Lisa Keoli, the first woman to hold the position of Director of the Astrophysical Center | Harvard and Smithsonian first dive into the job, which involves overseeing about 800 scientists, engineers, students, and staff at Harvard and Smithsonian, who work to answer humanity’s greatest questions about the universe. Cooley spoke with the Gazette about her life, her love of astronomy, and the plans for the center. Interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Gazet: What is your vision for the Astrophysics Center?
kiwi: We’re entering a wonderful time in astronomy for large telescopes; The first generation has just come online – the James Webb Space Telescope [JWST], which will be followed by NASA’s Nancy Grace Roman Telescope. And we have huge ground-based telescopes coming online – the Vera-Rubin Observatory, the Next Generation Event Horizon Telescope, the Giant Magellanic Telescope, ESO’s Very Large Telescope.
Every time we’ve made a big leap in telescope size in the past, there have been tremendous discoveries about our understanding of the universe and our place in it. So I expect that when each one of these comes online, there will be amazing discoveries again.
Here we have an amazing group of scientists and engineers working on these and other telescopes. We have experience covering the full range of key areas in astronomy as well as all different wavelengths from radio to X-rays, and we’re starting to branch out into climate sciences with the upcoming launch of the TEMPO and MethaneSAT satellites.
We really need to position ourselves to take advantage of these next generation facilities. This means strategically recruiting in the areas of basic science that will make these discoveries and then inspiring the center to work together to answer the biggest questions of astronomy across the departments and fields we’ve been working on separately.
Gazet: So more collaboration between Harvard and Smithsonian?
kiwi: Yes, Harvard and Smithsonian, but also across different wavelength limits, for example, radio works with optical or radio, X-ray, optical and infrared astronomers working together. We need to use a variety of telescopes to answer the biggest questions in astronomy.
Gazet: What are the strengths of the center in your view and where do you see the work to be done?
kiwi: We are experts in space and terrestrial astronomy. We have a really great technology and engineering facility. And we don’t just do astronomy, we build tools. This makes us highly desirable as a builder of telescope technology but also as a user because we are tech savvy and really helps us take full advantage of telescopes once they are built.
Like any large organization, there is work to be done in bringing people together and transcending traditional boundaries in science. This is normal for a large organization and this is something I have experience with, leading a center of excellence in Australia that involved nine different universities.
Gazet: You are the first woman to fill this role. What does that mean to you?
kiwi: It is a great honor. When I was a student, there weren’t any female university professors in my department. There was only one female professor in all of Australia at that time. I was expecting to hit a glass ceiling at some point and have to quit astronomy. So I had a lot of backup plans when I had to leave.
It wasn’t until I moved to the United States and attended CfA as a postdoc  I have seen that there are women here who have successful careers in astronomy. There were also some women who had children and brought their children to conferences. And I saw you could be a woman in astronomy And the I have a family. There were very cool models about that that completely changed my view of astronomy.
I’m really starting to not have a lot of long-term goals; I just did astronomy because I really liked it, and then that changed as soon as I came to CfA. I didn’t hit a glass ceiling. You can get a job in astronomy and have kids and also, I never expected to become a manager. If you had told me that when I was a student, I would have thought you were crazy. It was more that I started thinking of bigger and bigger things to do.
Gazet: What is your research focus? Do you plan to continue doing research as a manager?
kiwi: My research focus is understanding the amount of oxygen in galaxies and how this has evolved over time. Recently, I have been doing some theoretical modeling of JWST-preparing spectra. I’m not sure I’ll have a lot of time to research but if I had, I’d love to apply our theoretical models to JWST data. I’m part of the JWST Early Release Science team. I plan to supervise students.
Gazet: Can you talk a little bit about some of the important work you’ve done that you hope will bring to Harvard?
kiwi: In the past, I have developed a proposal and vision for a center of excellence in Australia that covers many universities and a variety of sciences – from the era of reionization to the present-day Milky Way. It included mutual cooperation between observers and theorists. We’ve been able to develop this really successful collaboration across all of these universities through a combination of contacts as well as bringing people together on individual teams but also overall strategic planning meetings.
In terms of workspace, we have worked hard to develop a positive and inclusive culture. We were able to achieve 50 percent of women in four years, starting with 37 percent. This was the first time that a center had been able to do this in the physical sciences in Australia.
Gazet: Where did you grow up?
kiwi: I grew up in South Australia in a town called Tea Tree Gully. It is located in the suburbs close to the Adelaide Hills, a wine region. It has beautiful white and pink tea trees.
Gazet: Have you always wanted to be an astronomer?
kiwi: I started wanting to be an astronomer when I was in high school. I was in a bookstore and picked up a book called Galaxies. It contained images from the Hubble Space Telescope. I thought they were beautiful and I wanted to know all about them. I had a physics teacher who loved astronomy and I told him I was interested in being an astronomer and he brought me many general articles about black holes and wormholes. I thought it was great stuff as I recommend reading books at my level.
The only thing that really helped us was when our physics class went to astronomy camp in Flinders Ranges in South Australia for a week. It was all about science experiments. We had a telescope and we tracked Jupiter, we looked at Saturn’s rings, we made our own sun disks and tested them. It was an amazing experience and it really did that for me.
Gazet: How would you describe your leadership style?
kiwi: I lead by getting involved and getting people on board to make changes and answer the big questions. It is somewhat of a consultative leadership style. I love receiving input and feedback from the community. I love to have representation from all areas of the community that I lead, and I do so through a variety of committees and representation on committees, as well as through direct communication.
Gazet: What is something interesting or unique about you that people would be surprised to know?
kiwi: I suffer from synesthesia. It’s where the senses connect, so when I hear sounds, I see random shapes and colors. I have colors for letters and numbers. Scents have colors. I thought everyone had it until I was 25 and I talked to a psychology student who told me it wasn’t actually very popular. It runs in families.