A space for diverse ideas

When things got personally tricky for astronomer Associate Professor Deanne Fisher, she led organisation-wide action—paving the way for a more accessible and inclusive STEMM sector.

Space is both personal and epic. It’s full of mystery and uncertainty. And riddles to uncover. That’s why Associate Professor Deanne Fisher is an astronomer, and why she relates to the public’s universal fascination for this field of deep and endless possibilities.
Fisher is the Deputy Director of the Centre for Astrophysics and Supercomputing at Swinburne University, and an ARC Future Fellow.

It’s clear that Fisher has a big-picture approach to her research on galaxies and how stars form. “Galaxies and star formation are the grand-scale story that continues to unfold,” she says.

But to do this grand-scale work, you must also look closely into the micro: at the dust particles and the gas surrounding galaxies. By investigating these properties, Fisher can build a picture of how stars were formed within a galaxy, many of which were formed around 10 billion years ago. “It seems every time we uncover new observations, we learn we were all wrong all along.”

Staring at stars

Fisher’s formative years were spent in a small town in Texas, USA. She says, “It was very stereotypical for Texas. When I was young, we had a farm. My cousin was in the rodeo. We wore cowboy hats and boots”.

In those days, as an eight-year-old, Fisher spent hours staring at the moon through a very simple telescope. But the fact that observing outer space could be a career wasn’t on the radar. “It didn’t occur to me until I was well into university that I could study astronomy. But once it did, it was like a fire was lit.”

Fisher received her PhD from the University of Texas at Austin, before holding a post-doctoral position at the University of Maryland, then moving to Australia in 2013 for a position at Swinburne University. She became a faculty member in 2017, where she is now building a team, leading research groups and taking part in steering and decision making for national and international facilities. But for Fisher, the excitement still lies in making observations using telescopes and interpreting the data: “Sitting in this uncertainty and trying to figure out every aspect of these riddles is so much fun to me”.

Her biggest breakthrough to date? “I did measure the lowest dust mass for a galaxy that’s ever been measured. It was technically challenging for infrared astronomy because two space telescopes had previously attempted to do this but failed. The dust was extremely faint. We sat on the galaxy for five hours, which for an infrared telescope is an eternity, and we made the observation.”

Navigating academia as a transgender person

Though she’s had exciting scientific wins, academia has not been without its challenges. Fisher is the only known transgender senior academic in Australian astronomy, and only one of around ten worldwide, she estimates. Her experience navigating the transition whilst working emphasised that we have a long way to go to ensure barriers for inclusion are broken down for everyone. “The university had no guidelines for dealing with transitioning trans people,” she explains.

“On top of all the personal and emotional aspects, you have to spearhead university-wide initiatives to make simple things—like getting the correct name on my door—possible.”

Before officially ‘coming out’, Fisher worked closely with the HR department to ensure that there were proper guidelines—for example how they would handle her name change, and how the Centre would deal with the announcement.

Support from mentors was hugely important for Fisher, particularly during more stressful times. She says, “knowing that these people that I respect thought highly of me was a big help”.

Creating positive change

Now, as a SAGE Change Agent at Swinburne University, Fisher continues to advocate for diversity and inclusion within her organisation. Underpinning this goal is the reality that “having more diverse identities does facilitate more diverse ideas”.

“STEMM research is about us and the place we live, so it will always be an important role,” Fisher says.

“In science we need new ideas constantly, and we need to try everything we can to get those ideas. Having a more diverse STEMM benefits us all.”

In the Change Agent role, Fisher is a strong voice for those who may feel as if they don’t belong.

“If people want to have science careers, and they are capable, they should be involved. There should be a place for them. It’s very simple and straightforward.”

Swinburne University has a Bronze accreditation through the SAGE program. Fisher reiterates how useful a set of standards for organisations and universities to build towards is in promoting diversity. “When you approach diversity initiatives, it often seems like an insurmountable goal with too many parts. The national guidance that SAGE provides is really helpful here,” she says. “I think Australia has begun efforts to diversify STEMM, but there is still room for improvement.”

“I think the biggest change that it has led to is that at the top levels the university now consider gender equity a critical aspect of how decisions should be made. At Swinburne it has recently become standard practice to consider female-only hires for postdoc positions whenever possible.” Compared to even five years ago, this a massive step up.

Fisher has a specific message for young transgender students and early career researchers who may be worried about future career challenges: while it will most likely still be hard, a career in STEMM is possible. Fisher’s passion and success in science and astronomy is testament that the journey is possible–and in her experience, fulfilling.