Science & Technology

Chilean astronomer awarded by UNICEF: I had a strong impostor complex

By Meritxell Freixas

Santiago, Dec 28 (EFE).- Chilean-Spanish astronomer Teresa Paneque, recently named a “UNICEF Angel” for her commitment to the inclusion of girls in the sciences, said in an interview with EFE that the “masculinized and tremendously elitist” environment of a career in astronomy initially made her feel like “I wasn’t going to have any success in academia.”

“I had no women as reference points for what I wanted to do and I began to notice that, insofar as the time to go for my Master’s Degree was getting closer, I began to feel more anxiety that I couldn’t handle … A monumental impostor complex,” she said.

Born in 1997 into a family of Chilean scientists in Spain, Paneque is a scientific communicator who has captivated children, teenagers and adults with her simple and friendly way of explaining science, in general, and astronomy in particular.

With hundreds of thousands of followers on the social networks and many media appearances, she has opened up a huge media space for herself and imprinted her own stamp of scientific knowledge there.

She selected this road because of her love of “responding to difficult questions,” but it wasn’t until she finished her Master’s Degree and was surrounded by other women who were dedicating themselves to scientific research that she felt like “there was a place” for her within the scientific community.

“My idols today are not Einstein, or Steven Hawking, or even Marie Curie, who is someone with whom I have no chance of comparing – or talking about – myself. They are my female professors, women who live lives like the one I want and who make me feel like I can be like them,” she said at the National Observatory, in Las Condes, where she has been working for a number of weeks.

“Listening to them talk about how it was tough for them to ask questions and how they felt insecure was an experience that I never would have had with a male professor,” she added.

At age 24, Paneque has published two children’s books and has a third under way, all with Carlota Jimenez as the protagonist, a girl who is curious about everything around her.

“From when I was small, I really loved reading fantasy books about dragons, magic, fairies, and having a tool in my hands that was scientific, exact, but which allowed me to make predictions about the future seemed very nice to me,” she said.

For her, one of the most complicated questions concerns the formation of the Earth and the planets, research that she is pursuing in Germany in her doctorate at the European Southern Observatory, as well as at the University of Leiden, in The Netherlands.

“It really got my attention to study an object that is close to us, that we’ve experienced and on which we live, but we don’t understand where it came from,” she said.

Raised in Spain and Scotland, Paneque arrived in Chile at age 9 and at age 16 she began studying astronomy at the Universidad de Chile, given that she was moved up two years in school due to differences in the curricula between countries.

She went from “an educational system based on curiosity, in teaching,” which in Chile – she said – “would be accessible only in private education or in the public sphere only in certain areas.”

“I was accustomed to going to school with my book and I loved to read, but sometimes they looked at me strangely, or when I raised my hand to ask something I noticed that in Chile that was not looked on very well because it meant adding more material to the test,” she recalled.

She considers herself “privileged” for having studied at public institutions in other countries, which she said has enabled her to see that “injecting resources to cross-educate boys and girls, independent of their socio-economic situation, works.”

“Chile cannot continue being a country where education depends and is to interrelated with economic ability,” she said.

Beyond her own area of study, Paneque applies the philosophy of questioning political activities.

She said that “Science depends on politics to get financing. What scientific studies are being fostered? How much money is going to them? These are government, state decisions,” and she added that “It doesn’t matter who’s in power.”

Regarding Chile’s role in this environment, Paneque said that it is one of the few countries whose universities offer courses in astronomy and it has “created a tremendous labor policy and international alliances,” although “perhaps there is a lack of leadership in the development of technologies.”

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