Planetary Perspectives – Gražina Tautvaišienė
Gražina Tautvaišienė, Director of the Institute of Theoretical Physics and Astronomy at Vilnius University (Lithuania), uses spectroscopy to measure the abundances of elements in stars to understand the chemical evolution of the Milky Way galaxy and study the parent stars of exoplanets. In the Europlanet 2024 Research Infrastructure project, Gražina is responsible for tasks to support early career researchers, and is Deputy Coordinator of the Europlanet Telescope Network. She is also leading a new Europlanet programme to support researchers in Ukraine.
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How did you first become interested in astronomy?
I’ve always enjoyed sciences where the emphasis is on understanding rather than memorising. Physics is just such a science, and I achieved good results in student contests at an early age. After graduating from elementary school, I received a letter inviting me to attend a specialist school for teaching physics and mathematics. While studying there, I wondered what branch of physical sciences would be most interesting – and came to the conclusion that it was astronomy. The final decision was made after participating in the congress of the Lithuanian Astronomical Union, where I won a place in a team to participate in the meeting of young astronomers of the Soviet Union. At this point, I started studying astronomy intensively and established a club of amateur astronomers in my hometown of Kaunas. I think that young people choose the activities they do best, but are also oriented by the people around them towards the activities in which they can best perform.
How has astronomy in Lithuania developed since independence in March 1990?
Although the Soviet Union united a number of countries, we were separated from the rest of the world by the ‘iron curtain’. There were few foreign scientific journals in local libraries, and copies of articles from the library in Moscow had to be ordered. Most of our scientific articles were written in Russian, a language that many foreigners did not understand. Some journals provided translations into English, but did not check those translations with the authors. My colleagues and I managed to submit articles to international journals as well, because we had interesting results obtained with a 6-metre telescope in the Caucasus – at the time the world’s largest telescope. We also used computer programs and stellar atmosphere models developed in the USA for our research.
When Lithuania became independent in 1990, collaboration with scientists from all over the world opened up, as well as opportunities to participate in international conferences. However, it took many years to overcome a difficult period of economic and scientific blockade by Russia. Fortunately, Lithuanian researchers were greatly helped by the democratic world community, and I am glad that we have been able to earn the trust and establish fruitful cooperations. Since I was engaged in spectral studies of the chemical composition of stars, I first began working with scientists at the Uppsala Observatory, led by Prof Bengt Gustafsson, and to conduct astronomical observations with the Nordic Optical Telescope. Through the Nordic Institute of Theoretical Physics in Copenhagen, I also started a decade-long collaboration with Prof Bernard Pagel.
How important has international collaboration been in your career?
As I started a new field of research in Lithuania with my dissertation topic – spectroscopic studies of the chemical composition of stars – scientific cooperation was especially important. I am extremely glad that astronomers from Denmark, Finland, Germany, Italy, Poland, Sweden, the UK, the USA, and other countries have contributed to my research programs. Thanks to the European Commission and the European Southern Observatory, I and the scientific team I lead have been – and can be – involved in major collaborative projects such as BalticGrid I and II, the Europlanet 2020 and 2024 Research Infrastructure projects, Gaia-ESO Survey, 4MOST and others. Astronomy is a highly international science, and the ever-increasing data-flows provided by space missions and ground-based surveys can only be comprehensively explored through extensive collaboration.
What practical steps can the Europlanet community take to support colleagues in Ukraine?
Europlanet and the global astronomical community must help colleagues and Ukraine in general, to defend themselves against the Russian aggression and move towards democracy along with other European countries.
Colleagues who have left Ukraine during the war are being hired for temporary employment in astronomical institutions in other countries. For those who have had to stay in the country and are displaced from their workplaces, Europlanet is developing a support programme and is offering astronomical observations with the Europlanet Telescope Network equipment. The war in Ukraine is a major challenge for the research community that needs to be overcome. I would also like to see Russian scientists making a contribution to finding peace.
You have a very strong commitment to providing training for young scientists and supporting the career development of early career researchers in your group. What led you to start running summer schools and courses?
We have already held more than 20 different summer schools and courses organised at our Molėtai Astronomical Observatory of Vilnius University. Educating and passing on the experience to the younger generation is very important. At universities, students are often confined to lecturing from local researchers and may have no opportunity to be trained in working on a professional telescope. It is important for young astronomers to hear lectures by foreign scientists, learn new research methods, and broaden their horizons. Asteroseimic research on stars and, in recent years, research on exoplanets have been initiated in Lithuania through visits from the international community. It’s great when young people can meet and start collaborating at an early age. The growing popularity of our summer schools has encouraged us to continue this activity. The Europlanet virtual summer school for asteroid research, organised in 2021, was attended by lecturers and participants from 32 countries around the world. Observations were made remotely during the virtual event. We plan to dedicate the next summer school to exoplanet research. I look forward to seeing the happy faces of our future researchers again.
What advice would you give young people considering a career in astronomy?
Astronomy is an extremely interesting science! Research questions come in a very wide and dynamic range; the Universe around us still hides many secrets and it is very important to uncover them.
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Europlanet Early Careers Training, Education and Mentorship Portal