From insurance to the stars
Marissa Kotze is one woman who loves what she does.
Making the drastic shift from working in the insurance industry to studying astronomy and becoming an astronomer at the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT), Marissa Kotze is a charismatic, humorous and very intelligent person. She grew up in the 1980s when space travel and the first moon landing were still new and exciting topics. “Mainstream media focused a lot on space travel and that also influenced my passion for astronomy”, she explains.
During the 1980s, there were fewer career options in South Africa, especially for women. “We don’t have that in South Africa, was the response I received when I said I wanted to do astronomy”, Kotze explained further.
With that disheartening answer, she began her career elsewhere. This did not, however, deter her from her dream completely, because she began studying for a BSc, with majors in Mathematics and Astronomy, part time through UNISA. When she was ready to resign from the insurance industry, she decided to apply at the University of Cape Town and the National Astrophysics and Space Science Programme (NASSP) in 2007.
“The whole process of study takes about seven to 10 years and today I am an astronomer. It is an uncomfortable job, it takes you away from your family and it has strange working hours because we work at night when we do observations” Kotze said. “But having said that, it’s amazing when you’re looking at a galaxy or a star, and chances are you are the only person on the planet looking at it, and that it so cool.”
Kotze specializes in studying x-ray transients and multi-wavelength observations on binary star systems emitting energy as material is transferred from a donor star to a compact object (white dwarf, neutron star or black hole).
Despite the shortage of women in the field of science and astronomy in South Africa, there are many opportunities for all women who have the skills and the passion for astronomy: “There is no bias towards men any more and it is no longer a question about whether or not women can do it, but about whether or not they want to become astronomers and scientists.”