Q and A with Dr. Shirin Haque, Astronomer
Tell us about yourself (short bio)?
I was born in India but grew up in Trinidad. I never went to school or spoke English till age 7. It was always the sciences for me, at school and university. I did my BSc, Mphil and PhD split site with University of Virginia. Then fulfilled an earlier passion and completed an MPhil in Psychology at UWI. Astronomy was always a passion as far back as I can remember to age 5. I enjoy quilting and embroidering and cooking and learning and reading voraciously, and now doing online courses.
Tell us about being chosen, 2020 Laureate, Caribbean Award for Excellence in Science and Technology?
No one embarks in a career with a mission to win awards. You do what you love and thus it is very humbling and overwhelming when such an award such as the ANSA Caribbean Awards is conferred, especially with a focus in Astronomy. It has motivated me more than ever to continue to push for science and technology in our beautiful part of the world. It creates an opportunity to do more of what one loves and I am extremely grateful to the region and the people who make all this possible.
Tell us about the Caricom Science award also?
This award was conferred for 2018 earlier this year and the ceremony held in Guadeloupe. It has an international panel that decides such and again it is so heartening that the hard work of many persons and organization recognises the importance of science and technology for our region. CARISCIENCE is the body that has instituted this award for many years now – and it was a wonderful to note, that this was the first time a woman had won this award and I hope the future holds this for many others.
How many Astronomers are there in Trinidad and Tobago and then the Caribbean?
Historically it is never more than two professional astronomers (PhD) at any given time over the decades who are active professionally and often just one. However, it is of note that there are many amateur astronomers doing great work.
What technology do you use as an astronomer?
The obvious is the telescope and CCD cameras. But that's just the start. Image processing and computing are absolutely essential. There is no discipline like astronomy with transferable skills. Our work on astrobiology also requires DNA analysis and the requisite technology.
I read that metals used to make smart phones could run out soon, what are the possibilities of mining for resources outside of earth?
Extremely high and is part of the reasons for the space race among nations. We knew how to get to the moon for 50 years. Why do you think the sudden clamor for the moon by all nations? There are resources on the moon that can be mined. Asteroids also are a source for mining.
How would you describe the relationship between astronomy and technology? Is that called astrotech?
Now that's a cool term! Astrotech. If any nation wants to flex its technological muscles, which is a measure of development…they go to space. John F. Kennedy said, they choose to go to the moon not because it's easy but because it's hard. Astronomy drives the hardest bargain for the most cutting-edge technology due to the demands and challenges of space travel. Even just dealing with the volume of data coming in or detecting the faintest signals from space or the amazing discovery of gravitational waves, or simulating the early universe conditions with the Large Hadron Collider requires extreme technology. Oh, the technology involved in getting the first image of a black hole! It’s the ultimate human endeavor.
How can Trinidad contribute to space exploration?
The beauty of Astronomy is that there is so much to do…you can always find a niche to work in…there are small meaningful projects requiring little resources like theoretical work and data analysis. It's not always about big money. Collaboration is how research is done internationally and is how my major projects happen, thus we can certainly contribute to space exploration. What is marvelous is offering to the world which is our own unique resources, like our location for monitoring of objects, and mud volcanoes and the pitch lake as analogs for Mars and Titan respectively for astrobiology.
For locals interested in astronomy, how can they get involved?
Trinidad has done a fantastic job in promotion of Astronomy among the public and there are many societies for such. Interested persons can get in touch with the Trinidad and Tobago Astronomical Society (TTAS) via their facebook page. NIHERST is also very active with their monthly astronomy events which they advertise publicly.
What is needed locally in the astronomy space?
For young people to academically get involved in it, recognising that it is a STEM path to transferable skills. We currently have run workshops using Raspberry Pis and Python for image processing. The general thought is I can’t get a job with astronomy, so I should not pursue it but changing your perspective of what Astronomy equips you with, gets you to enjoy the best of both worlds…or should I say …Universe?!
Anything else you would like to add?
I know this is tacky. But keep reaching for the stars! Or better yet, as attributed to Carl Sagan… “Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.” Stay curious and never lose the excitement and awe for this unbelievable Universe we are part of.