Date of Birth: 1st Dec 1964
- TML Primary School, St Joseph
- St Augustine Girls’ High School
- BSc (Honours) Physics, The University of the West Indies, St Augustine, Trinidad, 1987
- MPhil Physics(Astronomy), The University of the West Indies, St Augustine, Trinidad, 1992
- PhD Physics(Astronomy), The University of the West Indies, St Augustine, Trinidad and The University of Virginia, USA, 1998
- MPhil Psychology, The University of the West Indies, St Augustine, Trinidad, 2015
- The Rudranath Capildeo Award for Applied Science and Technology (Silver), NIHERST Awards for Excellence in Science and Technology, 2013
- Women in Science and Technology Award, NIHERST, 2011
- Vice-Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching, The University of the West Indies, 2005
- Distinguished Teacher Award, Association of Atlantic Universities, 2004
- Teaching Award, The University of the West Indies and Guardian Life Premium, 2002
- Over 30 refereed papers in scientific journals
- 40 popular science articles
Deputy Dean, Undergraduate Student Matters, Faculty of Science and Technology, The University of the West Indies, St Augustine, Trinidad
T+T Icons In Science & Technology Volume 4
Dr Shirin Haque was born in the village of Patna, India and came to Trinidad at the age of seven without being able to speak English and having no formal education. Despite this, she excelled academically and moved from kindergarten to St Augustine Girls’ High School within just five years. Today, she is the only astronomer in the Caribbean region. Dr Haque has pioneered the cutting-edge field of Astrobiology at the University of the West Indies and was interviewed by the BBC for a feature Science in Action for her novel work on the Pitch Lake, the largest natural hydrocarbon lake in the world. Her work also appeared in the Australian Broadcasting Channel impressing top scientific leaders and attracting them to our island. She is the founding member of CARINA (Caribbean Institute of Astronomy) and holds numerous teaching awards from the UWI. Her unique passion and approach can be the reason for this from her popular brownie question of the week to her demos of astronomical theories using a Winnie the Pooh stuffed toy. She has also distinguished herself as a film producer with three science documentaries. She is currently the editor of the magazine “The Intellectual – Art, Science and Architecture”.
NIHERST interviews Shirin Haque
Q: You came to Trinidad from India at the age of seven Was it a difficult transition?
A: When I came to Trinidad, I could not speak English, nor did I have any schooling. To help with the transition my mum would talk to us in Hindi, and dad would speak to us in English, it wasn’t too long before I caught up. I became bilingual quite easily. At the age of seven I began primary school and started learning English. From there I did the Common Entrance and passed for St Augustine Girls’ High School.
Q: You were born in India but spent most of your life as a citizen of Trinidad and Tobago. Where do you consider home?
A: Honestly, home is Trinidad and the Caribbean; this is where my spirit is now.
Q: You were always interested in astronomy and your family knew about it from the early age of five. Did they encourage this interest?
A: I have been interested in astronomy for as long as I could see the skies overhead. I have a distinct memory of looking overhead while in India and thinking that the sky was like this bowl over us and I wondered what those lights were. I was always excited when my parents got me a book or magazine subscription on astronomy. At around age seven in Trinidad, I got a great little book on the night sky. I often used my father’s binoculars to look up to the skies.
Q: Your parents had an interesting approach in guiding your academic path. How did this lead you to becoming an astronomer?
A: My father never told me what to become. Despite being a scientist he never said you must be a doctor, a lawyer or an engineer. This was a blessing as it allowed me to follow things that just caught my eye, the things I am passionate about now.
Q: How did you start charting a career in your passion, astronomy?
A: After pursuing a first degree in physics, I had this inkling that I wanted to do astronomy. I signed up for an MPhil in physics with a focus on astronomy. From there I did a PhD in physics and astronomy with the University of Virginia, USA.
Q: Was it smooth sailing for you at the tertiary level?
A: While I enjoyed success I did have my periods of failure, which I tried to hide for a long time. I actually did not enjoy high school as I was never really quite comfortable. However, I found myself at university; it gave me that element of freedom. Today, as Deputy Dean of student matters in the Faculty of Science and Technology, I deal with students who are struggling and failing. I talk to them and let them know that they are not alone and they have support.
Q: In choosing a career path in astronomy, were you concerned about the limited scope for employment in this field in the Caribbean?
A: I knew that securing employment could be difficult but I decided to take that risk. However I had decided that if I could not be employed as an astronomer, I would be content with teaching physics as I love it and the areas are related. I got lucky.
Q: Were there any role models that encouraged you to the field?
A: I could never owe enough to Carl Sagan. I never met him but I wish I did. When I was growing up there was this televisions series Cosmos which had such an impact on my life. I would tape every episode. If there’s any individual I really owe my continuing and becoming an astronomer to, it is Carl Sagan.
Q: When you started your career you pursued theoretical astronomy but at UWI you became instrumental in establishing the first obseravtional astronomy observatories in Trinidad and Tobago so you had to learn about observational astronomy. However, that is not where you are at present. Can you explain your new field?
A: Right now, I am working on something we call Astrobiology. It has taken me to the pitch lake and mud volcanoes; someone would think that I am a geologist but astrobiology is actually a mixture of astronomy and biology. It is the study of living organisms and how they have arisen in the entire universe and how they proliferate. Decades ago this term would not have been seen in a textbook but it is now the big attempt to answer questions
about life in the universe. It is a multi-disciplinary field that requires input from chemistry, physics, geology, sociology, you name it.
Q: Is your work in the Pitch Lake pioneering?
