Astrophysicists Marie-Eve Naud, Frédérique Baron and Nathalie Ouellette are at the heart of outreach efforts, to people of all ages, at the Institute for Research on Exoplanets (iREx).
From making astronomy accessible to children to sharing discoveries by its research teams, the Trottier Institute for Research on Exoplanets (iREx) at Université de Montréal boasts three astrophysicists who promote and support scientific culture among the general public, including young people, and are passionate about exploring the vastness of the universe.
Marie-Eve Naud, Frédérique Baron and Nathalie Nguyen-Quoc Ouellette occupy important strategic roles at iREx, which brings together the best researchers and their students and whose ultimate goal is to find life outside Earth.
As the scientific and education coordinator for public outreach at iREx, Marie-Eve Naud has been with the Institute since 2017 and is mainly dedicated to scientific communications and education activities.
Frédérique Baron, who arrived not long after Naud, is a scientific mediator at the Mont-Mégantic Observatory (OMM) and at iREx, where she is also responsible for astronomical instrumentation projects at the Experimental Astrophysics Laboratory.
A coordinator for iREx since 2018, Nathalie Ouellette now works as deputy director of iREx and OMM. She also serves as an outreach scientist for the James Webb Space Telescope, in collaboration with the Canadian Space Agency.
These three women, who each hold a Ph.D. in astrophysics, talk with us about their career trajectories and their aspirations for the future of iREx.
At what point in your life did you get hooked on science and astrophysics?
Marie-Eve Naud: I was not passionate about astronomy as a child, but I was very curious about everything and raised my hand too often in class. Actually, it was the big philosophical questions that first appealed to me. I was fascinated by the question “Are we alone in the universe?” I wasn’t especially good at physics, but as time went by, I realized that my questions were echoed in the answers that science could provide. After interviewing Robert Lamontagne and René Doyon as part of an integrative project at CEGEP, I found my calling and enthusiastically began studying astrophysics and astrobiology, with a strong interest in popularizing science.
Frédérique Baron: I’m not one of those people who became an astrophysicist because they loved looking at the sky and the stars when they were children - really not! But I did have a strong interest in science. I used to read the kids' magazine “Les petits débrouillards” and enjoyed collecting rocks; I still have a collection of them today. I didn’t like physics in high school, but I studied pure sciences at CEGEP, with a focus on geology. Then I really discovered physics, and my professors encouraged me to go on to university, where I was first drawn to condensed matter, and then became interested in astronomy, more specifically in exoplanets.
Nathalie Ouellette: My profile is more stereotypical than that of my colleagues. As a child, I had two scientific role models at home. Both my parents were engineers, including my mother, a Vietnamese immigrant who has been building airplanes since I was born and who is my female role model. Also, at the age of nine, I saw the Hale-Bopp comet and it felt very magical. As I was a rather solitary child in those days, I built a little inner world and tried to understand the magic created by nature, such as clouds and stars, and later on galaxies and nebulas, which became the topic of my doctoral research.
What aspects of your job do you find most motivating?
Marie-Eve Naud: Over the past decade, climate change has become very important and leads us to try and better understand Earth, through the research that iREx is doing, in relation to what is happening elsewhere in our solar system and the universe. Our vision as astronomers allows us to see our planet from far away, to realize that we live on a unique little spaceship that we need to protect, and I hope to be able to communicate this vision, so that we can collectively get involved in protecting our life on Earth.
FB: It’s about showing that scientists are normal, approachable people, like everyone else. Even before the pandemic, there was an erosion of trust in science that has subsequently grown to the point of polarizing a large part of the population. In my opinion, astrophysics is an extraordinary science because it has the potential to bring people together despite their differences and help keep the dialogue going. The moon is there, Jupiter is very visible these days, the stars are all around us: these are all proven facts that everyone can observe and talk about.
NO: It’s the social purpose of iREx that motivates me the most. The crisis of trust among a part of the public towards science is worrisome. As astrophysicists, we have the responsibility to promote scientific knowledge, to share it. In general, astrophysics inspires trust in people, and I want to help them understand the processes that lead to discoveries, to show that it’s accessible, so that everyone has better scientific literacy.
What do you wish to achieve at iREx in the coming years?
Marie-Eve Naud: We are part of the generation of scientists who have made giant strides in the search for exoplanets and extraterrestrial life, and we will get even more answers with the James Webb Telescope. And iREx, which is a vibrant and very welcoming work environment, to the point where I consider it my second family, has expertise in this area. Our educational component allows us to share knowledge and strengthen dialogue with people of all ages, while helping them develop a sense of competence and belonging in regards to scientific knowledge. I want to continue playing this active communications role, which also allows me to continue learning from the people who welcome us into their lives.
FB: iREx is a wonderful machine for creating knowledge, so that we can have conversations with young and older people alike, and I intend to continue making this knowledge accessible, planting a small seed in the heads of children, their parents and their loved ones, so that they become aware of scientific culture and take an interest in the way we build the instruments that allow us to see exoplanets. And I cherish the dream that iREx will contribute to building the instruments of the future that will lead to new discoveries.
NO: I love learning and teaching and wish to continue doing so at iREx. The privileged access we have to researchers helps us communicate the purpose of their enquiries. I also want Canada to continue making a name for itself in astrophysics, and iREx is well positioned to contribute to this. It’s a partner of choice for the international scientific community, and our team has shown this over the past few decades by taking part in the work that led to the creation and launch of the James Webb Telescope, in collaboration with NASA, the Canadian Space Agency and other partners. Our goal is to ensure that iREx is again involved in developing large telescopes into the future.