People’s profiles – Vera Assis Fernandes

Vera Assis Fernandes

Visiting Scientist, Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin, Germany

Visiting Researcher, CEED, University of Oslo, Norway

Visiting Academic, DEES, University of Manchester, UK

Visiting Researcher at IDL, University of Lisbon, Portugal

Credit: Hwa Ja Götz, Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin

Vera Assis Fernandes is a Planetary Scientist who primarily applies the Ar-isotope chronology technique – in combination with petrographic and geochemical characterisation – to decipher different thermal events. Her work predominantly focuses on lunar rocks (Apollo and Luna missions, and lunar meteorites) thereby constraining the timing and nature of rock formation and later disturbances. Vera’s work has also involved examinations of other planetary magmatic rocks such as new ungrouped achondrite meteorites of potential asteroidal origin, and which comprise a group not previously identified.

 

The findings of Vera’s work have provoked a paradigm shift  in the understanding of the Earth-Moon (and inner Solar System) impact bombardment history. She has shown that the distribution of impacts over time was far more complex than viewed by the late heavy bombardment theory, also often termed lunar cataclysm. Suggesting that the Heavy Bombardment Eon (HEB) to be a preferred terminology because it encompasses the initial 1 billion years of the Solar System. Other aspects of her collaborative work have been dedicated to understanding the shock effects on meteorites as a result of their experiencing impacts whether as a piece of the Moon, or any other planetary body. She has also participated twice in the ANtarctic Search for METeorites (ANSMET). This has involved her collecting material freely “delivered” by the cosmos and subsequently accumulated in the frigid austral ice-fields of Antarctica so as to be studied by the international scientific community.  During Vera’s first ANSMET trip, which involved an overnight at the South Pole on the way to the La Paz ice-fields, she became the first Portuguese person to ever be at the South Pole.

Additionally, Vera feels at her best while hiking above the tree-line where the forms of mother-nature’s work can be clearly seen and marvelled. She advocates for promoting knowledge to be valued as a means of humans understanding how we belong to Earth and not the other way around, their place in the Solar System and Cosmos. In consequence, she supports exploration and not exploitation of other planetary bodies. Besides writing scientific papers, participation and organization of sessions in scientific conferences and workshops, Vera feels strong responsibility in contributing to constructive public outreach events. Such activities are important because they have the intent to sensitize people of all ages to reduce their foot-print and limit environmental destruction as WE need it as a species.

2004-2005 Field Team | Source: Antarctic Meteorite Newsletter | https://curator.jsc.nasa.gov/antmet/amn/amnfeb05/programnews.htm

Are you the first person in your family to attend or work at a university?

Vera with two lunar meteorite finds in Antarctica

Although I am not the first person in my family to go to University, my mother did not attend (however, she is an autodidact), and my father went a little late in his life – when I was 10. None of my aunties went to university, but their husbands did.  Most of my cousins went. I am however the first to gain a MSc. and then a PhD.  Therefore, the first to work as an academic at a university or research centre.

What aspects of your ethnic and cultural background are important to you personally? Do you feel that diverse cultures are embraced and celebrated in your workplace?

Looking back, and evaluating my current situation, being a female in general is not easy, especially when one represents the first person of any nationality in the Planetary Sciences. Until I started going to planetary conferences, in 1998, and especially as regards research on extraterrestrial materials, there had been no Portuguese representation in the community. I had no support from any male during my MSc. (which I obtained in the US of A), and during my PhD (which I obtained in the UK) I was encouraged to go on my own to conferences, workshops, etc. Hence, I always had to introduce myself to the community with no male-reference in the background. I found it challenging to be accepted and included, and this was frustrating for me. Additionally, the fact that I am not a shy person and provide my opinions quite freely, I did / do not fit what, for many, a stereotypical female may be.

Mineral tranquillityite in Apollo 15 KREEP basalt 15433,94

Have you moved countries to pursue and build your career, networks, and credentials? What has been your career path since you completed your degree? Do you believe that you have experienced, at any point, discrimination by your employer, work place peers, students, or during grant review?

Since I was 8 years old I wanted to “touch” Moon rocks and be part of the research done on them. This is because I yearned to better understand this beautiful planetary object that has been so important for Earth and is ever present for us. After all, I grew up in the 1970’s! This long held love and passion for lunar science drives me, and continues to excite daily in spite of my varied experiences over time – including enduring gender and ethnic / nationality discrimination, which has impacted my confidence in the community.

 

For family reasons, I moved to the US of A for my undergraduate and MSc., then I moved to the UK for my PhD. After about 13 years abroad, I attempted a return to Portugal (c. 2003) to take part in building a new field of research in the country by establishing my home nation’s first planetary science research group and potentially gaining a secure position. This proved a more significant than anticipated challenge because I had not studied and networked in Portugal. I had no strong ties to a University and / or established Professor in Portugal – I was and am just too ‘unfamiliar’ for my home country. Unfortunately, my impression was that my international background was interpreted as a threat rather than a positive contribution, where I would be bringing my expertise as well as potential international collaborators. Many international and well reputed experts, especially in Europe, had stated they would be happy to help build our centre. After a few years in Portugal, and going deep into a depression (thankfully antidepressants exist), I decided to change country and pursue alternative opportunities because my energies were not being used to build a new centre as earlier envisioned, and my scientific career was suffering.

