As a child, Karen Masters would gaze in wonder at the stunning whirls and spirals in photographs of galaxies.
She would cut them out of the paper and simply stare at them out of sheer fascination.
Little did she know that when she grew up, she would make a big contribution to our understanding of astronomy and, in particular, galaxies – and be an inspiration to other young girls.
Karen, 35, is a senior lecturer at the Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation at the University of Portsmouth.
Last week she won the Women of the Future science award on the same day she took part in the BBC’s 100 Women – a day of debate and discussion with inspiring women from around the world.
Karen, from Old Portsmouth, says: ‘It was a real honour to be recognised alongside this group of extraordinary women.
‘I’m delighted that the Women of the Future Awards include this science category. It highlights how important it is for women to be part of our scientific culture.’
At school Karen played the flute, danced, sang in a choir and belonged to the Girl Guides.
But, behind the scenes, she had a passion for science and maths and would devour astronomy books.
She says: ‘It was really astronomy and space that drew me in, particularly the beautiful images.
‘I’ve always been fascinated by how galaxies look, their structure.
‘There are spiral galaxies that look like hurricanes and whirlpools.
‘I used to collect press clippings from the local papers when they covered space stories. I was really interested in human space flight. I even wrote to NASA asking how to be an astronaut.
‘And I remember one Christmas when I was 13 or 14, my presents were books about astronomy – and a pair of binoculars. It wasn’t something I boasted about to my friends!’
Karen says she feels frustrated with people’s attitudes towards science. And she believes otherwise intelligent people are too quick to write off science and maths as mind-boggling.
‘We use mathematics as a language to understand how the universe works,’ she says.
She explains how cosmology and astronomy research have contributed to the tiny cameras in mobile phones, the algorithm that picks up Wifi signals and GPS for sat navs, and adds: ‘Science is part of our culture.
‘It’s part of what it means to be human – wondering about the world we live in. That’s why people love Brian Cox. Because it’s fascinating.’
Karen read physics at Wadham College, Oxford, which is particularly welcoming to state school students.
‘Oxford was amazing,’ she says. ‘Suddenly I was in a group of people where I didn’t have to hide that I thought astronomy was interesting. Before, it wasn’t something I would shout about.
‘At Oxford everyone is interested in all sorts of different things. For the first time I met girls who thought physics and astronomy were cool.’
From there she went on to do a PhD in astronomy at Cornell University in upstate New York and her tutor was world-renowned professor of astronomy Martha Haynes.
Karen says: ‘When I learned you get paid for doing a PhD I realised you could have a career in astronomy. That became my ambition.
‘My parents were very worried about funding it, but I learned quite quickly that in science there is money to fund research.’
It was in America that Karen met her husband, Wynn Ho, who is also an astronomer.
Their first child Jade, now seven, was born there. They now also have four-year-old Gian.
At times it’s been tough juggling family life and work but the scientific community is welcoming.
Karen and Wynn, who is Chinese American, are supported by Karen’s parents who help out when they can.
Karen says: ‘The children came with us to the International Astronomical Union Conference, in China.
‘While we were at the conference the children were in a special workshop with astronomy activities. That was the childcare!
‘I’ve never come up against any barriers because I’m a woman. I didn’t even think about it much until I got my PhD.
‘The majority of scientists I’ve met are incredibly open and really like to be improve diversity. The pressure is often from outside.
‘In America you only get three months maternity leave and you’re expected to go straight back to work.
‘But one of the lovely things about academia is no-one cares when you work, just that you get work done.’
With such intelligent parents it seems Jade and Gian are destined to follow in their footsteps. But Karen is adamant that she wants them to tread their own path in life.
‘I love talking to children about astronomy. I was once reminded by my children’s’ teacher that my children are not totally representative of the level of knowledge children typically have.’
Karen says Jade is fascinated by science, particularly interested in the human body. She adds quickly; ‘But whatever she did I’d be proud of her. Gian still probably wants to be a fireman!’
Honoured for research
Karen Masters has been honoured for her research into how galaxies form and evolve in our universe.
The Women of the Future Awards were founded to identify female role models under the age of 35 who are rising stars in the business, public and creative worlds and Karen won the science category.
She was also asked to take part in the BBC’s 100 Women day of debate.
She says: ‘I’m passionate about showing science is for everyone.
‘I do this through my work with the citizen science project, Galaxy Zoo, where more than 400,000 people help my research on galaxies, and through helping to encourage young women – as well as men – to consider science as an exciting, creative and important area to study.’
There are billions of galaxies but Karen has her favourite. She says: ‘It is the NGC 1300 which has a galaxy bar – it’s basically a straight line with spiral arms.’
To take part in Galaxy Zoo, go to galaxyzoo.org.