A: This is the first time that astrobiological work is being done in the region. It’s a collaborative project with institutions such as Washington State University, Columbia University and the University of Turku in Finland. It aims to discover the limits of life in the universe.
Q: Why was Trinidad chosen? What is the relationship between the Pitch Lakes, mud volcanoes and astronomy?
A: At this technological stage we can’t go off to Mars or Titan (Saturn’s largest moon) to bring a sample back and test it to see what’s going on there. So one approach is to look at what we call analog sites on earth that may be similar. On Mars there are many geological features which are mud volcanic in appearance and several reports of methane presence on the planet which is an indicator that there might be microbial life there. The bubbling you see at the mud volcanoes consists of methane gas. Similarly, our tests show that there are large amounts of hydrocarbon on Titan. The Pitch Lake in La Brea Trinidad is a hydrocarbon lake with the presence of methane gas. We therefore use these sites to explore the possibility that any microbial life could exist on Titan or on Mars. We are proud to say that the team from Helmholtz’s Institute in Germany and Washington State University actually published a paper based on this work in Science, one of the top journals.
Q: What is your role in developing Observational Astronomy at UWI?
A: Before I began work at UWI, there was never any observational astronomy research, everything was theoretical. The University of Turku in Finland donated a telescope to the Department of Physics and we established St Augustine and Tuorla Observatory (SATU), one of the first observational research observatories in the Caribbean. It was established to carry out a project in conjunction with Finland which was monitoring a quasar (a distant object powered by black holes) that they were unable to observe at all times due to their location. Trinidad’s location allowed us access to the quasar and so we were able to assist. The project made it to the top 100 science projects in Discovery magazine several years ago because it was the first evidence of a binary black hole system that had been found.
Q: You were on a BBC Science in Action feature in 2008, highlighting your work on astrobiology. How did that come about?
A: After watching astronomer Paul Davies on BBC Hardtalk we invited him to Trinidad to do a lecture. As he had an interest in astrobiology, I took him to the Pitch Lake and he was fascinated by the work. His wife who worked with BBC decided to do a feature which was broadcast worldwide and I realized that things will happen, serendipitously.
Q: What has been your contribution to physics at the secondary school level?
A: I go to the schools and ensure students know that law, medicine and engineering are not the only careers they can pursue. I am also involved in the revision of the CSEC physics syllabus. You can’t change physics, but you can change how you teach it by highlighting contributions of local scientists in the syllabus.
Q: You have played a major role in popularising science through your documentary series. Which productions have you completed and what inspired you?
A: Sometimes I think that I have a degree from the “University of Television” because almost everything I know is from television. While watching an amazing documentary one day I realised that there were no good local science documentaries. While I did not have any experience in production I bought a few books and soon after completed my first feature Adventures in Discovery in 2008, which was filmed across Montserrat, Antigua, Trinidad and Tobago. Afterward we did another called All is Number to highlight the relevance of mathematics in daily life and the final feature was Losing Paradise, which focuses on the turtles in Matura, those who seek to protect them, and the havoc caused by bushfires. I am currently working on the fourth project which features my work on the mud volcanoes and the pitch lake.
Q: Talk about your work linking psychology and physics.
A: I was always interested in psychology so when the opportunity arose, I decided to pursue it. My research project was on the impact of life events with time and naturally I found a way to incorporate physics. I took wave modelling concepts from physics to portray how waves behave and likened it to how our experience with life events with time can be. We could put a mathematical creation to how you will experience good and bad things, and then build up a model of your happiness factor. I was always interested in linking psychology with physics. I was proud to graduate with the MPhil in Psychology after pursuing it simply for personal interest.
Q: You have used your own personal challenges to excel professionally as a teacher with numerous teaching awards. How did this come about?
A: I understand failing students because I was there once. I have had times of failures and times when things worked out. Years ago, I applied to engineering and was devastated when my application was declined but today I look back and I know that’s the best thing that could have ever happened to me.
Q: You have encouraged students with “crazy passions” to pursue that field. Why do you suggest this?
A: I advise that they go for it because they will excel. It may be random but you find that success is realised anyway. Remember, your life has a path and if it’s not happening for you maybe it’s not for you.
Q: Do you feel that the scientific field of astronomy has received less than it is due?
A: Astronomy is one of the areas in science that has a mass following but minimal professionals in the field. There are a large number of amateur persons and societies but probably only about ten thousand astronomers in the world. That number is quite small.
Q: What has been your observation about women in science education?
A: In the Caribbean women are doing quite well in science compared to other parts of the world. However, while there are more women in science, they still hit the glass ceiling and do not make it to the top positions. I was the first female Head of Department of the Physics Department at the UWI.
Q: Given your deep interest in research and field work, how did you come to be an administrator?
A: Most people who go into science do not typically aspire to be a Head of Department or a Deputy Dean. Somewhere along my career path, I ended up in administration and though it takes away from my original passion, somebody’s got to do it. I would do anything to create opportunities for my students, especially the ones with the crazy dreams that nobody wants to listen to. We have sent undergraduate students to observatories abroad and
ensured they are engaged in important science projects.
Q: You have received many university teaching awards, internationally and in T&T. What makes your approach to teaching so different?
A: I love teaching and dealing with young people. I get excited about it and I think excitement is contagious. Students often get bored when they do equations that don’t relate to anything but if you can make that connection like Carl Sagan did, they become more interested.
Q: What advice would you give to students as they pursue their academic careers?
A: As you go through life, nothing is going to stay the same; there will always be changes. Sometimes at the height of what you are doing, you will hit a down period. Persistence is truly the key to success. In life, always try to give more than you take. My career has not been success after success and for that I am actually very grateful because failure taught me empathy and understanding.