An academic career close to home

Prof. Anne Verhamme researches the early days of the universe at the University of Geneva

Dr Anne Verhamme teaches as an assistant professor of Astronomy at the University of Geneva and researches how galaxies release energy into the universe. The 42-year-old French woman is also a mother of three teenagers and lives in Annecy. That sounds like a proof that a scientific career and family are compatible today. However, Anne Verhamme had to overcome a few hurdles before she got to that point.

Dr. Anne Verhamme, Assistent Professor for Astronomy at the University of Geneva. The photo shows Anne Verhamme in front of the super calculator of the University of Geneva she does use to do her predictions.
Image: SNF

I reach Anne Verhamme by videoconference at home in Annecy, south of Geneva, where she lives with her husband and three children. Her commute to the Astronomy Department of the University of Geneva at the Sauverny Observatory, where she works as an assistant professor of astronomy, is 50 km. The fact that she has to commute across the border for her job does not bother Anne Verhamme. On the contrary: she is glad that her work is relatively close to where she lives. This proximity was always important to her, and it was decisive for her academic career. Because this proximity was the prerequisite for reconciling her career as a scientist with a family.

Between science and family

Anne Verhamme was 27 years old when she gave birth to her first daughter, Marie, in December 2006. She had completed her Master's degree at the University of Grenoble in 2003 and was now in the middle of preparing her doctoral thesis. She completed it in June 2008, one month before her second daughter, Charlotte, was born. In January 2009, she went to Oxford University for a year - equipped with a scholarship from the Swiss National Science Foundation for young researchers. Shortly after her return - January 2010 - she gave birth to her third child – Jules. During her third pregnancy, her husband and first two children lived in Annecy. It is easy to imagine how Anne Verhamme must have been torn between science and family during this time.

Another scientist in this situation might have chosen her family, her three small children. But Anne Verhamme, daughter of a doctor and a biology teacher, did not want to give up her scientific career - and used the funding that was available for excellent young researchers, but also specifically for women. After an eight-month maternity leave (without payment because the SNSF grant had not established any entitlement), she began her second postdoctoral position in September 2010, this time at the 'Centre de Recherche Astrophysique de Lyon' at the University of Lyon, equipped with a two-year EU grant (Marie Curie Fellowship of the European Research Council). Again, she had to commute between her job and home, as her family continued to live in Annecy, 150 km away.

Help through women-specific funding instruments

In 2012, the position in Lyon expired and the astrophysicist needed a new job. "During the search, I had the big limitation that I didn't want to move due to family reasons. Academic careers almost happen by themselves if you are willing to go somewhere abroad. But my husband worked in Annecy, my children went to school here, we had a house. I couldn't just transfer to Tokyo University or wherever. So I was faced with the challenge of finding money for myself that allowed me to do research in the Annecy area." That's how Anne Verhamme came to the University of Geneva. First for three years thanks to a 'Bourse d'excellence de l'Université de Genève', then for two more years as a 'Maria-Heim-Vögtlin Fellow', at the time a funding instrument of the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF). "Both fellowships are reserved for women, so positive discrimination," Anne Verhamme openly admits, "but without this support my academic career would simply not have been possible."

In 2018 - after receiving bridge funding from the SNSF - Anne Verhamme was finally able to establish herself as a researcher with her own research group: She was awarded a four-year assistant professorship by the SNSF, which she still holds today. In addition - underlining her scientific excellence - she successfully applied for one of the coveted 'Starting Grants' from the European Research Council.

The warming of the universe

The perseverance paid off. In September 2019, Anne Verhamme received the Marie Heim Vögtlin Prize of the Swiss National Science Foundation, endowed with 25,000 Fr. The award relates to the field of work she has been working on since her doctoral thesis with Prof. Daniel Schaerer: Lyman-alpha radiation, which is emitted by hydrogen atoms under certain circumstances and which lies in the ultraviolet range of electromagnetic waves. Anne Verhamme had put forward an interesting hypothesis, which has since been confirmed by data from the Hubble Space Telescope: namely, that a type of very compact, green-glowing galaxies (so-called green pea galaxies), which were only discovered in 2007*, emit many ionising photons thanks to Lyman-alpha radiation. This finding is spectacular because the Green Pea galaxies show a great similarity to the galaxies in the primordial times of the universe. This leads to the suspicion that the primordial galaxies also emitted many ionising photons - and thus, a billion years after the Big Bang, provided the impetus for the warming of the universe, a development that astronomy has not yet been able to explain.

When Anne Verhamme talks about her astronomical theories and findings, she finds a language that even the non-scientist can understand. Her language is vivid and lively, she underlines what she says with gestures and thus makes us forget that behind all that is said there is a great deal of complicated physics and mathematics, likewise a great deal of modern observation and simulation technologies, without which top astronomical research would not be possible today.

Waiting for the Hubble Successor Telescope

Anne Verhamme is now 42 years old. She does not yet have a permanent job like many others of her age, but she has a research group of eight with whom she can work on her own scientific questions. The next challenge is already on the horizon: In late autumn 2021, it is planned, the US, Canadian and European space agencies will launch the James Webb Space Telescope into space, the successor to Hubble. An important scientific driver of this mission is the study of primordial galaxies. For Anne Verhamme, this is an exciting moment: "We will be able to look far back into the history of the universe with this telescope. We will be able to see the primordial galaxies and hopefully solve the mystery of whether they actually emitted the ionising radiation that led to the warming of the universe at that time."

* first publication in 2009, see: https://arxiv.org/pdf/0907.4155.pdf

Author: Benedikt Vogel

Portrait #7 of Women in science in the fields of MAP (2021)

  • Professor Verhamme in conversation with Moupiya Maji, a postdoc from her research team.
  • Anne Verhamme in 2019 at the ceremony for the award of the Marie Heim Vögtlin Prize of the Swiss National Science Foundation, endowed with 25’000 CHF.
  • The big mirror of the James Webb Space Telescope.
  • Dr. Anne Verhamme, Assistent Professor for Astronomy at the University of Geneva. The photo shows Anne Verhamme in front of the super calculator of the University of Geneva she does use to do her predictions.
  • Professor Verhamme in conversation with Moupiya Maji, a postdoc from her research team.Image: SNF1/4
  • Anne Verhamme in 2019 at the ceremony for the award of the Marie Heim Vögtlin Prize of the Swiss National Science Foundation, endowed with 25’000 CHF.Image: Privat2/4
  • The big mirror of the James Webb Space Telescope.Image: NASA/Desiree Stover3/4
  • Dr. Anne Verhamme, Assistent Professor for Astronomy at the University of Geneva. The photo shows Anne Verhamme in front of the super calculator of the University of Geneva she does use to do her predictions.Image: SNF4/4
Anne Verhamme (University of Geneva) brought stones from the Atacama desert

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