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Arts & Culture ᐊᔨᐦᑐᐧᐃᓐ

Innu astronomer Laurie Rousseau-Nepton discusses the universe

BY Avanti Nambiar Oct 18, 2023

Laurie Rousseau-Nepton, the first Indigenous woman in Canada to gain a PhD in astrophysics, is the subject of the 2023 docu-series North Star. Consisting of five short episodes, the series covers Rousseau-Nepton’s journey from the Ashuapmushuan wildlife reserve to an observatory atop a Hawaiian mountain. In an interview with the Nation, the trailblazing Innu astronomer discussed her path into science, her unique outlook, and her aspirations for women in research.

Rousseau-Nepton is the principal investigator for SIGNALS, a survey program which aims to observe over 50,000 star-forming regions. Translation: Rousseau-Nepton studies the birth of stars, and collects stunning photographs of nearby galaxies. She speculates that this research could produce technologies with applications on earth. However, she stressed that the core goal of the program is to understand how and why stars are born. 

Rousseau-Nepton says she is motivated by her curiosity to understand “our place in the universe.” She notes our solar system, and all the atoms of our bodies, were once in the “hearts of stars.” 

The notion that we are all made from stardust – remnants of those twinkling pinpricks in the sky –  could be overwhelming to some people. Yet to Rousseau-Nepton, the thought is a source of profound beauty. 

In Innu traditional beliefs, humans came from the stars, and will return to them. The faith system claims that the stars are the ancestors of human beings, and as such, are a part of us. Rousseau-Nepton holds this faith system in her own life. 

“Having a little piece of those stars inside of us, is the same as having a little piece of our ancestors inside,” she said. “In some ways, they’re influencing what’s happening right now, even though they have passed away. And it’s the same for the stars. I find it very peaceful when I think about it like that.”

It was at Université Laval that Rousseau-Nepton helped develop the SITELLE instrument, a powerful astronomical tool. She would later use the instrument to study stars in Hawaii for six years. The docu-series covers Rousseau-Nepton’s time as a resident astronomer at the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope. 

The observatory rests near the summit of Mauna Kea mountain on Hawaii Island. Perched above the clouds, so high that it leaves visitors short of breath, this remote telescope is surrounded by flat, windless land. The setting, in North Star, appears almost otherworldly. Rousseau-Nepton confesses that “the place has a lot of hazards,” due to the lack of oxygen and the risk of storms. Still, the lack of light pollution, wind and clouds allows for crystal-clear images of the night sky. 

Researchers sometimes struggle to effectively communicate dense, dry information to lay people. But Rousseau-Nepton translates academic concepts into relatable language, easy for everyone to grasp. This is due to her skills as a communicator. 

“The very reason why I’m doing science is to increase everybody’s knowledge,” she explained. “If what I learned cannot be transmitted to other people, what’s the point?” 

And North Star is is filled with wonder: full of visuals of distant galaxies and unique environments on earth. In the series, Rousseau-Nepton and her intern Justine Giroux discuss galaxies having unique “personalities.” The pair address regions where stars are born as “stellar nurseries.” 

Rousseau-Nepton says that when she studies star formations, “we often talk about different generations of stars.” Early in the universe, an older generation burnt out, pushing their fire into space. This, according to Rousseau-Nepton, enriched the next generation of stars, allowing them to form. “This cycle of forming stars has been happening for billions of years,” she concludes. “And now we are part of this, we have some of this in our body.” 

She compares this process to the creation of human beings, through generations of families and communities. Rousseau-Nepton pointed out that other women had helped her gain a place in science, by making the field more welcoming, and “enabling us to contribute.” 

As a student, she felt pressure to represent Indigenous women in science. She was hard on herself, suspecting that if she were to fail in her studies, “it would be worse than just my personal failure.” When she finally received her PhD in astrophysics, however, Rousseau-Nepton was shocked to learn from a journalist that she was the first Indigenous woman in Canada to obtain such a degree. She wondered, how it could be, that in the year 2000, she could be the first to reach this goal post. 

The revelation angered her, and drove her to try to change the field. She aims to make her discipline more welcoming to women, as well as the Indigenous community. Besides striving for gender parity on her own research project, she works to mentor young Indigenous women from Quebec. 

To women aspiring to enter the STEM fields, Rousseau-Nepton advises, “trust your guts.” She encourages women to ignore naysayers, including their own internal voices of doubt. She also implores the friends and family of such women, to show encouragement. After all, it was the encouragement of her father, and friends, which helped Rousseau-Nepton feel confident in her career.

While mentoring Indigenous women, Rousseau-Nepton emphasizes traditional Innu astronomical knowledge. Through oral records, the Innu have passed down information on eclipses, constellations and more. Northern Indigenous communities have historically used the stars as a tool to track seasons, time and location. 

This insight formed the foundation for spiritual beliefs. It also helped the Innu peoples to hunt, navigate and survive in difficult climate conditions. By researching these traditions, Rousseau-Nepton can help Indigenous students understand their scientific heritage.

The North Star series begins in the Ashuapmushuan Wildlife Reserve, where Rousseau-Nepton hunted with her father as a child. It was here that she first developed her interest in science, and honed her observational skills. She was also exposed to the clear, dark night sky, where she could watch shooting stars, or the aurora borealis. With both her parents involved in civil engineering, Rousseau-Nepton was exposed to mathematics through her mother, and hands-on building activities through her father. These skills carried through to her university education, where she had direct experience developing the SITELLE instrument. 

In the competitive world of academia, some scientists guard their data fiercely. Yet, Rousseau-Nepton prefers a more collaborative approach. The results of her SIGNALS project are open source, and her team of some 60 international researchers is half female. 

She believes that adding more perspectives will help us uncover discoveries more rapidly and hopes that within our lifetimes, we learn more about the universe expanding, dark energy, and dark matter. 

As an Innu with a deep respect of nature, it’s no surprise that Rousseau-Nepton contemplates the environmental impact of space studies and exploration. She’s concerned about Starlink satellites overpopulating the night sky, and the accumulation of space debris. She considers the ecological footprint of running observatories, or using her computer. 

Though humankind is able to see billions of galaxies, and billions of stars within our own galaxy, we have yet to find a planet quite like Earth. Rousseau-Nepton points out that “just knowing how unique” our home is, should motivate us to “figure out ways to protect it.”

The North Star docu-series is available for free on the NFB website.

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