They make the Université de Lyon: meet Isabelle Vauglin

On The February 11, 2021

© Chromatiques diffusion
© Chromatiques diffusion

The Université de Lyon invites you to discover the Pop’Sciences interview with Isabelle Vauglin, regional head of the association Femmes et Sciences (Women and Science organization), astronomer and researcher at the Centre de Recherche Astrophysique de Lyon (CNRS, Université Claude Bernard Lyon 1 and ENS de Lyon).

Though they may not always appear in the history books, many women have made significant astronomical discoveries! And Isabelle Vauglin is one of them! She is an inspiration for young girls who are interested in becoming an astronomer... or a scientist in general, for that matter.

The Lyon-based astronomer will also be an ambassador for the next Pop’Sciences Festival, which will take place on July 9, 10 and 11, 2021 at the Museum and Archaeological Sites of Saint-Romain-en-Gal.

What have been the highlights of your career?

I have always wanted to be an astronomer, and this fierce determination to succeed is what has led me to where I am today. After receiving my BTS (advanced technician’s certificate) in “Optical and Precision Instruments” and a Master’s degree in physics, I was awarded my PhD in astrophysics in 1988. I immediately focused my research work on developing infrared instrumentation, which, at the time of my thesis, was a real breakthrough for astronomy. It meant that we could push back the limits in terms of exploring the Universe. Developing and using these high-tech cameras has allowed me to study the vast interstellar environment, to map the entire southern sky and to gather valuable information on galaxies that I have been able to share with the rest of the world via the very large extragalactic HyperLeda database in Lyon, France.

I am currently working on the idea of a telescope equipped with a high-resolution infrared camera, adapted to the particular conditions of the French-Italian base of Concordia on the Antarctic continent, a place with extraordinary conditions for observation. In addition to my research activities, I now spend a lot more time participating in knowledge sharing activities. It’s something I feel is very important.

So, of all the different projects you are involved in, is there one that is particularly close to your heart?

In keeping with a Geneva initiative organized in 2019, I have launched the “La nuit est belle” (The night is beautiful) project in Lyon. I am currently trying to involve as many local towns and villages as possible in this event, which will take place on Friday, May 21. The idea is to turn off all public and private lights for a few hours. This will show the public how much light pollution makes a difference, and give them the opportunity to see the night sky in the best possible conditions. I am really passionate about this project, as most people have unfortunately lost sight of the night sky! As astronomers, we are very much affected by this light pollution: it alters our research conditions, even in the most remote scientific observation sites. I also feel that this issue is even more important to the public. Looking at the night sky is a way for us to connect with our environment, to remind us that there are stars out there, or even the Milky Way, and this helps us remember our place in the Universe and the fact that our planet is so fragile. And let's not forget that light pollution also has negative impacts on biodiversity, human health, energy consumption, and much more. So come and join us on May 21 to see just how beautiful the night is when we let the stars shine!

As a member of the Women and Science organization, how do you support young girls in choosing what they want to study?

Our actions are based on an observation: in science, we lose about half of the girls between the final year of high-school and the first year after graduation, even though they achieve better results than the boys! This imbalance is blatantly obvious, for example, in certain fields such as Engineering Sciences, where only 4% of the work force is made up of women. The explanation for this is sad yet simple, and not the one that is generally conveyed: women have been led to believe that science is not for them, but this could not be any further from the truth! Therefore, our main aim is to show young girls that there is room for them in all scientific fields, and that they are free to choose any subject they wish.

The first step is really about raising awareness. We are all completely consumed by misconceptions on a daily basis, which are widely spread by the media as well as by society in general. To give you an example: from 2012 to 2018, out of 110 “Sciences et Vie Junior” magazine covers, only ONE cover featured a female scientist alone, not sharing the cover with a male colleague.

Breaking these stereotypes and going beyond preconceived ideas is exactly what the “Sciences, un métier de femmes” (Science, a woman’s job) day is all about. I have been organizing this event every year since 2017, together with Audrey Mazur-Palandre from the LabEx ASLAN and with support from the ENS de Lyon. This event brings together more than 500 high school students from the Académie de Lyon, as well as women from a wide range of scientific fields, and is the perfect opportunity to demonstrate that all scientific professions are made up of both men AND WOMEN.

The “Science taille XX elles” exhibition, created with support from the CNRS and the ENS de Lyon, is one of the organization’s other major events. The aim is to highlight female scientists who contribute to today's science; remarkable scientists, but often unrecognized.

Is there a female scientist that you find particularly inspiring?

There are many inspiring women scientists who have worked or are working in science, but if I had to choose one, I would say, Vera Rubin, an American astronomer who passed away in 2016. It is difficult to imagine how much this brilliant researcher had to fight to simply be able to make observations through a telescope, simply because she was not a man. She is one of the many forgotten women in science, and has been widely criticized, even though she is credited with major achievements involving the inhomogeneous structure of the Universe and dark matter. In addition to her scientific work, there is one of her quotes that I will never forget: “Don't forget that half of mankind's neurons are in women's brains”!