14 minute read

Team SKA: Dr Chiara Ferrari – Director, Maison SKA-France

On 7 March 2022, the French national research agency CNRS signed a cooperation agreement with the SKAO, the result of years of work by the Maison SKA-France consortium led by Director Dr Chiara Ferrari. Only a month later, France is imminently (at the time of writing) due to sign the accession agreement which formally starts the process of becoming an SKAO member state following ratification of the Convention in the country.

An active research scientist at the Observatoire de la Côte d’Azur in Nice, Chiara is also chair of the European SKA Forum and an observer to the SKAO Council representing France. We caught up with her to discuss galaxy clusters, French enthusiasm for the SKA project, and how winter sunsets set her on the path to being an astronomer.

A trip down memory lane first, Chiara – what was your childhood like?

I grew up in a small Italian village (Coldirodi) close to the town of Sanremo and the border with France. Young Chiara was very different because I was very shy! I enjoyed reading and studying from a very young age, but I was not isolated, I had a lot of friends.

Where do you trace your love of astronomy back to?

My parents had a rose farm, where my older sister and I spent a lot of time. In the evening when we were leaving the farm to go home, the sunset colours and Venus were often amazingly beautiful, especially in winter. I always wanted to understand what was behind this beauty. It was really through reading that I developed a love for astronomy – I wasn’t on the terrace with a telescope.

When I was around seven I asked my father to buy me a book, which I could not really understand (I wanted an advanced one, not just a book for children!), but I was always studying it, dreaming of the moment I would fully understand it.

Chiara front and centre with childhood pals. “I was - and still am - so happy among friends,” she says.

Chiara front and centre with childhood pals. “I was - and still am - so happy among friends,” she says.

Growing up on a rose farm on the Italian coast sounds idyllic!

It was a really amazing childhood, but it also taught my sister and me that in life you have to work hard. There was extremely demanding, tiring work for my parents behind each single rose. Of course, it also meant that when I was travelling around for my postdoc, I never left my home village without a bunch of roses!

How did that early interest turn into a career as an astronomer?

In high school my physics teacher asked the class if we had ever thought of doing astrophysics, and the more I read about it, the more I liked the idea. I studied astronomy at the University of Bologna, which has a great history of radio astronomy, and then did my PhD in optical astronomy in Nice, which included several trips to Chile to observe with ESO’s telescopes.

From there, a Marie Curie Intra-European postdoctoral fellowship allowed me to go to Innsbruck in Austria, where the astrophysics institute was just being renewed. I stayed there for five years with the fellowship and then an Associate Professor position, before returning to Nice for a permanent position at the Observatoire de la Côte d’Azur in 2008.

With a PhD in optical astronomy, how did you transition to radio astronomy?

Luckily I had a good basis from university, and while I was in Innsbruck I was also free to develop my own research and collaborations. This was when the SKA project was really starting, and the pathfinders and precursors were entering operations, in particular I was involved in LOFAR. It was a good opportunity to start doing radio astronomy again, and then I brought that knowledge back to Nice.

Let’s briefly touch on languages, because like many people in this field you’re operating in several languages on any given day. Is it extra difficult because of the astronomical terms which aren’t really everyday language?

My dream would be to be a person who learns languages very easily, but it takes me time. In the beginning, I was very shy in meetings because of that. With astronomy terms sometimes you don’t know how to translate a word, but actually, the risk is the other way around. Even in French, which is much better than my English, I can talk more easily about astronomy than about everyday life, so I can discuss the intricacies of galaxies but never remember the names of the fish when I’m ordering in a restaurant! Then if I have to speak about astronomy in my native Italian, I am a disaster [laughs].

Speaking of galaxy clusters, your area of specialism, what is it that interests you about them?

The most fascinating thing is the huge amount of physical processes that you can investigate in these systems. Their mass is dominated by the mysterious “dark matter”, and they are observable as thousands of galaxies within an intra-cluster medium (ICM). The different components of the ICM can be observed in X-rays, radio and in sub-millimeter. Galaxies are also excellent physics laboratories because they are complex, made by different components like stars, gas, dark matter. Multi-wavelength analyses allow us to study the physical processes driving galaxy and galaxy cluster evolution. Over the years, I’ve also developed a strong interest in the filaments connecting galaxy clusters, so really huge regions of the sky.

