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An interview with Leah Morabito: International Women's Day 2019

Written by Eleanor Sanger, posted on Friday, March 8, 2019

Earlier this academic year Dr Leah Morabito, Millard and Lee Alexander Postdoctoral Research Fellow and Postdoctoral Research Assistant in Galaxy Evolution, came up with the idea of a new initiative for women in the SCR, allowing them to meet each other at events like lunches and dinners, to share knowledge and experience and, in the future, to provide mentoring opportunities for both other staff members and students. In this blog post we find out more about Dr Morabito and what inspired her to set up this brilliant initiative! 


Dr Leah MorabitoEleanor: How did you first come up with the idea for the SCR women initiative?

Leah: I lived in college for eight months, and I used to go to High Table quite a bit. And I noticed that I never really saw any women there, and when we had events there weren’t as many women as I thought there might have been. Coming from a technical background – I’m in Astrophysics and it’s a male-dominated career field – it’s something that I notice a lot. So I thought it would be nice to try and meet some of the other women, because every time I meet someone at lunch or dinner I start talking to them, and they do incredible research so it’s really interesting!

It’s actually really nice to talk to some of the more senior women, because as an Early Career Researcher I think it’s really important for us to interact with people who have experience and who have been around for a long time. So that’s sort of how I came up with the idea. We did the first dinner last term, and then this term we’ve done a dinner and a lunch, and I think we’re going to carry on doing that – one dinner and one lunch every term. I’ve started talking to the Junior Censor about what else we might be able to do, especially with the fortieth anniversary of women students at Christ Church coming up!


Eleanor: And as you’ve said previously, taking over High Table at these dinners is really important in terms of showing the junior members that women can take on these roles as well!

Leah: Yes, I think that visibility is really important. Because SCR lunches are separate from the students but High Table is in the Hall, and I think it’s important for students to look up and see the number of women on High Table, because it really can make a huge difference to people if they see someone like themselves in a place that they might aspire to get to. And if you never see that you’re a lot less likely to think that you might be able to achieve it. So I think the visibility for the students is really important, especially since some of the students may not have many women in their tutorials or might not have women as tutors, but if they go to hall and see women at High Table they know that there are women out there in senior positions.


SCR women at High TableEleanor: What other things would you like to do with the group in the future?

Leah: I know there are also events going on with alumni, so I think it would be really nice to do some networking, perhaps to ask the women alumni if they’re willing to help network with current members of the college. Because I think women who are doing degrees or are even in early careers would appreciate being able to see what women who have done their particular degree at Christ Church have gone on to do afterwards.

I think mentoring within Christ Church would be helpful – after the last lunch someone suggested that idea of having small mentoring groups and having lunches or teas where people who are interested in a particular topic might be able to come along and chat with more senior women who have experience with whatever the topic is. I think mentoring is a big aspect of it, but at the moment I’m really just trying to see what other needs people might have. Because I’m a member of the SCR and don’t do any teaching I have started this from an SCR perspective, but I think it would be really good to perhaps talk to the people who do teach and to get an idea of what the students might need, and perhaps to branch out from there in future terms.


Eleanor: Have there been any particularly inspirational women for you throughout your life?

Leah: I saw the movie Contact, which is based on a book that was written by an astronomer, Carl Sagan, and Jodie Foster is the scientist in it – she’s a radio astronomer, and that’s actually the movie that made me want to become a radio astronomer. So that’s why I’m here today! So it was seeing such a strong female character depicted as a scientist, but also that she had to go up against other people and she stuck to her guns and what she believed in.

I’ve always found groups of women who are doing the same things as me and we’ve really bonded together, so I think a lot of my role models actually come from my peer group. A couple of friends and I started a society for women in Physics at our undergraduate institution, the University of Michigan, and just having those women around was really helpful. I did experience some discrimination when I was an undergrad, but there was one Professor that I worked for for a bit and at the end of it he just said, ‘so I’m writing you a graduate school recommendation, right?’. And it wasn’t a question – he was wanting to know when I wanted my recommendation letter. And for me that was huge, because I’d thought about graduate school but I knew I was going into the Air Force so I thought I’d just worry about that later. Until he said that to me I never really felt like it was worth continuing on in academia. And I’m so glad he said that, because look where I am now! It’s just been incredible.


Eleanor: It definitely means a lot to hear from people that they believe in you!

Leah: I think people really undervalue the impact of that, because in academia we often focus on the research, but sometimes the most impactful moments just come from a personal conversation with someone, and it can change someone’s life. And as a teacher or if you’re in a position where you’re a role model or mentor, I think it’s so important to be able to do that. To be able to inspire young people. And if you give a public lecture you might inspire someone to continue in science, because as a woman you’re showing them that you can do it and so they can do it, and I think that’s really important.


Eleanor: Do you have any words of advice for girls or younger women who might be just starting out or thinking about what they want to do?

Leah: I think the most important thing is to just try. Because rejection is a part of life, and you will get a lot of rejections. But the thing is that if you never ask, it won’t ever happen. So it’s really important that if you want to do something you should try to do it – the worst that can happen is that you’re no worse off than you were before. I think it takes a little bit of confidence to be able to do that, but if you start early on with small things and build up your confidence, when it comes down to things like applying for university or for a job you’ll be in the mindset where you just try everything and it doesn’t matter if you get rejections. Because some of the things will work out, and you’ll find that you have incredible opportunities that you would never have had if you hadn’t tried.


You can read more about the SCR women initiative in this news article from earlier this year. Find out more about Dr Morabito on her website profile and in a blog post from last year's Women in Science series