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Charlene Anne Heisler (1961–1999)

Published onDec 01, 2000
Charlene Anne Heisler (1961–1999)

When Charlene Heisler was about to embark on her PhD in astronomy, her doctor advised her that, since she suffered from cystic fibrosis and was unlikely to survive for more than a couple of years, she should abandon any thoughts of a PhD. But her enthusiasm for astronomy propelled her right through her PhD and then through a further eight years, during which she built a distinguished career at some of the world's top observatories. In addition to AAS, she was a member of the Canadian Astronomical Society, the Astronomical Society of Australia, and the Association for Women in Science, reflecting the environments in which that career was built.

Charlene was born in Calgary, Alberta, Canada on 1 December 1961 and graduated in 1985 with a BSc in applied mathematics and physics from the University of Calgary, where one of her teachers commented, "Students like Charlene are the reason that we enjoy teaching." While at Calgary, she also worked as a summer research assistant for Sun Kwok and Gene Couch and made her debut as an educator in the Calgary Centennial Planetarium.

Heisler then studied under the supervision of J. Patricia Vader at Yale, where, in 1988, she won the Beatrice Tinsley Graduate Student Award. In May 1991, she submitted her PhD thesis, "Galaxies with Spectral Energy Distributions Peaking at 60 Microns: Morphology and Activity Explained by Interactions." She concluded in her thesis, and in several papers resulting from it, that the "Sixty Micron Peakers" represented a short-lived phase of nuclear activity, triggered by an interaction.

After completing her PhD, Charlene spent two years as a postdoc, working with Mike DeRobertis at York University. She broadened her study of Peakers by moving into near-infrared wavelengths, using telescopes at Mauna Kea. She was passionately interested in the evolution of active galactic nuclei and believed that Peakers held important clues about early stages of activity in nuclei. This belief was subsequently shown to be correct by near infrared imaging and spectroscopic data, which she acquired at Kitt Peak National Observatory and the Anglo-Australian Telescope (AAT). While at York, Charlene became firmly committed to science education. She taught two undergraduate courses, gave many public talks, and was dedicated to the encouragement of young women in science.

In 1993, Charlene took up a postdoctoral fellowship at the Anglo-Australian Observatory (AAO) and moved to Sydney. In addition to continuing to study Peaker galaxies, she became a support astronomer for IRIS and prime CCD imaging and became the AAO liaison astronomer with the MPI 3D project. What might have been a chore for others was seized enthusiastically as an opportunity by Charlene and resulted in several collaborations in other areas of astronomy. In 1996, she moved to Mount Stromlo and Siding Spring Observatory, Canberra, and in 1998, she was awarded a prestigious Senior Fellowship there.

In 1997, Heisler addressed, with Stuart Lumsden and Jeremy Bailey, her second major area of work, in what was perhaps her most significant paper, which tackled the question of why some Seyfert 2 galaxies have "hidden" broad line regions (HBLR), visible only in polarized light, and others don't. Charlene and her colleagues showed a strong correlation between the existence of a broad line region and the infrared color of the galaxy, and they developed a model in which Seyfert 2s with HBLRs were simply those Seyfert galaxies whose symmetry axes were relatively close to the line of sight.

Her last major project (COLA) with Phil Appleton, Ray Norris, and others, tried to determine whether there was any real evidence to associate AGN activity with starburst activity. It was just after a visit to Chile in September 1998 to take observations for this project that Charlene's illness took a turn for the worse. This was her last observing trip. By December 1998, Charlene's lung function had decreased to about 20 percent. She underwent a double lung transplant in Sydney on May 11, which went smoothly. Within a few weeks, she had started analyzing data from her last spectroscopy run. But despite an excellent prognosis and all signs of a first-class recovery, in late October she suddenly deteriorated and passed away on 28 October 1999.

There are a number of young people in science now who would not be there were it not for Charlene's encouragement and guidance. These include, her PhD students Tanya Hill and Lisa Kewley. To these students and others; Charlene Heisler was not just a teacher and mentor, but "she was a wonderful friend, a big sister, and an incredible inspiration." In short, she was the best role model that a young student could have. To her colleagues, she was an inspiration who showed how to have fun, do good science, and be a warm, sincere, caring, human being.

Photo courtesy of Micheal Dopita

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