Meet the Irish NASA scientist on the Forbes 30 under 30 list

11 May 2022

Image: Caoimhe Rooney

Caoimhe Rooney is the sole mathematician in a group of astrophysicists at the NASA Ames Research Center. She told SiliconRepublic.com about studying exoplanets and the challenges of working with data that is literally out of this world.

Last week, Forbes released its latest 30 under 30 list for Europe, which featured three Irish visionaries including NASA research scientist Caoimhe Rooney.

Born in Belfast, Rooney studied pure maths at Trinity College Dublin before undertaking her PhD in applied maths at the University of Oxford. She also participated in the International Space University’s Southern Hemisphere Space Studies Program in 2018.

Future Human

Following her inclusion on the Forbes list, Rooney told SiliconRepublic.com that she has always been innately curious, so STEM was a natural interest for her.

“When it came to space, I was mesmerised by the night sky and staring at the stars, and I loved how unknown and unexplored it was. I always longed to contribute to the understanding and exploration of space and the universe.”

Working at NASA

Now, Rooney works as a mathematician at the NASA Ames Research Center in California, studying exoplanet atmospheres to understand how they formed, what they’re made of, and if they could be home to extra-terrestrial life.

“We can’t go to these planets because they are extremely far away, so we rely on telescopes looking deep into the universe to get a glimpse at them. These telescopes detect light from the planets and we break this light up into its different wavelengths, sort of like a rainbow,” she said.

“The result is what we call the planetary spectra and it can tell us what the planet is made of, its temperature and other characteristics. I work on the theoretical side of these studies, writing and solving mathematical models that simulate how these atmospheres scatter and absorb light to produce the spectra we see, and what different gases and chemical species must be present in the atmosphere to do this.”

While she was fascinated by the night sky from a young age, Rooney said she didn’t expect her degree or PhD to lead to her current role. It was just her love of maths that led her through education, and along the way she started to see how her mathematical research knowledge could be applied to the space sector.

‘Women are significantly outnumbered in the physical sciences, so that has to change’
– CAOIMHE ROONEY

“I started to seek out opportunities that allowed me to bridge these two passions. Participating in the International Space University Southern Hemisphere Space Studies Program was an important part of my journey, as it gave me my first real experience within the space sector,” she said.

“After that, there was no doubt that I wanted to pursue a career in space. Being awarded the NASA Postdoctoral Program Fellowship was the most incredible opportunity and I am so grateful to my supervisor Prof Mark Marley for taking the chance on me!”

Rooney is now the sole mathematician in a room full of astrophysicists at NASA Ames Research Center, which she said is incredibly stimulating.

“We work as a team, each bringing our own specialty to the table, and I’ve tried to absorb as much as I can from the expertise of my colleagues. We’ve discovered that I am much more comfortable when given a system of equations rather than a written paragraph that explains the same phenomenon,” she said.

“I feel very lucky to work alongside my research team at NASA and contribute to the exciting projects we’ve been working on.”

Space research

While working at NASA and researching space is exciting, Rooney said it’s not without its challenges.

“It can be difficult to validate the mathematical models due to the limitations of the data we get back from telescopes. The physics and maths required to accurately model a planetary atmosphere is extremely involved and complicated, so we need to think carefully about what the most important aspects are to include, and what are the least detrimental to neglect,” she explained.

“To test whether we made the right decision, we must compare our models to real data from the telescopes, but this is not straightforward due to limitations in the resolution of the data and the wavelengths we can observe.”

However, with the launch of the new James Webb Space Telescope late last year, Rooney said that researchers will “soon be blessed” with higher resolution data extending to longer wavelengths. “This is very exciting.”

An often-challenging area of a career in research is having to explain why a particular area of focus is important. For Rooney, getting a better picture of how the universe was formed and how it evolved is critical.

“I think that anyone who studies space and planetary science has a greater appreciation for the uniqueness and fragility of our own planet and how truly lucky we are that the Earth satisfies the conditions for life as we know it,” she said.

“I think it’s also very important to educate the public and the younger generations about the research we’re doing so that everyone can appreciate the wonder of our universe and inspire the next generation of scientists and change-makers.”

Diversity in STEM

While change has been happening in the STEM industry in terms of gender balance, Rooney said there’s a lot more work to be done – especially in maths and science, which are “genderised at a very early age”.

“You only have to walk up and down the aisles of a toy store to see that the science and engineering toys are in the boys’ aisles and significantly lacking amongst the girls’ toys. We need to begin fuelling girls’ curiosity and scientific thinking as early as we do for boys.”

Rooney has already been doing her own work to try combat this. Outside of her role at NASA, she is also the co-founder of Mathematigals, an educational outreach initiative that aims to make maths fun and accessible for young girls.

“I think everyone has thought to themselves, ‘When am I ever going to use this?’ when studying maths in school. And maths certainly has the stigma of being hard and boring. We are hoping to change that by showing how maths underpins everything but doing this in such a way that it’s fun and comprehensible to everyone,” she said.

“Women are significantly outnumbered in the physical sciences, so that has to change, but even the ones that are already in maths are not being showcased and celebrated. We want to give those women a platform to share their contribution to their fields and be role models for young girls who are interested in STEM.”

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Jenny Darmody is the deputy editor of Silicon Republic

editorial@siliconrepublic.com