Interview with Vanessa McBride

The astronomer discusses her calling for the stars, the importance of getting more women into senior positions in her field, and the perils of early morning Zoom calls

April 25, 2024
Vanessa McBride
Source: National Research Foundation

South African astronomer Vanessa McBride was recently appointed science director at the International Science Council (ISC) in Paris. In her previous role at the International Astronomical Union’s Office of Astronomy for Development, Dr McBride championed the expansion of astronomy across Africa. Her efforts culminated in a victorious bid for South Africa to host the upcoming International Astronomical Union’s general assembly in August 2024 – a first for the African continent. She is also an adjunct associate professor at the University of Cape Town and a founding member of the African Network of Women in Astronomy.

Where and when were you born?
Grantham, UK in the late 1970s to a South African mother and British father.

How has this shaped who you are?
I know that both Isaac Newton and Margaret Thatcher were born around Grantham. And sometimes, in moments of doubt in myself, remembering that has been helpful. I was raised in South Africa, but having British citizenship and family in the UK has certainly influenced both my personal and professional choices – for example, doing my PhD in the UK.

What’s your most memorable moment at university?
My most memorable moment was a field trip to the Sutherland observing station of the South African Astronomical Observatory that a group of students took during our second year. We all piled into someone’s car for the four-hour trip and camped on the plateau in the middle of winter. But the winter night sky in the southern hemisphere made it all worthwhile.

What does it mean to you to be recognised with an appointment as science director at the International Science Council?
It still doesn’t feel quite real to me! I am very privileged to have this opportunity to work with a fantastic team to shape the International Science Council in its early years – the organisation is only six years old, after being established through a merger of the International Council for Science and the International Social Science Council. I see this very much as a service role, where we work across society both to improve the practice of science and to use science to make the world a better place.

Why is it important to have people in positions of power from the Global South?
I think it’s important to have people from different backgrounds in positions of power, and the answer to this question is rather context-dependent. In a world where we can very easily get stuck inside our own echo chambers and in-groups, we need to ensure that we can listen to many diverse voices. Having access to these voices, especially in positions of leadership, means we get practice in considering complex problems, converging on consensus solutions and better preparing ourselves for a challenging future.

How important is it that South Africa will host the International Astronomical Union’s general assembly in August, a first for Africa?
The general assembly is an incredible milestone for the science community on the African continent, and the excitement is palpable across the globe. We’ve had more than 3,000 abstracts submitted for the meeting! Having this meeting on the African continent demonstrates the huge growth in science, and specifically astronomy, that has unfolded in Africa over the last decade. It’s an opportunity to recognise Africa’s voice in global scientific endeavour and, with a higher fraction of youthful population than anywhere else in the world, Africa is positioned to lead science in the coming decades.

As a founding member of the African Network of Women in Astronomy, why is getting more women into the field important to you?
It’s important to me to get more women into all scientific fields. Gender parity is still a goal to strive for in most scientific fields, with far fewer women present at the senior levels. My reason for why gender parity in science is important is a rather pragmatic one: I think science benefits from greater diversity of views and thinking, and I think women themselves benefit from having a wider choice of career options. The African Network of Women in Astronomy connects its members with support, opportunities and tools to navigate research careers in astronomy in a very dispersed geographical setting. The network, together with the International Science Programme of Uppsala University in Sweden, awards an annual prize for women in astronomy in Africa.

What are the best and worst things about your job?
I really enjoy learning new things, and I often have the opportunity to do just that as part of my job! I am incredibly lucky to be able to speak to and learn from some of the brightest and most influential minds in science. The worst thing about it is probably the same complaint that anyone who works in international collaborations has: having to stay awake or wake up early for meetings in other time zones.

Tell us about someone you’ve always admired.
I always admired Brian Warner, from the University of Cape Town, who sadly passed away last year. He was a real polymath: a brilliant intellectual with a great sense of humour. He was an astronomer by training and made significant contributions to both astrophysics and observational techniques. He also published a number of books about the history of science and even a few books of his own poetry.

What is the biggest misconception about your field of study?
I think the most pervasive misconception in my field is that black holes “suck in” matter, when, at a distance, they behave just like any other object with the same mass.

What do you do for fun?
I love spending time outdoors. In the last few years, I’ve enjoyed running in the mountains around Cape Town. I’m going to have to find a replacement for that in Paris, but I’m looking forward to all the cultural delights here.

If you weren’t an academic, what do you think you’d be doing?
I’d probably be a retired ballet dancer. I spent my teenage years choosing between dancing and science – two rather different career paths.


2001-04 BSc, physics, University of Cape Town
2004-07 MSc, theoretical nuclear physics, Cape Town
2007 PhD, astrophysics, University of Southampton
2007-10 Postdoctoral fellow, Southampton
2011-16 Joint lecturer in observational astronomy, Cape Town and South African Astronomical Observatory
2017-22 Astronomer, Office of Astronomy for Development and South African Astronomical Observatory
2019-present Adjunct associate professor, Cape Town
2020-23 Head of research, South African Astronomical Observatory
2022-23 Deputy director, Office of Astronomy for Development
2023-present Science director, International Science Council


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