Women In Business Q&A: Professor Carole Mundell, Professor of Extragalactic Astronomy, University of Bath

IDPS, University of Bath

Carole Mundell is Professor of Extragalactic Astronomy and Head of Astrophysics at the University of Bath. An observational astrophysicist, Mundell began her research career as a radio astronomer at Jodrell Bank Observatory, before diversifying to exploit international ground and space-based facilities across the electromagnetic spectrum with the goal of understanding cosmic black holes and their environments.

Carole has been involved in national and European research funding allocation and oversight of national and international astronomical facilities. Her experience in strategic science policy advisory work has included technology, basic research and horizon scanning beyond astrophysics and she currently serves on STFC Council. She is a committed communicator of science to the public who is recognised for changing the landscape for women in technology through her innovative approach to finding technological solutions to scientific problems within an extremely limited budget, and her work in inspiring the next generation of scientists and innovators.

Carole won the Woman of the Year Award at the 2016 FDM everywoman in Technology Awards. The awards, which are run annually by everywoman, are designed to showcase inspiring female role models in the technology industry. everywoman has begun the search for nominees for its 2017 FDM Everywoman in Technology Awards, with nominations open until 3 October 2016.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
Never losing the ability to ask questions and desire to understand is a generic thread that runs through all I do. More practically, dealing with adversity, attention to detail and an interest in people and their talents has allowed me to create and deliver on bigger visions with stubborn determination and optimism.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at University of Bath?
In my previous employment, I built a world leading research team from scratch, with limited resource, and took on unexpected opportunities when they came along - even if they didn't look immediately attractive. This has given me the confidence and broader technological and scientific knowledge and vision to create something bigger at Bath.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at University of Bath?
I am building a new research group and teaching programme at the University of Bath, which I joined in March 2015. The past year has been an exciting whirlwind as we've recruited world-leading young astrophysicists and had our first year of undergraduate students pass through our courses. The pioneering spirit in our group is very energizing and the whole University is incredibly supportive and excited about what we plan to deliver over the coming years. The biggest challenges so far have been external. Astrophysics is a global industry so the uncertainty created by the referendum is an ongoing challenge. In addition, the research and teaching landscapes for higher education are set to change dramatically in the coming years. My external roles in governance and oversight give me an invaluable view as these changes work through the system and as well as opportunities to provide expert input along the way.

What advice can you offer to women who want a career in your industry?
Maths, physics and computer science are at the tools at the heart of my field. It is important to do well in these subjects and enjoy them. These give a strong foundation at undergraduate level. However, in the coming decade, there will be a revolution in data science, where upcoming astronomical facilities will begin to produce a deluge of complex data streams and open up studies of the time-variable Universe. At the moment, we discover 200 new cosmic black holes using dedicated X-ray and Gamma-ray satellites. By 2020, our facilities will be automatically identifying 10 million new objects per night. We do not yet know how to cope with this unprecedented rate of discovery. The need to train a new generation of technologists with the ability and desire to work across traditional academic subject boundaries will define my industry over the next 5-10 years.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?
Honesty, integrity and determination - whether displayed or not by others - are my guiding principles. Even when a situation seems impossible, there is always a way through if you search hard enough. The easy option is often the harder one in the long run.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
The flexibility of academic life can be a curse or a blessing. Being sensible about when to work flat out and when to pull back and do some self-care is vital. I recently took up the sport of tae kwon do with my young sons. They are veterans of the martial art and love to see and help me progress as a beginner. It's important to share experiences and doing something completely new and different to my day (and night) job has been surprisingly uplifting and life-affirming!

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
Hostile workplace cultures remain a serious barrier for under-represented minorities in many organisations and drive out young talent. This also them impacts on the number of women available to progress to more senior roles, preventing a desperately needed increase in role models and influence.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
The importance of mentorship cannot be overstated - whether formal or informal. Academic life is necessarily introspective and judging - it can feel very personal sometimes. If one is a perfectionist, this can be doubly tough. Mentorship has given me a different view of myself, my abilities and how I am perceived by others - in particular in celebrating success and giving me the courage to step up to roles that I might otherwise have shied away from.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
One often looks to more senior people to find female leaders and I see those very much at the University of Bath and in my field internationally. Increasingly though, I have come to value courage and leadership from my junior colleagues and peers. The collective intelligence is vast and connecting with that, contributing to and benefitting from it is vital. Being involved with the Everywoman awards has opened up a whole new technology sector of phenomenally talented women to me and I value highly the new contacts I am making.

What do you want to accomplish in the next year?
Within my University environment, I obviously want to nurture and support my new research group and see its profile and success grow, in turn feeding that back into our new generation of students. I recently became Chair of the University of Bath Senior Academic Women's Network and I am looking forward to working with this energetic and talented group of women, connecting them to others in sectors outside of academia, seeing them realise their goals and, ultimately, be represented in senior leadership positions throughout the University. Within the international field of astrophysics and space science (and other fields) , a number of us are working to improve the culture for young women; sexual harassment and inadequate institutional responses have long been a problem but this is now being openly discussed. We are working with a range of agencies in our respective countries to encourage publicly funded organisations to tackle these issues at all levels and not sweep them under the carpet. Scientifically, I personally want to discover what powers the most energetic explosions in the Universe and my group and I will be developing new technology over the coming year to try to answer that and other big questions about the Universe. Oh, and I would quite like to win a medal in a national tae kwon do competition!