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Australia Day honour for Professor Elaine Sadler

29 January 2019
Congratulations to Professor Elaine Sadler, named Officer of the Order of Australia (AO)
Professor Elaine Sadler has been recognised for her service to science in the Australia Day 2019 Honours List.
Professor Elaine Sadler

Professor Elaine Sadler. Photo: Australian Academy of Science

Professor of Astrophysics Elaine Sadler has been made an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) for distinguished service to science as an astrophysicist, in the field of galaxy evolution, and to gender equality.

Her path to professional astronomy was not straightforward.

At age 11, with no scientists in her family, Elaine joined the local amateur astronomy society, where she was the youngest member in a group made up mostly of retirees.

At high school she studied astronomy, even though it was not offered as a subject and there was no-one to teach it, gathering for herself what she needed to pass her exams.

Next stop was the University of Queensland. Astronomy was not offered, so Elaine enrolled in physics. All her physics lecturers and most of her fellow students were male.

Elaine at last connected fully with the astronomical community as a summer vacation student at Mt Stromlo Observatory, and in 1983 she completed a PhD with astronomer Ken Freeman at The Australian National University.

The offer of three jobs straight out of her PhD, and stints in the USA and Germany, shaped her path. Overseas, she met several senior female astronomers, who inspired her to continue pursuing her passion.

She returned to Australia to join the then Anglo-Australian Observatory (AAO), before to moving to the University of Sydney in 1993 as an ARC Australian Research Fellow. She was promoted to Professor of Astrophysics in 2003.

Leadership roles

At the AAO Elaine began her transformation into a respected national and international leader.

In the mid 1990s, when her first child was a year old, she became the youngest, and first female, President of the Astronomical Society of Australia. She was a founding Director of Astronomy Australia Limited (AAL), a body for overseeing the distribution of funding for astronomy (2007–2009); the President of Division VIII (Galaxies and the Universe) of the International Astronomical Union, the world’s professional body for astronomers (2009–12); and Chair of the National Committee for Astronomy, which operates under the auspices of the Australian Academy of Science (2010–12). In this latter role, Elaine led a planning review that set strategic directions for Australian astronomy.

In 2010, she was elected a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science.

In 2015 Elaine became Director of the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for All-Sky Astrophysics (CAASTRO), a $30-million Centre addressing fundamental questions about the Universe. In this role she oversaw more than 190 scientists, students and professional staff across seven universities and 11 partner institutions, both Australian and overseas.

Professor Elaine Sadler receiving CAASTRO’s Gold Pleiades Award

Professor Sadler receiving CAASTRO’s Gold Pleiades Award. Photo: Helen Sim

Promoting gender equality

Throughout her career, Elaine has supported many initiatives to improve the calibre of the science workforce by increasing its capacity to retain and attract women, from mentoring female scientists to crafting policies and plans to tackle gender inequity.

As a member of CAASTRO’s Gender Action Committee, she worked to promote diversity and increase the number of women in the organisation. In 2017 she had the pleasure of accepting, on CAASTRO’s behalf, the first Gold Pleiades Award from the Astronomical Society of Australia, an award that recognised CAASTRO’s success in advancing the careers of women in astronomy.

Life after CAASTRO

CAASTRO was funded for a seven-year period, and wound up in March 2018. In May 2018, Elaine began a four-year term as Foreign Secretary of the Australian Academy of Science, and in July she started a part-time secondment to CSIRO, taking up a new leadership role as Chief Scientist for the Australia Telescope National Facility.

Elaine began her career at a time when women faced huge obstacles in entering astronomy. She has nonetheless emerged as an astronomer of international influence, successfully advocated for gender equality in science, and built and strengthened international collaborations.