'I never thought I'd get quite this far!' - Professor on Astronomer Royal appointment

Professor Catherine Heymans, a former Hitchin Girls' School student, is the first female Astronomer Royal for Scotland

Professor Catherine Heymans, a former Hitchin Girls' School student, is the first woman to be named Astronomer Royal for Scotland - Credit: Maverick Photo Agency

An astrophysicist who hails from Hitchin has spoken of her excitement and joy after being named the first female Astronomer Royal for Scotland.

A professor of astrophysics at the University of Edinburgh, Catherine Heymans - who was born and bred in Hitchin - is a world-leading expert on the 'dark universe', with her research shining a light on dark energy and dark matter.

The Hitchin Girls' School alumnus spoke to the Comet on the whirlwind that has ensued since her appointment, admitting: "I never thought I'd get quite this far!"

"It's all super exciting. I'm very honoured that the Queen wants me to be her Astronomer Royal," Prof Heymans said. 

"It's very nice to be recognised and it's also really exciting to finally have a female in this role."

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Serving as the 11th Astronomer Royal for Scotland, Prof Heymans is the first woman to hold the position in its almost 200-year history, and hopes that she can carry on the work of the 'founding fathers' before her while encouraging others to get involved in science.

"It's nice to finally have a woman in this role to show that science is for everyone," she added, noting her shock on being carefully selected for the prestigious title. 

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"I have a real vision on what I want to do with this role; I want to use it to get more kids into science, because astronomy's one of the easiest ways to get kids really excited about science.

"I think that's why the panel decided to recommend me to the Queen - to use this role to really help get more kids - particularly girls - really into science."

Prof Heymans fondly recounted a visit from Helen Sharman during her Hitchin Girls' years. In May 1991 - 30 years ago this month - Sharman became the first British astronaut to travel to space, and was the first woman to visit the Mir space station.

"I have no idea how they managed to get an astronaut to come and visit us, but I can really remember sitting there and looking at her, thinking 'oh my God, she's been into space! I want to be her when I grow up!'

"Hitchin Girls' School was fantastic at giving us the opportunity to do science beyond the curriculum. Certainly, when I was there, we had our standard lessons, but they had science club and they had all of these opportunities to do more, and get really into it.

"That's really important - to give people that chance to go beyond the curriculum and experiment for themselves - because that's what science is."

She added that her view on science as a whole is finding an interesting question that you don't know the answer to, and going in search of the answer to it - something that was nurtured during her time at HGS. 

Although being Astronomer Royal is a life-long honour - as long as she stays in Scotland - Prof Heymans explained that she is eager to only hold the role for a short while so that others get the chance to make science, especially astronomy, engaging for all.

"I want to use this to do something cool and good, but then I'm sure there'll be some new and exciting thing for me to spend my time on, and I can pass this onto some other fantastic astronomer. I don't plan to bag this role for the rest of my life!"

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