A remarkable scientist – and a stellar role model

Prof Renee Kraan-Korteweg talking about galaxies. Photo credit: Renee Kraan-Korteweg

by Lee Labuschagne

Astronomer Prof. Renée C. Kraan-Korteweg’s work on the large-scale structure and distance scale of galaxies has made her an internationally-recognised researcher, but it is as leader and educator that this quiet-spoken astronomer has also excelled throughout her career. Prof Kraan-Korteweg, Chair of Astronomy and immediate past Head of Department at the University of Cape Town (UCT), recently received a special MeerKAT Award from the South African Minister of Department of Science and Technology.

The MeerKAT award recognised Prof Kraan-Korteweg’s “outstanding contribution to building South Africa’s scientific and research knowledge base in advancing the field of astronomy” and specifically the field of radio astronomy, but also commended her contribution in training the next generation of radio astronomers. 

She comments: “Fernando Camillo, the Chief Scientist of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) SA asked for my CV. The day before I left for the International Astronomical Union (IAU) General Assembly in Vienna, I got a call that said I was nominated for a prize. I only heard afterwards that I did win one of the DST awards—a special one that the Minister had launched for this occasion to celebrate the role of women in the MeerKAT endeavour.”

She adds: “I was really surprised and pleased. You work hard over the years, but you do not really think about that, because you do it with passion. But to then find out that what you have done —the challenge you took up 14 years ago by moving here and working for South Africa— is recognised at highest level, is rewarding.”

As a role model for young scientists, she says: “Having been a woman in male-dominated world has not always been easy, but mostly I lived fine with it— though I also suffer badly from impostor syndrome—and as with discriminatory remarks and some actions, this was not something one thought about. As a woman I acted differently in many situations than many a man…”

Before her stint as Head of Department at UCT, she held a similar position at the University of Guanajuato, Mexico.

But, she adds: ‘I also never wanted to be a boss, I was first pushed into that in Mexico, mostly because people trusted me, and knew that I cared, not just about the department and success, but really about the people themselves… I love working with young people.’

This is what keeps science alive and so interesting.

Renee-C Kraan-Korteweg

Born in the Netherlands and growing up in Switzerland, Prof. Kraan-Korteweg attributes her love of astronomy from her father, who was an airline navigator. He studied the subject in-between long-leg flights.

“That’s how I knew that a field like astronomy existed. I was not a person with a backyard telescope,” she explains.

As a young girl in Switzerland she became used to the fact that women studying science subjects were scarce. At university, in the math, physics and astronomy classes, it was even more extreme.

“Today, the gender issue is becoming more and more important. I tried to avoid that for a long time, since in my time you just went your way, or you lost… To me it is really sad, that now that the gender balance among the younger generation is improving so much, we still lose way too many women along the way, particularly at higher levels.’

She and her husband Peter have been together since early in their studies, and he has been a great support throughout her career. Their three children were all born during the period while she was working on her PhD.

She started her career at the University of Basel working on the large-scale structure and distance scale of galaxies: something for which she is now internationally recognised.

Studying the Milky Way

She remembers: ‘I doggedly started searching for galaxies that were partly obscured from the dust in the Milky Way and appeared much fainter. They were missing in all whole-sky catalogues, but were not really faint: they just appeared that way because of the dust obscuration… I first used radio telescopes (Effelsberg and Parkes), to point at galaxies too faint to get optical spectra and later started these fully ‘blind’ surveys. It led to the discovery of the Dwingeloo galaxy, a galaxy that would have been the 8th brightest in our sky, were it not for the obscuration by the dust in the Milky Way. Hence, the first big world-wide press coverage in 1994 when it was announced.”

Among others it also featured in an article in the prestigious Nature magazine.

Prof Renee Kraan-Korteweg pointing to a plaque in Dwingeloo (in the Dutch province of Drenthe) which shows the Dwingeloo galaxy she discovered with the old Dwingeloo radio telescope in 1994. It was the first systematic radio survey of galaxies behind the plane of the Milky Way

Prof Kraan-Korteweg then became involved in the much larger and deeper Parkes multibeam survey, an international collaboration to map the whole southern Zone of Avoidance (ZOA—the part of our galaxy obscured from view by interstellar dust, stars and attenuation).

“What is the mass hidden behind the Milky Way?’ she asks. ‘We have to map the galaxy distribution to the be able to explain those flows and reconcile that with what the cosmic microwave background (CMB) dipole tells us. This controversy about what the mass is, and at which distances these homogeneities arise, has still not been properly solved—hence the interest in the Vela Supercluster that my work uncovered last year.”

Her enthusiasm about one of many enduring research interests is palpable: “I often though much was done in the ZOA work but there are always new opportunities, and wavelength regimes opened up… One just cannot run away from all these new possibilities…  People make deeper and deeper surveys, but keep ignoring the ZOA. If you keep doing that, the problems arising from not having a proper map of the nearby universe do not go away!”

She adds: “So that is how that has kept me busy and turning into a real multi-wavelength astronomer, using every little bit of information to fill in the missing pieces of the puzzles.  You start with a funny, nice idea, search in the optical for galaxies that other people do not see using existing surveys and an old blinking machine. And you are hooked, and become one of world’s specialist in that field, because there is always something new to explore. This is what keeps science alive and so interesting.”

After periods at the University of Groningen (the Netherlands) and the Observatoire de Paris-Meudon (France), she expanded her research to include radio and near-infrared astronomy.  

“In 1997, I took on the challenge to help build up a new a new Astronomy Department at the University of Guanajuato (Mexico). I was promoted to full professor in 1999 and Head of Department in 2002. I took a leading role in initiating the masters and doctorate programme (started in 2004).”

