When Dr. Jacinta Delhaize was five years old, she decided she wanted to be an astronaut.
Lover of space and eager to float, she had all the prerequisites a child would need to aim for the stars.
But when a teacher told her she couldn’t become an astronaut because there was no way in Australia and she was a woman, it was no longer just a dream for five-year-old Jacinta – it was a challenge.
Now, with an undergraduate, honors and a doctorate in her pocket – after discovering two galaxies and conducting years of groundbreaking research in radio astronomy – Jacinta returns to her hometown of Mandurah as an astronomer to deliver a lecture at the TEDxMandurah event on May 28.
Aim for the stars
“When the teacher said that, I didn’t internalize it – my parents were pissed and were like ‘this is garbage’ and I agreed and thought ‘I’ll show you,'” said Jacinta.
Jacinta said that as she progressed through primary and secondary school, her love for space was nurtured by the people around her.
When she was 14, Jacinta’s friend bought her a book called beautiful universe featuring photos from the Hubble Telescope, which she says fueled her fascination.
“These books with beautiful images of galaxies and stars – I found them absolutely magnificent. The admiration I felt while watching this…”
When she got to high school, she said she started learning the science behind her favorite images.
“I started to learn math, physics and chemistry – and I started to understand better what was really happening in these images.
“Learning this made me realize that this was the language you needed to speak the language of these beautiful images and understand what they were.”
In the right place at the right time
After graduating from high school, Jacinta said she struggled to choose what to study at university – not knowing at the time that astronomy was a career she could pursue, she decided to get into physics.
“I started my undergraduate studies in physics at UWA, and I loved it – but I felt like it wasn’t quite the direction I wanted to go.
“That’s when I got really lucky, and in my second year of college, two astronomers came to the state.”
Peter Quinn and Lister Saveley-Smith have joined UWA’s physics department in an effort to boost WA’s bid for the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) telescope, which would be the largest radio telescope in the world.
“My headmaster knew I was interested in astronomy and told me to go talk to them. Peter Quinn told me WA was bidding to host one of the biggest science projects in the world . It just blew my mind. It was an amazing feeling to be in the right place at the right time.”
Jacinta said that once she realized astrophysics was a field she could grow into, she realized she was “finally on the right track”, and continued to do her honors. under the supervision of Mr. Savely-Smith.
During her honors, she learned more about radio astronomy and how space transmits radio signals that can be picked up by radio telescopes.
These books with beautiful pictures of galaxies and stars – I found them absolutely beautiful. The admiration I had while watching this…
“Things in space don’t just emit light like the stars we see – but all wavelengths of light. Radio is a type of light, not a type of sound. We decided because we have a radio and it emits a sound that it is a sound.
“Radio stations transmit in the form of light which is picked up by an antenna, which transforms it into the sound we hear.”
Jacinta then applied for an internship at the Gemini South Telescope in Chile, and in 2007 she flew there to work for three months with a supervisor.
“It was the most incredible experience I have ever had. I had to go up to the telescope at night in the Andes. The sky up there was next level.
“It was the first time I saw the bag of coal. When you look at the Southern Cross, if it is a very dark night, you can see a spot in the sky that is darker than the others. is actually a cloud of dust.”
Jacinta said watching the sunset over the Andes mountains with a huge telescope was when she decided it was her dream career – and after completing her doctorate at both UWA and Oxford University, she officially became Dr. Delhaize.
Self-discovery and the galaxies
After completing her PhD, Jacinta moved to Croatia for her first post-doctoral position, where she worked alongside Vernesa Smolcic from the University of Zagreb.
“Vernesa was, at the time, the only radio astronomer in the country studying extragalactic things. We quickly grew to a group of about seven people and worked with the Very Large Array (VLA) telescope in New Mexico – which was at the time the most powerful radio telescope in the world.”
Jacinta then left Croatia for South Africa for a fellowship at the SARAO Observatory.
It was agreed that South Africa and Australia would share the SKA telescope – and in the meantime Jacinta worked with precursor telescopes including MeerKAT which, at one to three percent the size of the SKA, provided a window into what he would one day provide.
In 2021, Jacinta discovered two large radio galaxies, a feat she has added to her long list of accolades since beginning her studies.
Today Jacinta is a permanent member of the academic staff at the University of Cape Town, where she works as a lecturer and researcher in astrophysics.
“I definitely had a lot of impostor syndrome which I do my best to ignore and get rid of,” laughed Jacinta.
“I think it affects a lot of people, especially women, and stops us from contributing in the way that we can contribute. I’m really humble and I love helping students and teaching them. I love seeing them have the same enthusiasm as me.”
On May 28, Jacinta will take the stage at the Mandurah Performing Arts Center to give a TED Talk at TEDxMandurah — a scene she said was all too familiar.
“I grew up on the MANPAC stage. I’m really excited to go back – it’s almost like coming full circle. I’ve had ballet competitions and concerts – I spent half my life there. To be able to come back as an astrophysicist is amazing – my dancing has always taught me not to fear crowds.”
Jacinta said she looked forward to being able to share her work with the community in her hometown and wanted to inspire potential young astronomers with her words.
“My advice to young people going through the process would be to put your mental health first. The process can be intense, but if that’s what you really want, go for it and don’t be afraid.
“Take care of your mind because it’s the only tool you need to do your job as an academic – as an academic you get paid to think – if your mind isn’t in good shape, you can’t do your job very well.”
Jacinta said some of her favorite ways to take care of herself and spend time were bouldering, dancing, yoga and working out on her podcast. The cosmic savannah where she shares her discoveries in the field of astronomy in a way that everyone can appreciate and understand.
To follow Jacinta’s journey, find her on social networks: