1. Patrick Bossé, what did you find inspiring about Laurie Rousseau-Nepton’s story?
And Laurie, what convinced you to accept?
Patrick: The backstory to the series is that I reached out to Laurie after hearing a radio interview with her. I found her really relevant and engaging as a science popularizer and communicator. At the time, I was doing research for a documentary on space junk. I quickly realized that this wasn’t a topic that fit in well with her practice. As a first approach, it was pretty naïve!
As we got to talking, I realized that she defies all kinds of stubbornly entrenched stereotypes about science. First, she’s a young woman in a field that’s still very male-dominated. She’s very active but very grounded as well. She’s very involved in the community. She’s interested in the local Hawaiian culture. And with her Innu background, she draws inspiration from Ancestral Knowledge of astronomy.
We’re a long way from the classic image of a socially challenged mad scientist holed up in his basement! To my eyes, Laurie embodies a new way of doing science.
Laurie: Showing science in a new light and promoting careers in science to young girls is really motivating for me. The project came together naturally around my meetings with Patrick. For me, this is also an opportunity to influence the future, in a way. Doing science helps improve everyone’s knowledge. It’s also the best job in world, if you ask me. And doing it in collaboration, as opposed to in competition, is the ideal for me. When we inspire and encourage the coming generations of women scientists, in all their diversity, we ensure that they too will make amazing discoveries.
2. Laurie, the series delves into your Indigenous roots and how they’ve influenced your journey. Can you speak to that a bit more? And have you had the chance to get to know any Indigenous Hawaiians? If so, what do you learn from them? In what ways are your realities similar or different?
Laurie: My Innu roots have followed me all through my studies and now in my career. Often, when you’re young, you don’t realize the difference that your origin story makes. It’s as you get older that you become fully aware of it.
I often say that’s where my sense of observation comes from. When you’re out hunting, you spend time looking around for clues to the presence of an animal. You use everything at your disposal, including strength in numbers—your family. You’re also mindful of the traces you might leave behind. That approach is very close to the scientific method, and maybe even closer to the approach we use in astronomy—that is, to gather all available information about celestial objects so as to better understand them, and to work with a number of collaborators.
After I graduated, I wanted to better understand my Innu culture, and I delved into Ancestral Knowledge about the cosmos, something I’m really passionate about. That led me to discover the full breadth of Innu science, which is little known in Canada.
Innu Ancestral Knowledge tells us that we come from the stars, and that the sky is also where we will return after our time on Earth. Now, it may just be coincidental, but my research is on the cycle of star formation and how each generation of stars influences the next, by ejecting part of their bodies into space. Without that cycle, the Sun, the Earth and everything it contains would not have been formed. So Innu Oral Tradition was onto something!
Since moving to Hawaii, I’ve met many native Hawaiians. The culture here is very rich, very alive, and I’ve had the chance to learn a little bit of the language, to listen to their stories and to be part of activities like canoeing and traditional celebrations. Understanding another culture takes time, and in the six years I’ve spent here, I’ve been able to understand their situation, which is quite different from ours in Canada. How the land on the island was organized to enable self-sufficiency with the available resources, how their advanced navigation techniques allowed them to travel on the Pacific Ocean, and how stories were shared in the form of the rhythmic chants. There are definitely some similarities: their connection to the sky, sharing, the way they tell stories, their laughs and their smiles, their desire for self-determination… but also the social inequities.
3. Observing the Universe, as a career, is something that feeds our dreams. With your two differing perspectives, as an astrophysicist and a filmmaker, what concerns did you manage to deconstruct during your respective experiences: becoming an astronomer, and making a documentary series about an astronomer’s journey?
Patrick: My initial interest in the project came from Laurie herself. For a film, she’s a really interesting character with a lot of levels to explore. I was very comfortable with that ‘portrait’ aspect of the documentary. But I didn’t know much about astronomy. So in terms of explaining science, I had a lot of catching up to do!
That process was ongoing from the scriptwriting stage right up to the last day in the editing suite. There were always new concepts to understand and information to check. Now, I’m telling you all this to say that this is a pretty accessible field of science. You just have to take the time to learn… In my case, it was baby steps!
Above all, I had a first-rate team around me. Laurie remained available from the start to the end of production. I also had support from people in the astronomy community in Quebec. Plus, some of the crew members had previously worked on projects involving astronomy, which meant that I avoided certain traps, for example in the way stars are represented.
Another concern, or rather a challenge, was to clearly show that leading-edge science, like what Laurie does, is not disconnected from our lives. Yes, it can be abstract, sometimes it’s very theoretical, and it’s about objects that are millions of kilometres away from us. But the story of the Universe is also our story.
So, as Laurie would say, you have to know where you come from to know where you’re headed! That might be the sentence that best sums up science and even her life journey.
Laurie: I don’t think I had many concerns; I just rode the wave, in a way. But I learned a lot about the process, through the various stages of production. One thing that amazed me is just how much shooting it takes to produce the episodes! There’s probably 10 times as much footage shot, to provide lots of choices in editing. I got to see the episodes take shape over time, and it really made me aware of all the work that goes into it, and how meticulous the production team is on every aspect of the documentary.