Heading up astronomy at UCT and building radio astronomy

In 2005, Kraan-Korteweg took up the Chair of Astronomy at UCT, following Prof Brian Warner as its Head of Department. She had already been collaborating with the late Anthony Fairall, who had been noted for his work on exploring the large-scale structure of the Universe. Their collaboration on the ZOA started in the early 1990s when they started using the spectrograph on the 1.9m telescope at Sutherland, then the largest telescope in SA.

She had a big task at a time of major growth for astronomy in South Africa. 

“A lot of things were new, including work done on the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) and the coming of the SKA. They were major challenges for an HOD at UCT.”

“I expanded the small department (three academics, one post-doctoral research fellow and five or six post-graduate students) to a complement of twelve academics and about 35 post-graduate students…  And I realised we have to build up radio astronomy, or else we were going to lose out and would not benefit from the infrastructure. So I took on a lot of students and offered radio projects. I used my networks and offered co-supervision with international collaborators in the Netherlands, Australia and France, and did some heavy writing of research proposals so that I could find opportunities to send them there for experience.”

She interacted regularly with the Karoo Array Telescope (KAT) office in Pinelands (this project later was enlarged and became known as the MeerKAT SA), where there were only engineers at the time.

“This was when many people were still dubious about doing radio astronomy in South Africa. Even other South African universities were wary and did not want to go that route in the beginning. So yes, we made head start, and that helped reduce the skepticism, and more and more people came. Obviously once we did win the major part of the SKA, it became much easier,” she smiles.

She adds that the demographics of both students and staff have been transformed, and that she was key in establishing an internationally-recognised radio astronomy group which now takes leadership roles in many large survey projects that will be pursued with MeerKAT, the SKA SA Pathfinder.

Obviously once we did win the major part of the SKA, it became much easier.

Renee-C Kraan-Korteweg

“In 2009, I founded, together with Prof. Peter Dunsby of UCT’s Mathematics Department, the Research Centre for Astrophysics, Cosmology and Gravity.  I also was actively involved as member of its executive and steering committees, from 2005 to 2014, in the management of and teaching at the National Astrophysics and Space Science Programme (NASSP)—an initiative that was strongly advocated at the time by Prof Patricia Whitelock.”

Despite all these activities in building up astronomy over the last 15 to 20 years, Prof Kraan-Korteweg has remained active in research.

The role of Head of Department of Astronomy at UCT was taken over by Prof. Patrick Woudt in 2014.

Says Prof Kraan-Korteweg: “I enjoy having a bit more freedom, but then again I am sitting in many high-level committees within SA at various levels, radio astronomy committees of the SKA (SA), the Astronomy Advisory Council, and as chair of the steering committee of the Office of Astronomy for Development (OAD),  a joint project of the IAU and the NRF with the support of the DST.  There were also six years as IAU Vice President, so my time is still full with teaching and the students I am supervising—but I am happy that there is a bit more time for research.”

Prof Renée Kraan-Korteweg with French colleague Helene Courtois of the University of Lyon under one of the MeerKAT dishes. Courtois visited Cape Town, Sutherland and the MeerKAT site with a film crew because they were making a documentary about mapping large-scale structures and cosmic flows. It will be aired on French and American television.

Memberships and awards 

Among her many credentials, she is a member of the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf) since 2010, and she was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of South Africa in 2012.

Prof Kraan-Korteweg’s credentials as researcher are impeccable.  Among others she found time to publish at least 75 refereed articles, two books as editor, as well as 29 other publications.

“‘I am cited about 2800 times, with nearly half of those articles as first author. In recent years I have also been particularly successful in getting substantial observing time on prime telescopes like SALT, the Spitzer Space Telescope, the Parkes Telescope (Australia), Nancay (France) and Westerbork (the Netherlands)… I have also started up various international research collaborations, and have been very successful in attracting research funding.”

She has received numerous awards over the years and has served in leadership roles in both local and international bodies.  These include:

  • The UCT Excellence Level 1 Award for national scientific leadership twice (2011-2015; 2016-2019)
  • UCT Fellow in 2015.
  • Second runner-up for the Distinguished Women in Science Award of the DST in 2011.
  • Elected member and Chair of the first Astronomy Advisory Council in 2014 to provide advice to the newly-formed Astronomy Sub-Agency of the NRF and its Deputy CEO.
  • Elected member of the Steering Committee of the IAU Office of Astronomy for Development (OAD, hosted by the SAAO) from 2015-2018, and as Chair (2018-2021).
  • Vice-President of the International Astronomical Union (2012 until 2018).
  • Member of the following professional societies: the IAU (world-wide), the American Astronomical Society (AAS) the European Astronomical Society (EAS), the Astronomische Gesellschaft (AG—German speaking countries), the Swiss Society for Astrophysics and Astronomy (SGAA) and the South African Institute of Physics (SAIP).

  • This insert was made possible thanks to the Royal Society of South Africa in support of South African science and South African science journalism.

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SciBraai, a proudly South African NPO dedicated to science journalism, communication and outreach. SciBraai began on Heritage Day 2013 - Anina Mumm and Engela Duvenage in 2013 launched the website, scibraai.co.za, to feature stories about South African research, technology and innovation, and the people behind the discoveries. This blog welcomes all South Africans to go behind the scenes of local science and exploration endeavors. It’s a place to share stories about the scientists themselves and the interesting, little-known activities that are often left out of research journals. A place to learn more about the stuff that makes South African science and its people tick. A place to feel inspired about what South Africans are discovering on home soil and abroad. Because local is lekker, no matter what language you use. SciBraai's following has grown in the past years, and we are now on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. We've also begun organising real-life braai's where we share round-the-fire stories about South African science and scientists.

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