It’s like when you enter a dark room, and you can see only the biggest things; when you switch on the light, you see everything. With galaxy clusters, the SKA will be like switching on the light.

That brings us nicely on to how the SKA telescopes will assist your research.

They will give us the complete view of what we call the non-thermal emission in clusters: radio emission associated with magnetic fields and particular physical phenomena that accelerate or reaccelerate electrons. When you observe just rare events, you observe the extreme cases, but there is a combination of physical processes at work and you can only understand all of them when you have a complete view.

It’s like when you enter a dark room, and you can see only the biggest things; when you switch on the light, you see everything. With galaxy clusters, the SKA will be like switching on the light. Beautiful cluster images recently obtained with SKA precursors and pathfinders start to give a flavour of a renewed radio view of galaxy clusters… And, thanks to my role as SKA-France Director, I have been learning in more and more detail the full potential of the SKAO in a wide range of astronomical, cosmology and fundamental physics domains: I am so impatient to have the two SKA telescopes observing the sky!

Chiara’s travels have included attending the MeerKAT telescope inauguration in South Africa in July 2018.

Chiara’s travels have included attending the MeerKAT telescope inauguration in South Africa in July 2018.

When did you first get involved with the SKA project?

In 2013, when the science working groups were formed. Since then I fell in love with the SKA. At the SKA Science conference in Sicily in 2014 we were asked “What science could you do with these kinds of telescopes, and what more would you need?” This approach of building the observatory with a huge discussion among the community, and having the feeling that as scientists we could help to decide how the SKA telescopes would be from a technological point of view, I enjoyed that a lot. Around that time, I was also invited to a South African SKA Postgraduate Bursary Conference and started to fully realise the scientific and technological impact, but also the societal impact of the SKA.

Like very few others in our partnership, you’ve held roles across the various strands of SKA activity: the governance, the science, the data, and the engineering side of things. Do you have a favourite part of all this?

I’m very grateful to participate in all of these parts because I see how they need to complement each other. Whatever meeting I am in, even the most political discussion, it’s the science that we want to do with the SKAO that is at the centre, but having an overall view can make it easier to identify where to go in order to optimise decisions that depend on so many factors. It is fascinating to see how the different components of such a huge project need to be developed together in order to successfully build the best possible Observatory. It is key to be surrounded by people with whom we can discuss, and from whom we can learn. That’s a very enriching process.

How did your career evolve from conducting your own research to becoming Director of Maison SKA-France?

I discovered that within big projects like the SKA, it’s not only important to have interesting questions, but also to show that there is a connection with technology and innovation. With colleagues at CNRS-INSU and others, I organised the first SKA-France Industry Day in Nice at the end of 2015, which was a big success. After that, CNRS-INSU, along with four initial academic partners (Paris Observatory, Nice Observatory, and the universities of Orléans and Bordeaux) decided to create this SKA France coordination to oversee developments.

I learned that I was named director when I was in Australia about to give a talk and it was one of the most exciting moments of my career. I felt like I was a metre off the ground and I think I gave the best talk of my life! From 2018 to 2020, I have been director of “Maison SKA-France”, a public-private partnership with fourteen members, half from industry, half from academia. This allowed us to work hand-in-hand to prepare the proposal for the French participation in the SKA project.

CNRS recently signed a cooperation agreement with the SKAO and in just a few days, the French Ambassador to the UK will sign the agreement on the accession of France to the SKAO. What can you tell us about the enthusiasm in the French community?

There’s growing interest, of the astronomical community of course, as shown by the successful French participation to the last SKA Science Data Challenge for instance, but also of colleagues from other domains, like computer science, signal processing and applied mathematics. They see the SKAO challenges as exciting use cases for their research.

What do you see as the main benefit to France of becoming a member at a national level, as President Macron committed to in 2021?

