Patricia is an astronomer with the South African Astronomical Observatory. She has been elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of SA, a member of the Academy of Sciences of SA and an Associate (honorary fellow) of the Royal Astronomical Society (UK).
She had a powerful fascination with astronomy (which in modern terms is identical to astrophysics) from the age of 9. She really wanted to be an astronaut and explore the universe first hand, but it rather quickly became clear that she'd been born too soon and had to settle for scientific exploration.
What she does
Research is the exciting side of being an astrophysicist. She is investigating stars that would once have been rather like our Sun, but which are now nearing the ends of their lives. This is a very poorly understood phase of stellar evolution, but very important because it is by this process that much of the carbon in the universe, which is so important for life, is distributed and becomes available for the next generation of stars and planets.
The other part of her job involves administration and organisation, which has its interesting side too, but it is very similar to any other management job.
"I am extremely fortunate to be paid for doing almost exactly the same job as I would do if I were extremely rich."
Scientifically, SAAO's work on a supernova (very massive exploding star) in 1987 was very exciting, as is her work on the late stages of stellar evolution, particularly making the observations of evolved stars towards the galactic centre and in the direction of the Magellanic Clouds - our nearest galaxy.
On the career front, to be the first astronomer and first woman to become President of the SA Institute of Physics was a highlight
Goals for the future
Her primary goal at the moment is to establish an Institute of Astronomy in order to train African astronomers to make effective use of the magnificent facilities that we have available, or which will become available over the next few years.
The future of physics in South Africa?
Astronomy in particular has been identified as an area in which SA has strategic advantages. The government is therefore supporting it at a relatively high level. This is a visionary political move that makes a very powerful statement about how SA sees its future - as a world class player. This is a good time and place to be a physicist, particularly an astrophysicist.
One of the hurdles is human resources development. School physics remains, with some very notable exceptions, absolutely abysmal.
What about prospective female Physics students?
If you have mathematical skills, an imagination and most importantly an insatiable curiosity, then go for it! Physics is one of the most rewarding careers you could have and covers a wide range of possibilities. There is no limit, not even the sky.