Astrophysicist Julieta Fierro shines a light on women in STEM

17 Apr 2015

Astrophysicist Julieta Fierro. Photo: Benedict Shegog

The Mexican astrophysicist and communicator celebrated the science of light at Trinity event and called for a “revolution” for women in STEM.

Attending a lecture by Professor Julieta Fierro is an all-in experience. Not only does she expertly weave stories about science and history using inventive props (including a cuddly toy eagle), but the audience is likely to be showered with coins, sweets and anything else the astrophysicist decides to throw to them, and audience members are frequently brought up to take part in hands-on demonstrations. 

The Schrodinger Theatre in Trinity College Dublin was the scene yesterday of such a public lecture on astronomy and a smaller masterclass on women in optics by Fierro as part of the UNESCO International Year of Light.

Revolution required

Fierro, who is at the Institute for Astronomy at UNAM, Mexico’s National University, spoke candidly about the pressures she faced as a child who excelled at maths in school but who needed to go it alone to build her career, and as a mother juggling her family commitments and her research on the chemical composition of galaxies.  

“I think young women have to make a revolution,” she tells “My generation made a mistake – all you young women are always tired and overburdened, you feel you have to be good mothers and lovers and good at your jobs, and it was a mistake.”

And Fierro is all for making the system better fit the needs of women who want to have children. “We need to have a different school system where women can have their children when they are young and then go back to school and have good scholarships and prizes when they are older,” she says. 

Astronomy, Mesoamerican style

Fierro’s own career has seen her shine both as a researcher and a communicator – she has written dozens of books and has made radio and TV programmes to inspire interest in science. 

That talent for storytelling was evident in her lecture yesterday on the astronomy in Mesoamerica stretching from Mexico through Central America from about 600 BC to the 16th century. “For the Mesoamerican people, the astronomer was a person who tossed his eyes to the sky, and the stars were the eyes of the sky,” she says, citing several instances where natural elements of the landscape and man-made constructions such as pyramids were used to track the path of the Sun and develop seasonal and ritual calendars.

And, interestingly, while The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy cites 42 as the tongue-in-cheek ‘Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything’, the Mesoamerican culture went 10 better, with 52 as a key figure. 

The ritual and seasonal calendars aligned every 52 years, explains Fierro, and this was marked by burying pyramids, extinguishing fires and breaking pottery – starting again. 

The group that attended yesterday’s masterclass, including Mexico’s Ambassador to Ireland Mr Carlos Garcia de Alba (second row, second from the left). Photo: Benedict Shegog

Light in the 21st century

Astronomers continue to rely on light to understand the universe today, notes Fierro. “[Based on] light we can know what objects are made out of, their age, distance from us, their chemical composition and their history,” she says.

In the UNESCO International Year of Light she hopes that people will gain a deeper appreciation of what light can enable in the 21st century. 

“There are so many applications in photonics, and new instruments that are being built thanks to light studies, so I think we have a great future with light,” she says. “And I would love for people to be aware of the importance of basic science – people sometimes don’t realise things like a cellphone come from basic science research that took many many years to be developed – the light detectors for the cameras comes from light [research], the transportation of energy comes from radiation. Cellphones are a wonderful invention but they are completely based on research that was supposed to be useless.”

The Focus on Women in Light event was supported by the Mexican Embassy in Dublin, Women in Technology and Science (WITS), the IOP Women in Physics Group and WiSER.

Women Invent Tomorrow is Silicon Republic’s campaign to champion the role of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. It has been running since March 2013, and is kindly supported by Accenture Ireland, Intel, the Irish Research Council, ESB, Twitter, CoderDojo and Science Foundation Ireland.

Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication