method is still used by astrophysicists today.

If I want to work as an astronaut someday, what should I study in college?
The best thing to study in secondary school is in any case mathematics and physics. Astrophysics involves a lot of mathematical physics, and so one needs to have a solid understanding of these two topics to get a degree in astrophysics. One can become an astronaut either through a Ph.D. degree in astrophysics or else a Ph.D. degree in engineering. These are the academic paths. But various astronauts follow a military route as pilot. In all of those cases, one needs a solid mathematical background.

Educating students has always been top priority on my to-do list. I guess that’s my “astromama” nature.

Why should girls study STEM?
Because it’s so much fun! And even more important: because it is so fascinating and interesting. I always say to kids that they have to study what they are most interested in, without thinking of the job market. The reason is simple: An education in STEM will automatically lead to a glorious situation on the job market, because we have far too few STEMers. Particularly, we lack girls with STEM diplomas!

Various recent surveys on what 12-year-old kids, both boys and girls, find the most interesting question to answer led to one and the same winner question: “Is there life outside the Earth in the Universe?” If you also find this an interesting question, then go for the answer! This can be done by studying any of the four studies for which STEM stands: science, technology, engineering or mathematics. Finding the answer to that winner question involves a lot of aspects, from satellite building to deep mathematical computations and anything in between that.

And a real bonus: In all circumstances, such STEM studies will lead to challenging jobs where students are already headhunted prior to having obtained their diploma because our knowledge-based societies need a lot more STEMers than there are at present. For girls, this is a hole in the market, because there are so few. That is mainly due to wrong and stereotypical image-forming. That’s a pity, because girls are very clever and can bring a lot of contribution and diversity to STEM jobs. So go for it, girls!

What’s more rewarding: Studying the stars and space or teaching others about stars and space?
Educating students has always been top priority on my to-do list. I guess that’s my “astromama” nature. Of course I do both, but I spend a lot more time in teaching students and the general public than doing my own personal research.

What are some of the important jobs in the area of space study going to be when I graduate college between 2021 and 2023?
Oh, this is the perfect question: There is a real problem to fill in all the vacancies that will occur in space science the coming decade. The reason is that space science got a real boost in the 1970s thanks to space exploration. Now, all those who entered this job market are about to retire between now and the next 10 years. Moreover, we need a lot more technology development now compared to some 30 years ago, because our society has evolved so much toward a technologically driven society. So there are some 30,000 jobs to fill in Europe (and probably similar for other continents) in the next decade. STEMers have a guaranteed job, and this is even more so for the space scientists among the STEMers.

I didn’t have much science in elementary school. How can someone help ensure schools are teaching STEM classes? Do we as everyday people have the power to change what is taught in our schools?
It’s important that everybody, whatever background or education, keep on stressing to our ministers of education how important STEM education is. It’s also important to make sure that STEM education, and astrophysics in particular, is taught starting from modern knowledge of the universe. Not because we want all boys and girls to become astrophysicists, but because it is known that astrophysics is an extremely appealing topic to get students into STEM education. Most students then move on to jobs in industry or teaching, and that is precisely what we want.

Do you have advice for someone wanting to work for the space program?
Study what is most interesting to you. Motivation is everything. And don’t let yourself be scared off by barriers. Space exploration has infinite opportunities. And for the girls: Do it your way, even if different from everybody else. That’s how I became a professor in astrophysics and a mama of kids at the same time.

About Conny Aerts:
Kiwanis connection: Aerts is not a Kiwanian. But she did receive the Kiwanis Prize for post-doctoral research in Science & Technology of the University of Leuven, which she received in 1998. This prestigious award is given annually to a post-doctoral researcher with less than five years of experience, as judged by the Research Council of the University of Leuven.

This story originally appeared in the August 2015 issue of Kiwanis magazine.

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