4. Patrick, what attracts you about science? Have you ever thought about it as a career?
Patrick: To be honest, I’d never even thought about doing science documentaries, much less choosing a career in science! I wasn’t particularly good, nor particularly interested, in science in secondary school. Then, my post-secondary studies were in art and cinema programs. And I’ve mostly made art films and films about art.
But, in parallel with my filmmaking, for about 15 years now I’ve been working with museums on projects that use video and interactivity. In that time I’ve realized that I’m passionate about communicating content in plain language and about transmitting knowledge. In a way, North Star has allowed me to connect my two areas of practice: filmmaking and museum design.
And now I’m developing several documentary projects with science content. I feel like the current context, with all the climate and environmental challenges, is leading me naturally in that direction. And the fact that I’m the father of two young children surely has a lot to do with it. I’m trying in my own way to help ensure a better future for them.
5. The series takes us to Hawaii to observe Laurie’s daily life there; among other things, we see her doing some canoeing and enjoying the outdoors year-round. Living on the Big Island must be different from going there on holiday.
Could you share some of your impressions about the place, which is mostly known as a tourist destination?
Patrick: I spent two weeks shooting on the Big Island in Hawaii. And when we weren’t shooting, I was planning the upcoming days of production. So my experience of the island was mostly professional and connected to the project. I’d love to go back and explore the other islands and immerse myself more in Indigenous Hawaiian culture.
That said, I discovered a true natural treasure smack in the middle of the Pacific! The scenery is breathtaking, with deep green vegetation blending with volcanic rock formations. And meeting turtles on the beach is quite a change of scene. I was a long way from squirrels in the park!
The thing that most impresses me still was the trip to the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope at the summit of Mauna Kea. Just breaking through the clouds on the way up was pretty magical. In fact, with the visuals in the series I also wanted to convey my sense of wonder in the face of nature, both in Hawaii and here at home.
Laurie: Hawaii is a really special place. Surrounded by ocean, marked by the presence of massive volcanoes past and present, and isolated from the rest of the world. Everything is condensed, into a surface area so much smaller than on the mainland! Every new place you go, you discover something different. You’re aware of the presence of the Hawaiian people, who built all these impressive roads and structures. The soil is fertile and the food follows the rhythm of the seasons, which aren’t that different from each other, with only a few degrees’ difference between winter and summer. They say here that winter is whale season, because they visit between November and April.
The island is flooded with tourists. There are around two million visitors per year, which is 10 times the local population. You recognize them by their cars and how they drive. The Indigenous people are more relaxed and they follow the Hawaiian rhythm. Most places have rates for locals and rates for tourists. It’s kind of two parallel worlds.
6. Patrick, can you describe to us what you now understand of the SIGNALS project, the SITELLE tool, the profession of astronomer, etc.?
And Laurie, could you confirm or correct what Patrick says?
Patrick: There are three main components to Laurie’s work as an astronomer in residence. She helps scientists from all over the world to use the CFHT’s instruments for their research. She also maintains the instruments jointly with the team at the observatory. And lastly, she conducts her own research. The SITELLE instrument and her SIGNALS project are two concrete examples that allow us to better understand her role.
In my own words, I would say that SITELLE is a super-powerful instrument, part camera and part spectrometer—so, a tool that can take photos as well as produce spectra, or graphs. SITELLE allows astronomers to view celestial objects and analyze them in depth so as to better understand, among other things, their shape, their temperature, their speed and even their composition. Laurie actually took part in creating SITELLE while she was a student. She is the expert on this instrument at the CFHT.
As for SIGNALS, this is Laurie’s current project, which she’s leading with a team of some 60 international researchers. With their help, she’s studying more than 50,000 star-formation regions, across some 40 different galaxies. This will lead to a better understanding of how stars influence their galaxies and how, conversely, galaxies influence the birth of stars inside them. And the SITELLE instrument is what Lori is using to conduct all of these analyses, the results of which will then be collected in a huge open-source database that anyone can access.
Laurie: Wow! Excellent student! I have nothing to add.
7. What do you hope people, and especially young people, will take away from the North Star series?
Patrick: This might be the most important question of all, because the series was developed for young people and school settings. The construction of the episodes is primarily based on a progression of learning: from naked-eye observation of the sky to in-depth study of the Universe. So I hope they’ll come away with some key concepts of astronomy.
The series also shows that there’s room in science for all kinds of people, regardless of gender, origin or culture. After all, the Universe evolved thanks to the intermixing of elements, from one generation of stars to the next. Science moves forward in the same way, with a plurality of perspectives.
Laurie is a great ambassador for that message of inclusion and openness.
Laurie: I totally agree with Patrick! I would add that there’s a message about collaboration. To do good science, you need a strong, diversified team working together to push the boundaries of knowledge.
8. Laurie, in the series we can see your interest in science popularization and how easily it comes to you, but also in passing on your knowledge and being a mentor for emerging astronomers. Why is that mentor role so important for you?
Laurie: It isn’t always easy to do graduate studies. You can go through many stages of self-questioning and sometimes you feel like you’re alone, adrift on an ocean of research topics. Having a mentor you can count on, who takes the time to listen, support and guide you along your journey, is a key component of success. That period of my life is still fresh in my mind, and I want to help students navigate their own journeys in the best possible environment.
Also, during my working years I’ve learned a lot about the various facets of research. I want students to benefit from those insights so that they too can have a holistic vision.