Women in the High-Energy Universe: Belinda Wilkes

Belinda Wilkes is a senior astrophysicist at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory who specializes in the study of supermassive black holes in the centers of galaxies. She is also the Director for the Chandra X-ray Center.

SAO building

How did I get interested in astronomy and science? I was always good at math, since primary school, and this broadened into being good at physics once in middle and high school. I became interested in astronomy during my “A level” physics course (last two years of high school in the UK). I am not sure what triggered it, perhaps reading New Scientist articles or studying Kepler's laws as part of the course. I also read Hoyle's "The Nature of the Universe" about continuous creation, and was fascinated. I then decided to include astronomy in my undergraduate courses and made university applications accordingly. Once there, I continued to love the application of physics to astronomy and continued on to a PhD in astronomy.

I didn’t really have specific experiences or events that led to my current career. However, my high school physics teacher was very good, and my father was a mechanical engineer. I am sure both facts had an influence, but neither had any particular knowledge of astronomy. Each step I took was a clear choice at the time: going to graduate school, going to the US on a 2-year post-doctoral fellowship, coming to the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory when I was offered a job (which is when I moved from optical to X-ray astronomy -- by chance really), and staying here when I had continued opportunities to do so.

I truly like many things about my job, including the intellectual challenges in all aspects of the work; the freedom to continue my research career; the ability to interact with and "serve" the community (the Chandra observers) and share my/our work with others (the public); working with and leading the Chandra Director’s Office; and, the fascinating discoveries and studies of places and conditions that are so different from those here on Earth.

My advice to anyone who might be interested in pursuing a career similar to mine is this: Follow your heart and your abilities rather than a specific career path. The career choice and your success in it will follow from your love of and dedication to your work.

Once you have decided on a career, plan the next step(s) along the way, but be flexible -- there is always more than one way to get there.

Be pro-active. For example, visit places you think might be good in the future, e.g. universities you may wish to attend, departments/observatories where you may wish to work in future. Personal contacts are still very important for each step you take.

Look for and take additional opportunities, e.g. summer work/courses relevant to your favorite subject(s). (As an undergraduate student at St. Andrews, I attended a summer course at the Royal Greenwich Observatory and was a summer student at the Royal Observatory Edinburgh, both helped me to decide to continue in astronomy and provided contacts I still have today).

Make sure you are working with good people, but make sure you also like them! If you are not happy, you will not do well however good you are.

Don't be afraid to make a change if you find that you are not happy or are not going in the right direction.

Never give up on your dreams/aims, but be patient, they will not be achieved overnight.

Have faith in yourself and your abilities. (My first week at St. Andrews as an undergraduate planning to study astronomy, I was worried I had picked the wrong course when the first astronomy students I met knew all the constellations and had had telescopes since they were 6! I had not. In the end many of them dropped out early - university level astronomy, with all the Math and Physics involved, was not what they were interested in.)

Don't let societal, social (or other) pressures deflect you from what you really want to do or who you want to be.

As you take each step, you will also need to consider location and lifestyle, and to be flexible about this. Again there are many ways/places to succeed in most careers. I grew up in the UK and am now in the US. But many people have been successful in astronomy without moving country, or by moving to countries other than the USA (Europe, Australia, S. America).

Belinda Wilkes

Attending international conferences and meetings is important to get yourself known and advertise your work, wherever you are based.

You only have one life -- make the most of it!

-Belinda Wilkes

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