Reaching for The Stars: Laurie Rousseau-Nepton Shines Bright as an Indigenous Astronomer
“I was probably in my 20s when I finally knew I was going to be an astronomer,” Laure Rousseau-Nepton explains. Growing up, becoming a scientist or astronomer wasn’t on her radar. These days, she is an astronomer who works in the Canada France Hawaii telescope, an observatory located on Mauna Kea, the tallest mountain on the Big Island of Hawaii and a sacred site for native Hawaiians.
“I remember the first few times I got in touch with more science-y stuff like the solar system, the planets, and learning about that I got really hooked into it,” she recalls, remembering how picked space topics for school projects. She stared at the sky with curiosity, and that led to a career she loves.
She took science in high school and choosing a speciality in university was hard. After spending so much time outdoors hiking and hunting, she wondered about nature and its relationship with the planets and the weather. Rousseau-Nepton realized physics was what she loved but her friends and family suggested something more conventional, like accounting. She had other ideas and a dad who believed in her.
“You're gonna be an astronaut or something, the sky's the limit, you can do anything!” he would say.
She decided not to play it safe and the risk paid off, but she still had her doubts along the way. Her family and friends helped her through those tough times and that’s why she thinks Indigenous youth leaving home to study or pursue a career need to stay connected with family for support. She suggests joining student associations and using Indigenous support services in university to find community and people who understand.
Rousseau-Nepton is one of the first Canadian Indigenous female astronomers and also one of a few women in her field who has a phd, but she has a different perspective on what makes an astronomer.
“If you are studying the sky, no matter what you've studied, for me, inside, you are an astronomer, so I'm sure there are more astronomers and more native astronomers that I might not know, just because they were on a different path,” she asserts. “What is beautiful is just to know how much our ancestors knew about it, and how it was just a natural thing that you would share and that you'd learn and without even knowing it, everybody was kind of a really good astronomer,” she shares.
She hopes more Indigenous people become astronomers, but knows higher education can be tough and life can get in the way. Rousseau-Nepton shares her story to inspire more people to enter the field and that’s why she shares her joy with astronomers of the future through the Connected North Program, the highlight of her day.
“It's just so great, because I get to connect with kids who, just like I was when I was at their age, are passionate about science and they have super good questions,” Rousseau-Nepton beams. Curious questions help her be a better scientist because they keep her constantly thinking. That’s important to her and she considers it her responsibility to improve knowledge in her field.
“I have to share what I learned, what I see in the sky. In Hawaii, they have a special word for that, it's ‘kuleana’. You have the ‘kuleana’ to share what you've learned and I think it's a beautiful principle and every scientist in the world should be doing that more. Sharing it with the youngest is even better, because then you can make a difference,” she explains.
At the beginning of her astronomy career, she was helping build a camera and instrument that takes images of the night sky, unlike anything that had been built before. The science projects she’s done have helped her in her research, studying how stars are forming in the universe and what makes them different depending on where they're born in the universe, and the environment in the universe. After completing the observation with her researchers, they are analyzing the data to better understand star formation.
Next, she wants to develop a more powerful instrument to be used with a camera to see more of the universe. “That's what keeps me going, just the feeling that we can do something special that has never been done before, and learn more about it,” she expresses. Doing things that have never been done before takes time and patience; the results can be 10-15 years away and you might not know how a project is going to turn out.
She suggests keeping hope alive, adapting to the rhythm of how things are unfolding and being ready to change paths as needed. Her advice to aspiring astronomers is to find people who support your dream and who are willing to encourage you along the way who believes in you. Rousseau-Nepton invites youth interested in pursuing astronomy to email her and encourages them to build a network of people who will be supportive.
Rousseau-Nepton explains that astronomy isn’t just studying stars, it can include studying exoplanets, planets, galaxies, and connecting by email with an astronomer who studies what you are passionate about can open the doors to internships at the high school or university level. Internships can happen before the masters degree level and getting to know people can help make that happen.
If she could tell her younger self anything, it would be to believe in herself.
“When you're young, you have this little person in your brain that is telling you that you're not good enough, that you should be the best or that there's someone that is better than you or that you shouldn't be there, that you don't belong there, that you might have made a mistake by choosing that career path or whatever. This little voice that is there is not necessary. If I could tell myself to stop listening to it, and just trust myself and be fully into the adventure without worrying so much, that's what I would tell myself,” she shares.
To maintain her mental health now, she spends time outdoors hiking, running and paddling while enjoying nature.
Being out in nature, staring at the stars and wondering got Laurie Rousseau-Nepton to where she is now, an astronomer who works in the Canada France Hawaii telescope. She looks to the skies from a sacred site in Hawaii, learning about the world like her ancestors did, but with high tech devices and a graduate education. With hard work and the support of her family, she’s shining bright in her industry, like the stars she studies every day, and by engaging with youth, she’s looking to form new stars in the field of Astronomy for years to come.
Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.
Future Pathways Fireside Chats are a project of TakingITGlobal's Connected North Program.
Funding is generously provided by the RBC Foundation in support of RBC Future Launch, and the Government of Canada's Supports for Student Learning program.