Local Astronomer from Cradock Lands Top Science Job in Paris

South African Astronomer Dr. Vanessa McBride has achieved a remarkable milestone by being appointed Science Director at the International Science Council (ISC), based in Paris. This prestigious position recognizes her significant contributions to the scientific community, particularly her work with the Office of Astronomy for Development (OAD), a collaborative effort of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) and the National Research Foundation (NRF) of South Africa.

The OAD, supported by the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI), reflects a concerted effort to harness astronomy for sustainable global development. The project signifies the commitment of institutions like the NRF, a prominent contributor to the growth and support of science and research initiatives in South Africa. The collaboration has propelled vital programs under the OAD, enabling astronomical development initiatives that extend beyond geographical frontiers.

Hailing from the quaint town of Cradock in the Eastern Cape, Dr. McBride will now be rubbing shoulders with the most distinguished scientists from around the world, as she works towards the ISC vision of science as a global public good. The ISC is a non-governmental organization with a unique global membership that brings together over 220 international scientific unions and associations as well as national and regional scientific organizations including academies and research councils.

Following her early education in Cradock, Dr. McBride pursued her passion for physics at the University of Cape Town (UCT). Her journey then led her to a stint at the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation in Pelindaba. However, it was the stars that truly called her, guiding her to the United Kingdom, where she attained her PhD and engaged in postdoctoral research in Southampton. Driven by a desire to contribute to her nation’s scientific landscape, she returned to South Africa in 2013, along with her family. Upon her return, she embraced a dual appointment, contributing both to UCT and the South African Astronomical Observatory.

Dr. McBride’s journey to international recognition underscores the importance of solid support structures, such as those provided by the NRF, in nurturing scientific talent. Her career, adorned with academic and professional excellence, highlights the impact of foundational support from entities committed to elevating scientific pursuits.

In 2017, Dr. McBride’s career ascended to new heights when she became part of the International Astronomical Union’s Office of Astronomy for Development (IAU OAD), all while holding her position as an Adjunct Associate Professor at UCT. Stationed in South Africa, the IAU OAD operates with a vision to harness astronomy’s transformative power for societal good. “Vanessa fitted right into the OAD from Day 1, with her special mix of seniority and humility. It was clear that OAD was always going to be a stepping stone towards greater things for her – so we supported her growth and big ambitions, and we are so proud (although sad) to see her now transition to the next level of her career”. remarked IAU OAD Director Kevin Govender. Notably, the IAU is an integral member of the ISC, which has recently welcomed Dr. McBride into its esteemed ranks.

Embracing her role at the IAU OAD, Dr. McBride championed the expansion of astronomy across Africa. Her efforts culminated in a victorious bid, ensuring South Africa as the host for the upcoming International Astronomical Union’s General Assembly in August 2024. This landmark event, a first for the African continent, is anticipated to draw thousands of international astronomers. Central to this initiative was “Vision2024,” a strategic plan spearheaded by Vanessa and her team to optimize the assembly’s positive impact across Africa.

True to her nature, Dr. McBride never retreated from substantial challenges, juggling duties as the Head of Research at the South African Astronomical Observatory and board membership for the Southern African Large Telescope. Her leadership extended to supervising academic pursuits and unifying the South African astronomy scene through an inclusive national Astronomy Town Meeting. Dr. Charles Takalana of the African Astronomical Society reflected, “The impact of Vanessa’s work on astronomy in Africa has been huge, and the way she achieved this, with her quiet diligence and abundant kindness, speaks volumes of her character. It will be a great loss for the continent to see her go, but we are excited that we will have a fellow African now sitting at the highest levels of science globally.”

Now, as the newly appointed Science Director at the ISC, Dr. McBride is poised to influence science policy and innovation on a global scale. She will directly engage with the ISC’s CEO, leading pivotal science initiatives as outlined in the ISC Action Plan. Her role is critical, especially at a junction when science and society navigate complex challenges, demanding dynamic and inventive perspectives. Her responsibilities will extend to close collaboration with regional offices in diverse geographies, from Africa to Latin America.

Dr. McBride’s transition to the ISC exemplifies the culmination of steadfast support from foundational bodies like the OAD and NRF. Her trajectory underscores the critical role of national mechanisms in nurturing scientific endeavours, contributing significantly to global discourses on innovation and excellence. 

Consequently, her journey from the observatories of South Africa to the strategic corridors of the ISC in Paris resonates with possibility and serves as a beacon for aspiring scientists everywhere. Alongside her family, she prepares for relocation, embodying the promise of impactful science that bridges communities, nations, and the world.