Pauline Barmby

Barmby Headshot

What do you do when your bad eyesight prevents you from fulfilling your childhood dream of becoming an astronaut? Why become an astrophysicist instead, of course! At least, that’s what Pauline Barmby of the Department of Physics and Astronomy did. And although the 20/20 vision requirement has been dropped by the Canadian Space Agency, Barmby now could not imagine herself anywhere but on the business end of a space telescope. From early childhood, Barmby was all about space – as she grew up, she completed undergraduate studies in physics and astronomy (even meeting her now-husband in the astronomy club) and went on to do a PhD in astronomy at Harvard. After completing her schooling, Barmby’s first job was working with the team that designed and built one of the cameras on the famous Spitzer telescope. “Testing the cameras and planning observations are exactly what led to my career in academia, studying galaxies,” says Barmby

Barmby’s applied beginnings, planning observations on the telescope, never left her – as the co-chair of the Canadian Astronomy Long Range Plan, 2020-2030, Barmby is leading the Canadian astronomy community’s next round of strategic planning which will lay out the roadmap for the next ten years of cosmic observation. “The infrastructural needs of astronomical research, like supercomputing facilities or giant telescopes, are bigger than what one university can provide,” explains Barmby “working with researchers around Canada, we are pooling our resources to plan projects both within the country and with international partners.” Collaborative projects are a mainstay of Canada’s astronomical research; working with international organizations on historic projects, such as the Thirty-Metre Telescope in Hawaii. “As we look toward the next decade, I would like to see the astronomical community become more inclusive, with the composition of senior leadership in Canadian astronomy being more reflective of the fact that we now have many female researchers in the field,” says Barmby.

Barmby RunningKeeping Canada at the forefront of astronomical research isn’t Barmby’s only passion – she is also an avid runner and knitter. She can often be seen knitting her own clothing at departmental meetings and does triathlon relays with fellow physics professors Els Peeters and Robert Sica. “Els swims, I run, and Bob bikes!” laughs Barmby. “Of course, as an astronomer, I love sci-fi,” says Barmby; “regardless of whether the film does a decent job of scientific accuracy, like Interstellar, or completely abandons it, like Armageddon, I always stay to the end of the credits to see if there’s a scientific advisor.”

Barmby finds her inspiration from her students and colleagues; “we have a great energy in our department and I find that to be such a motivation,” she says; “I think having lively teaching and cutting-edge research is important – astronomy, like paleontology, is a gateway science. It brings people in, often having been fascinated by space or dinosaurs since their earliest memories.” Barmby credits Canada’s dynamic astronomy community with attracting inquisitive scientific minds and remaining global scientific leaders. 

Listen to her podcast on Western Science Speaks where she talks about Exploring galaxies with giant telescopes.