Lisa Kewley, the first woman to serve as director of the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian plunges headfirst into the job, which involves overseeing about 800 Harvard and Smithsonian scientists, engineers, students and staff as they work to answer mankind’s biggest questions about the universe. Kewley spoke to the Gazette about her life, love of astronomy and plans for the center. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
GAZETTE: What is your vision for the Center for Astrophysics?
KEWLEY: We are entering a fabulous period in astronomy for large telescopes; the first generation just went online – the James Webb Space Telescope [JWST], which NASA’s Nancy Grace Roman Telescope will follow. And we have huge ground-based telescopes coming online – the Vera Rubin Observatory, the next-generation Event Horizon Telescope, the Giant Magellan Telescope and ESO’s Extremely Large Telescope.
Every time we’ve made a major leap in telescope size in the past, there have been tremendous discoveries about our understanding of the universe and our place in it. So I expect there will be amazing discoveries again as each and every one of them comes online.
We have an incredible array of scientists and engineers working on these and other telescopes. We have expertise spanning the full range of major areas of astronomy, as well as all different wavelengths from radio to X-rays, and we are beginning to branch out into climate science with the upcoming launch of two satellites, TEMPO and MethaneSAT.
We really need to position ourselves to benefit from these next-generation facilities. So that means making strategic hires in core science areas that will make those discoveries, and then inspiring the Center to work together to answer astronomy’s biggest questions across departments and areas where we’ve traditionally worked separately.
GAZETTE: So more collaboration between Harvard and the Smithsonian?
KEWLEY: Yes, Harvard and Smithsonian, but also across different wavelength boundaries, so for example radio working with optical or radio, X-ray, optical and infrared astronomers. We must use a variety of telescopes to answer astronomy’s biggest questions.
GAZETTE: Where do you see the strengths of the center and where do you see a need for action?
KEWLEY: We are experts in both space and ground-based astronomy. We have a really fantastic technology and engineering facility. And we don’t just do astronomy, we build the instruments. This makes us extremely attractive as a builder of telescope technology, but also as a user, because we are the experts in this technology and it really helps us to take full advantage of the telescopes once built.
As with any large organization, there is much work to be done to bring people together and push traditional boundaries in science. This is normal for a large organization and I have experience of this as the leader of a center of excellence in Australia that spans nine different universities.
GAZETTE: You are the first woman in this role. What does that mean for you?
KEWLEY: It’s a tremendous honor. When I was a student, there were no female professors in my department; At that time there was only one professor in all of Australia. I fully expected to hit a glass ceiling at some point and have to leave astronomy. So I had lots of backup plans if I had to leave.
Only when I moved to the USA and came to the CfA as a postdoc  that I saw that there were women here who had successful careers in astronomy. There were also some women who had children and brought their children to conferences. And I saw that you could be a woman in astronomy and have a family. There were some pretty great role models that changed my whole perspective on astronomy.
In the beginning, I didn’t really have a long-term goal; I only did astronomy because I really loved it, and that changed when I came to CfA. I didn’t hit a glass ceiling; You can have a career in astronomy and have kids, and besides, I never expected to be a director. If you had told me that when you were a student, I would have thought you were crazy. It was more like I started thinking about bigger and bigger things.
GAZETTE: What is your research focus? Do you plan to continue your research as director?
KEWLEY: My research focus is on understanding the amount of oxygen in galaxies and how it has evolved over time. Recently I did some theoretical modeling of spectra to prepare for JWST. I’m not sure I’ll have much time for the research, but if I find the time I’d love to apply our theoretical models to JWST data. I am part of a JWST Early Release Science Team. I plan to mentor students.
GAZETTE: Can you talk a little bit about some of the important work you’ve done that you hope to bring to Harvard?
KEWLEY: In the past, I have developed a proposal and vision for a center of excellence in Australia, spanning multiple universities and a variety of sciences – from the epoch of reionization to today’s Milky Way. It involved the collaboration of observers and theorists. We have been able to develop this really successful collaboration between all these universities through a range of communication avenues and bringing people together in individual teams but also through general strategic planning meetings.
In terms of the workplace, we’ve worked really hard to develop a positive and inclusive culture. In four years we were able to reach 50 percent women, up from 37 percent. This was the first time a center in the natural sciences in Australia has been able to do this.
GAZETTE: Where did you grow up?
KEWLEY: I grew up in South Australia in a town called Tea Tree Gully. It is in the suburbs near the Adelaide Hills, a wine region. It has beautiful white and pink tea trees.
GAZETTE: Always wanted to be an astronomer?
KEWLEY: I wanted to be an astronomer when I was in high school. I was in a bookstore and bought a book called Galaxies. It had images from the Hubble Space Telescope; I thought she was beautiful and wanted to know everything about her. I had a physics teacher who loved astronomy and I told him I was interested in becoming an astronomer and he brought me a lot of public articles about black holes, wormholes. I thought it was a great thing. He also recommended reading books at my level.
One thing that really helped was that our physics class went to an astronomy camp in the Flinders Ranges of South Australia for a week. It was about scientific experiments. We had a telescope and we followed Jupiter, looked at the rings of Saturn, built our own sundials and tested them. It was such a great experience and I really liked it.
GAZETTE: How would you describe your management style?
KEWLEY: I lead through engagement, bringing people on board to make change and answer big questions. It’s quite a consultative leadership style. I like getting input and feedback from the community. I want all aspects of the community I lead to be represented through a variety of committees and representation on committees, and through direct communication.
GAZETTE: What is something interesting or unique about you that would surprise people?
KEWLEY: i have synesthesia Here the senses are connected and when I hear sounds I see random shapes and colors. I have colors for letters and numbers; Smells have colors. I thought everyone had it until I was 25 and spoke to a psychology student who told me it’s actually not that common. It runs in families.