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Nathalie Ouellette: a passion for galaxies

In front of the James Webb Space Telescope at the Northrop Grumman facility
Credit: Amélie Philibert
In front of the James Webb Space Telescope at the Northrop Grumman facility
  • In front of the James Webb Space Telescope at the Northrop Grumman facility
  • Observation of the transit of Venus in June 2012
Nathalie Ouellette: a passion for galaxies

Series: An inspiring astrophysicist

We’re continuing our series of interviews with Québec women who work in the field of astrophysics, hoping that these testimonials will inspire girls to undertake a career in the sciences.

This time we present the life journey of Nathalie Ouellette, scientific coordinator for the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) as well as at the Institute for Research on Exoplanets (iREx).

What led you to astronomy?

I always loved science! I knew by the age of five that I wanted to go into that field. I was raised in an environment that was very open to science. Both my parents incidentally are engineers.

I also love nature a lot. When I was younger I read a great deal. Not a lot of works of fiction, but books that talked about nature in general.

I’m not someone who likes to understand objects by handling them. I’m more of an observer. Which is an aspect of astronomy that I appreciate: the observational side is very important. I find that truly fascinating.

Are there people who inspired your career choice?

My parents always supported me in my career path. My mother, being a woman who worked in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), was a great source of inspiration. I noticed that in certain cases she didn’t get as much respect as her male colleagues, yet she managed to get through that sort of ordeal. But at the same time she never said to me that she was having those difficulties because she was a woman. Before I got to university, the stereotype of women being less good at science never entered my mind. Also, by the time I arrived there I’d already acquired confidence in myself. My mother protected me from those stereotypes.

Secondly, there was a high-school physics teacher who had a passion for astronomy and was in charge of the robotics club. I would stay after class to ask him questions. He took the time to encourage me and help me explore my interests.

Can you tell us about your first observations of the night sky?

I had really memorable experiences looking at the sky when I was young, in particular when I saw Comet Hale-Bopp in 1997. I remember that I never saw stars from our home in Montréal. But what happened, I was out in front of our house, I looked up at the sky and I saw a comet! I remember doing it a few nights in a row. I couldn’t get over that there was this ball of rock and snow really far away in the sky. I was dumbfounded!

I also had some beautiful nights at our cottage looking at the Perseids with my father.

What was your academic career like?

During the summers when I was doing my bachelor’s in physics at McGill University I worked on research projects having to do with distant galaxies. I realized that research was very different from classroom work, and that I really loved it.

I then did a master’s and a doctorate with Stéphane Courteau at Queens University in Ontario. That was when I got interested in the evolution of galaxies in the Virgo cluster. And to this day I’ve been studying the factors that influence galaxy evolution within clusters.

During the years I spent at Queens University I was coordinator of the campus observatory, where I took care of public and educational programs. That gave me an excellent foundation in science popularization.

After my studies I was hired as coordinator of public and educational programs at the Arthur B. McDonald Canadian Astroparticle Physics Research Institute. This was a new center where everything needed to be done. It was an intense year, but very rewarding.

After that I had the opportunity of coming back to Montréal. That’s when I took the position of scientific coordinator for the JWST and at Université de Montréal’s iREx.

What advice would you give girls who’d like to follow in your footsteps?

A piece of advice that might seem difficult to follow, but which for me has truly been the secret of my success, and that is to always strive for things and try your luck, even if you think it won’t work out. In the worst case, it doesn’t work out, you learn a lesson, and you try again later on.

If you’re interested in research but you don’t have a grant and your academic results aren’t the best, go see a teacher and say, I’m really excited about this. Teachers aren’t only looking for people with the best marks. They look a lot for passion and motivation. Try everything that comes to mind. That way you can learn even if the result isn’t as positive as you’d have liked. Just plough ahead!

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