Farewell to Vanessa McBride Who Joins the International Science Council

Speech delivered by OAD Director Kevin Govender at Vanessa’s farewell on Monday, 23 October 2023 at the South African Astronomical Observatory
Photo by Moleboge Lekoloane Lebo
It is only on very special occasions that I actually write down the words of a speech. This is such an occasion. It is not a sad goodbye but a celebration of the fact that we have been lucky and privileged to have someone like Vanessa work with us during this time – a special moment along her career trajectory towards ever greater things.

Vanessa joined the OAD in January 2017, having previously served in a joint University of Cape Town/SAAO Senior Lecturer/Astronomer position. Prior to that she was at the University of Southampton in the UK where she did her PhD and Postdoc. Prior to that she worked at the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation, where she and I actually first met in 2001.

When we hired her, people asked why she wanted to work for the OAD. She was a senior scientist and highly respected in the research community. This is probably why people didn’t want her to move to the OAD, which appeared to be a path leading away from research. At the same time she was humble enough to see the value of a structure like the OAD. This combination of seniority and humility has really been what defined her time at the OAD and made her rise to the heights of achievement that she has.

During her time since she joined the OAD she took on the lead role in bidding (successfully) to host the 2024 IAU GA in Africa for the first time, and then Chairing the National Organising Committee for the event. A while later she assumed the part time role of Head of Research at the SAAO, and also obtained her Adjunct Associate Prof position at UCT, which she used to continue supervising students over the years. Her diligence and high work ethic led her to rally the South African astronomy community through the Astronomy Town meeting, out of which came the Astronomy Community Task Team, which she nurtured through its infancy to the solid structure it currently is. She also followed her passion for Women in Astronomy and was a founding board member of the African Network for Women in Astronomy. Recently she also became a member of the SALT Board, representing the NRF.For the OAD Vanessa has been my right hand and has built our strong reputation among the professional astronomy community and senior government officials worldwide. She has bravely stood in for me and led OAD whenever I couldn’t, especially during the last few years, including leading a large delegation to the IAU General Assembly Busan, when I had to cancel my participation. She helped to build partnerships and manage important stakeholder relations that have kept the OAD strong and relevant.

Vanessa really is one of those cases where one’s humility prevents one from understanding the significance of their contributions. Vanessa’s contributions have certainly been far more significant than she herself may realise.

During her time with us the OAD has grown from strength to strength. As I reflect on the years that she has spent with us, I know that she has grown too. The OAD spirit and culture, which has certainly gained international recognition, was shaped by her as well, not to mention our other incredible individuals like Ram, Nuhaah, and all the rest of our dynamic energetic team. We have always referred to the global OAD community as a family, and we have always been there for each other. We recognise that we are people first, with families to take care of, and who may need some extra support from time to time. Vanessa has been like my baby sister (for me because I’m older, for others she was probably like an Aunty V).

This position that she takes up at the International Science Council (ISC) is really senior, and she will be in a position to make a much bigger impact on the world in all science, not just astronomy. The ISC is like the parent body of the IAU. They have an audience at the UN. Their mission is science for global public good. And Vanessa will be their Science Director! Big stuff!

Vanessa, saying goodbye to you is really hard. But we are really proud of you Vanessa. Proud of where you have come from and where you are going. Proud of your dedication and commitment to your work and your colleagues, but also proud of your dedication to your family and your wanting to give them new experiences and opportunities in Europe.

You can leave with a clear conscience – you have done your job well. Now it’s time to spread your wings and show the world who you are – a little girl from the small rural town of Cradock in the Eastern Cape of South Africa, who is not afraid to take on the world.

Take this spirit to Europe, show them who you are, who we are. As South Africans, Africans, as SAAO, as the OAD. Show them your heart. Show them your strength. Your passion. Your humility. Your diligence. And we will always be here cheering you on as you embark on this journey to change the world through science.