Women and girls in STEM: Deanne Fisher

Deanne Fisher leads a research team that uses telescopes across the planet (and in orbit) to study galaxies and the formation of stars.

Deanne is an Associate Professor at the Centre for Astrophysics and Supercomputing at Swinburne University. She leads research teams that use telescopes across the planet (and in orbit) to study galaxies and the formation of stars. 

‘I’m most excited when I’m using a telescope,’ she says. ‘It’s just fun, and it’s one of my favourite parts of doing astronomy.’   

Nearly every part of the job uses STEM skills. ‘We start with scientific reasoning to develop an idea, assessing what we know about galaxies using physics, chemistry and astronomy,’ Deanne says. 

‘We carry out the project using large, highly technical telescopes. Getting the most out of them requires some knowledge of engineering and technical reasoning.’

‘Once we have the data, astronomy becomes a lot of software engineering. Being a good programmer doesn’t replace scientific intuition, but it’s still one of the most important skills for a young astronomer.’

From Texas to telescopes

Deanne got her first telescope at 8 years old. But in rural Texas where she grew up, people didn’t talk much about becoming scientists. So after a year studying journalism at university, Deanne dropped out and spent the next few years working a variety of trade jobs. 

But the call of the cosmos never went away. ‘I found astronomy and things like quantum physics fascinating,’ Deanne says. ‘As I learned more, I only became more excited about studying it.’

So Deanne went back to study science at the University of Texas. ‘I had to take tons of basic classes in order to take advanced physics,’ she says. ‘It was hard, but I enjoyed it.’

Deanne went on to do a PhD, then took several fellowships in the US and Australia. She now heads up multiple international research projects and is on the leadership team of the Astro3D Centre of Excellence. And it turns out changing to a STEM career a bit later in life has a few advantages. 

‘I’m a few years older than most people at my career stage,’ she says. ‘In some ways that doesn’t matter, but in other ways it does show up – I’ve always been a bit more settled in what I do.’

The challenges of being a trailblazer

Despite her success, it hasn’t always been easy for Deanne. As one of only a handful of openly transgender astrophysicists in the world (and the only one working at a faculty level in Australia), she’s felt isolated and dealt with a fair bit of workplace discrimination. 

‘For people who experience intersectional discrimination – in my case being both LGBTQIA and a woman – the lack of mentors and role models to look up to is a very discouraging feeling,’ she says.

‘Before I came out of the closet, I was very worried that it would be the end of my science career. I would tell myself that was not the case, and while it may change the landscape, it is possible. You see a lot of scary things in the news about being transgender. That makes it a hard choice to make, and I do have to interact with significant people in science that are clearly not as excited about diversity and can be a bit aggressive. People from underrepresented groups such as women, LGBTQIA people and people of colour – often experience heightened aggression from those people.’

‘If you are from an underrepresented demographic and you want to do science, you have to learn to navigate that landscape and try to avoid these people as much as possible. This means there’s some extra work that you have to do on top of an already challenging job. But for all those difficult situations there’s also great people that just want to do exciting things with telescopes.’

Community is important

Despite these challenges, Deanne encourages young trans people considering a career in science to go for it. 

‘Science is best when it has a bunch of different ideas,’ she says. ‘We need people that see the world differently so that they can help solve the problems that can’t be solved by status quo thinking.’

Having a good support network is essential. Deanne has found one through Queers In Science, a nationwide organisation for LGBTQI people working in STEM that runs social and professional events.

‘Being an LGBTQIA person in science can be somewhat isolating, and Queers In Science helps a lot,’ Deanne says. ‘It gives me a group of people that I can talk to about both my personal life and my work life. And while I still don’t have people that can serve as mentors for me, I’ve found it rewarding to play the role of mentor for younger LGTBQIA – and especially transgender – people working in STEM’.

What organisations can do

Organisations need to step up and encourage greater visibility of underrepresented groups in STEM.

‘For LGBTQIA people, the lack of mentors or people that are visibly successful in technical fields is a challenge,’ Deanne says. ‘It makes handling negative events even harder since there’s no one to talk to. We know from surveys that this is why many young people leave research.’

‘The advice I would give organisations is to put more effort into championing, supporting and promoting the careers of people from underrepresented groups. This has an aggregate impact, because those people then act as examples and mentors for the next generation. Fellowships that take the extra benefits of diversity into account would be a clear way to do this.’

Deanne’s organisation Astro3D is leading the way. ‘From the start, Astro3D has made inclusion a key goal, along with science,’ she says. ‘Astro3D organises leadership training and has discussions about diversity at our national meetings. That wouldn’t be possible without clear and demonstrated buy-in for this from the top leadership of the centre. It generates a very positive work environment that I am motivated to engage with.’