Upon leaving Portugal I obtained a 2-year post-doc fellowship in the USA (ca.2007). However, no care was taken about my travel and arrival nor support given to help with my need for initial accommodation. I even ended up sleeping in my office for a full week. These were an unhappy and stressful two years for me. Yet, the positive part of this time was that I was provided with many different meteorites and also terrestrial impactites (tektites and impact melt). I was also able to collect a lot of data during my time there, which were subsequently published, and therefore I stayed scientifically afloat. This experience was followed by a 1-year stay in Switzerland (ca. 2010), which I found restorative and very enjoyable. I worked both on samples as well as on instrument development for in-situ measurements on planetary surfaces. There I felt treated with fairness and respect, my suggestions were considered, and a true sense of belonging gained.

Following my time in Switzerland I had a prolonged and bumpy time under the circumstances of an appointment in Germany (from ca.2011). In my not speaking German, I found myself excluded from group meetings and other activities (including team organization of an international conference), which resulted in my feeling outcast. This sense of disconnection impacted my publishing of articles, and therefore the content of my CV and resultant job search experiences.

 

More recently (ca. 2018), I went to the UK, with the prestigious EU Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellowship. During this time, I encountered a greatly changed country from that in which I had conducted my PhD years earlier. Relative to earlier, the UK (and its universities) I encountered struck me as a country lost in wanting to be on the forefront of everything and to measure that in some fashion, so much so that it had lost perspective of what science entails and all that should be included in assessing merit. Many measures at the University lacked depth because staff time was pressured and no reflection was allocated. Additionally, I was part of a department in which there was an especially low number of non-UK nationals as permanent staff, and most invited speakers, for the otherwise fascinating regular seminars, came from within the UK only. With low cost meetings and remote broadcasts now possible and familiar to us (i.e. no travel and accommodation costs), I hope this department shall now seize on opportunities to include a diverse range of invited speakers from across the globe. For these reasons I am cautiously pleased that renewed energy is geared into community-level diversity and inclusion initiatives, and that necessary reflection may have been inescapable during recent lock-downs.

Given my mixed experiences and particular challenges faced along the way, I feel my mission is to protect and support others, whoever they are, who might encounter similar troubles on their own professional journeys. I wish to help quash what is discriminatory, conservative, dogmatic, and culturally limited;  tackling and removing those barriers that make it difficult for people of different cultures and identities to be considered and included, especially women of a range of backgrounds, personalities, and intersectional characteristics.

 

Irrefutable existing data, as well as my personal experiences and observations, prove to me that science is not achieving its full potential. Perhaps this mirrors how science has become devalued, based on “fashionable” themes, and the public is only given the final results in documentaries and rarely made aware of the process to get there. The process generally involves much time, funding, and efforts to test both study approaches and interpretations then drawn. Additionally, we face an urgent need to engage with a range of stakeholders so as to make clear why scientific results are important so that humanity can better grasp and understand its place on Earth, in the Solar System and among the Cosmos, and why a diversity of creative thought is needed in this context. Hence, I believe there is a general need for policy makers to also be informed of the myriad different ways that scientific outcomes can be “profitable” or useful, well beyond the monetary perspective, and likely not right away, but in the future when the same results shall be better understood. My belief is that any positive action that we do to improve our culture and workplace structures – no matter how small it may seem – will bring a better chance for science itself, and for those who wish to follow their call to work for discoveries.

What advice do you wish you had received before or during your career progression? or what would you now tell your younger-self if you could hop back in time to visit them?

There is no straightforward reply. I think the best advice would have been that I trusted myself more, and perhaps have placed more value on my “gut feelings” in preference to fears linked to insecure income and my stake in science. There is a cost with perseverance, the current and substantial lack of stability for so many people pressured among underfunded systems, and in tolerating challenges over time; it becomes a sort of addiction that blinds one from prioritising our wellbeing. Our health is needed for us to thrive in our work, in training others, and to properly enjoy our lifetime ride on Mothership Earth. Ensuring good staff well-being ensures fitness and positive morale among us all, and it is at least as necessary as the benefits of our professional environments being well-supported (we hope) and part of cooperative international networks.

 

As a final comment, I believe it would be constructive to evolve from societies and workplaces being largely designed and dominated by white males from affluent countries and backgrounds. This remark applies to any profession (and their methods used also by many white females). There really needs to be an honest soul search by all, perhaps with the aid of well-designed workshops, with the guidance of psychologists and sociologists who specialise in the types of behavioural matters such as have become deeply embedded in STEM communities thereby compromising workplace structures too.

Such workshops would explore the accountability we must collectively have for our working cultures / systems, while tackling individual’s learned and repeated cognitive bias and other behavioural habits. The perspectives of those from outside of our field and with specialist training that we – as physical scientists – lack would hopefully help us all to look deeply into ourselves so as to improve understanding of the reasons for our sometimes exclusionary customs (conscious or unconscious) that can be harmful. I hope that such actions will help everyone, including those of relative privilege and of influence, to better understand and be motivated to join forces in undertaking the work needed to tackle the harms and unequal experiences that present systems can impose on people’s lives, their career progress, and on science. Simultaneously, policy makers and politicians need to be exposed to and educated in what science entails so that they better understand what is required for moving forward together. Money-making is not the only profit obtained from research, fundamental knowledge, accidental discoveries, and our unknown future have great meaning too. All people are needed to fairly share in tackling these challenges.

 

We are deeply grateful to Vera for this contribution and for her strength.

Editorial handling was by EAG DEI Committee members Amy Riches, Jabrane Labidi, and Susan Little.