Firstly the fact that there are science cases in which the SKA will be unique. For France a keyword is also synergy: the French astronomical community has a strong interest in combining the SKA observations with those coming from other big instruments observing other parts of the electromagnetic spectrum. If we want to understand the physics behind what we observe, we cannot limit ourselves in most cases to just one kind of observation. To understand star formation for instance, you cannot just observe how many stars form (information that you can get, for instance, in optical), but you have to observe how much gas can be transformed into stars and to measure the properties of magnetic fields in star forming regions, and for this you need the SKA.

That’s why I am also involved in the SKA Regional Centre activities, because I strongly believe that enabling a very wide community to use SKA data will be key. We cannot allow ourselves to have SKA data being used only by radio astronomers – they will do a great job, but we will not realise the full potential of the SKA. An astronomer that has always been working with optical, X-ray or infrared telescopes, for example, needs to be able to fully exploit SKA data for their science.

Last but not least, let me stress that SKAO is seen as an important driver for innovation in key fields such a slow environmental impact computing and data centres, or challenges related to the production and management of renewable energy.

Let’s move on to discussing equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI), a big focus for the SKAO, starting with how you view the situation for women in astronomy at the moment.

I think it has improved because we talk a lot about it, which we weren’t really doing until a few years ago. People have to understand that there are biases, then they will accept change much better. However, I’ve heard and still hear phrases like“You are there because you’re a woman and there are not many women.” That’s not very pleasant to hear when you have been working so hard for something.

What do you think at an organisational level the SKAO can do to improve in this area?

It is already doing very well, because SKAO is a younger infrastructure, and its people are extremely conscious of these issues. Keeping initiatives in which women talk about their path is very important, allowing people to show what they can do. Seminars about bias are also extremely useful because they can switch on the light in people’s brain and make them realise their own biases; that includes understanding that sometimes we are very severe with ourselves, too.

These things take time, take awareness, and take people talking about it in a scientific way, especially when you talk to scientists. You need to find a way to show that there is a bias through concrete examples and statistics. I think it will be a long path, but we’re on the right path.

Do you have role models that you look up to in your day-to-day life, perhaps that help your work life too?

My parents, because they knew that the heart and the brain have always to go together in life, and that’s a model for me. Sometimes we think “clever” people only work at a very high intellectual level, but my mother and father worked on the farm in a very clever way. I’m aware that whatever work you do, you can do in a stupid way, or in a smart way, and it’s not because you are an astrophysicist, that you can consider yourself a genius.

I remember people telling me “Don’t do astrophysics, it’s hard to find a job afterwards”, but my parents told me “You are good enough to find solutions, so do what you like. If it works, it works. And if not, you will find another way forward.” When I’m tired, I think about that and these words are still able to motivate me a lot.

It’s clear you work incredibly hard but how do you like to switch off and enjoy life?

My favourite thing is to swim in the Mediterranean Sea – I live close to it and when I jump in the water and I start swimming I feel like a bird flying. Where I live we have both the mountains and the sea, so we have many opportunities to live outdoors, jogging, playing tennis, walking in the mountains, these things make me feel good. I also love flowers [gestures to a collection of orchids in the room], gardening and I like cooking a lot.

Chiara and her partner Alessio have ventured across Europe by motorbike, seen here in Norway.

Chiara and her partner Alessio have ventured across Europe by motorbike, seen here in Norway.

What’s your best dish?

I like to experiment. Probably my best are pasta and risotto, but now, after the COVID-19 lockdown period, I also make very good pizza. I like cooking for friends and making food with friends and family. Unfortunately I lost my father in 2014, but I have my mother and my two grandparents who are nearly 96, the same as Queen Elizabeth, living nearby!

Of course I enjoy spending time with my partner Alessio, who always, always supports me. We have been together since high school. He has a motorbike and we like to travel around. Once we drove from Sanremo to North Cape in Norway, the northernmost point of Europe. When I was a child we could not travel much, and for many years I did not enjoy travelling. But now, also thanks to the SKA, I really feel like a citizen of the world, and I hope that we’ll find these days of travelling freely again.

All photos courtesy of Chiara Ferrari.

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