Asian Heritage Month: Joanna Woo

May 02, 2022

My name is Joanna Woo. I am a lecturer in the Department of Physics at SFU, and the director of SFU Trottier Observatory. I'm an astrophysicist and my particular area of expertise is galaxy evolution.

What inspired you to be a scientist?

When I was young, I was a big fan of Star Trek. But aside from that, I was also inspired by images from the Hubble Space Telescope, which first came out when I was still pretty young and thinking about my direction. The images were so spectacular that I thought, “Wow, I want to understand what all this means.”

What do you love most about your work?

I enjoy discovering new things and creating new knowledge for humanity. These are usually quite small and arcane, something that the general public hasn't necessarily captured. But just to be able to discover something new is quite thrilling. Another thing that I really do love about astronomy is that there's a lot of grunt work in it, but when you finally produce a beautiful image or find an amazing discovery, after all that hard work, it's quite rewarding.

I also enjoy sharing astronomy with the public. I’m involved in a lot of public outreach and I also teach an undergrad course that is meant for non-scientists. It's always fun to showcase the best of astronomy to those who wouldn't normally think about it.

What are you proud of?

I am very proud of the students and young collaborators that I've been able to watch and guide from starting at zero all the way to full, independent-thinking scientists. That has been very rewarding. I also direct the Trottier Observatory, and I'm very proud of the students and staff who have done amazing work there, and blossomed into great communicators and leaders when it comes to public outreach.

I’m also thankful that I've had the opportunity to live abroad in different countries and learn multiple languages, which is an opportunity not a lot of scientists have.

What kinds of barriers in your work or studies have you faced?

I have faced a lot of barriers that a lot of women of colour come up against. For example, I've come up with some very good ideas, but have not gotten the proper credit for them. I've experienced that so many times and it's really frustrating. When we grow up, we're taught not to fight for our proper credit, but to let others commend us, whereas other cultures are more encouraged to self-promote. I have found it very difficult when I have suggested an idea or proposed something new and somebody else takes credit for it.

Why are the barriers higher for Asian scientists?

Western cultures do value individuality, assertiveness and self-promotion. However, Asian cultures tend more to value things like community, consensus and cooperation. Unfortunately, those values are not as well-rewarded in Western cultures. So these differences can cause the barriers to be higher for Asians who have to learn to go against their cultures and be more assertive and promote themselves.

What suggestions do you have on how to make academia a diverse and inclusive space?

Related to the cultural differences, I think that academia needs to change its idea of what makes a good leader. Currently, good leadership is considered to be having a vision, charisma, and great, unique ideas. But what's also important for leadership is the ability to build consensus, and to foster collaborative teamwork. We need to change our perception of what makes a good leader, sharing some of the values that non-western cultures have ‒ consensus, community, cooperation, teamwork. Excellent teamwork needs to be rewarded more, and not just outstanding individuals with great ideas.