Close Encounters Series - Being in the right place at the right time

Diana, Craig Bowers and Peter Birch, March 2017. Image Credit: Geoff Scott

I was very excited to sit down for a chat with Diana Rosman our Chairperson at the Perth Observatory Volunteer Group. But how do I do justice to someone so greatly admired and respected by all in a short article? Diana is an inspiration to everyone with her warm heart, beauty, kindness, modesty, willingness to listen, and relatability and of course her very keen intelligence and management skills. So as another of my idols says “Let’s start at the very beginning”

Diana was born in Western Australia to a family that traces its roots back to the convict days. Her Great Grandfather was the Mayor of Albany and her family was heavily involved in aviation, does the name Brearley ring a bell? In 1921, Sir Norman Brearley won the Geraldton to Derby airmail service contract and became a part of Australian Aviation history. He expanded the run to the Perth Adelaide route and eventually sold his airline to a group that would become Australian National Airways, the precursor to Ansett Airlines. His full story is easily found on the web, so it’s not hard to trace that side of the family tree.

Diana studied Maths and Psychology at the University of Western Australia and went on to a career in Public Health. “I’ve been really lucky to have been in the right place at the right time,” she says. “When I was in my second year at UWA my boyfriend, Kevin, who was doing a PhD in Physics, saw a sign on the window at the Computing Centre in the Physics Department. They were looking for a student to work in the holidays on the Busselton Health Study. He said he thought I should apply; I got the job and went on to work with some very interesting people on the now-famous longitudinal health study after I graduated.” Diana was also fascinated by the power of computers, so enrolled in part-time study, moving on to work at the growing WA Institute of Technology (now Curtin) as a Systems Programmer in 1974.

Diana & Kevin married in 1969. Their two daughters – Johanna (an Academic Researcher in Oceanography) lives in the US with her partner, Jim, and son Asher; and Danielle (an Engineer and qualified architect) lives with her partner, Ronan, next door to Diana, in Kalamunda.

Bust of Norman Brearley by Sculptor: Gerard Darwin at Perth Airport. Image Credit: Wikipedia

Kevin, a trained high school teacher, managed to extend his “study leave” to do a PhD at UWA and then persuaded the Education Department that he could “payback” his teaching bursary as a Lecturer at WAIT. There he not only taught Applied Physics but Astronomy, too, and over the decades Diana would sometimes join him at the summer lectures at the Perth Observatory in Bickley. In that era WAIT employees were actively discouraged from doing research, so he took up residence in the Bentley “isotope lab” on weekends.

It was through Kevin’s research into the origin of meteorites and isotopes of rare elements (and later lead isotopes to trace environmental pollution) that the young family was given the chance to travel – first to Washington DC, then to Belgium and then Cal Tech in Pasadena, California.

“I went to Washington DC with my husband for a year and was lucky to work at the National Bureau of Standards on a project measuring the response time on the ARPANET – forerunner to the internet.” Diana’s eldest daughter, Johanna was then less than a year old but she managed to “exchange” child care duties with another NBS family.

After lots of interesting part-time and contract projects in computing at the WA Regional Computing Centre at UWA during the 1980s, Diana accepted a contract with the newly formed Road Safety research group in 1989. She stayed there for 10 years, gaining her Masters with a study of Road Crash Recidivism. “Whenever someone would complain about speed cameras, as just “revenue-raising” I’d quietly say – actually those guys are paying for my research”. Eventually, she became known for finding and negotiating access to data for lots of different research projects. “In 2000, I got my first permanent job – it was with the Department of Health, building the Data Linkage System which is now internationally recognised. I stayed there for 15 years. Again, I was in the right place at the right time. Collaboration with Universities was encouraged and funds were available.” Diana’s role included proof of concept research projects, developing protocols for preserving privacy, “joining” data from a wide range of administrative and clinical records, and explaining the benefits of research to state and federal government and members of the public.

Diana & Kevin in 1969 at their wedding. Image Credit: Diana Rosman

Tragically, in 2009 Diana’s husband, Kevin, passed away not long after he retired from Curtin. Work for her was still absorbing, but despite many travelling “escapes”, she was looking for something more to keep herself motivated. She sent a letter to the Perth Observatory asking if she could volunteer, but the Director sent a polite reply saying they didn’t need anyone at that stage. Not to be deterred she sent an application to the Volunteering WA website and registered her interest in anything related to Science and then went travelling again.

A year later Diana received an email from Greg Lowe, Astronomical Officer at the Perth Observatory. “Greg asked me if I was related to Kevin who he knew from his Astronomy classes at Curtin. He also said I should apply for the next intake of volunteers.” So in 2012, Diana was interviewed by Arthur Harvey and Greg Lowe and was offered a place as a trainee. The right time and place (again?).

“I went to the first few meetings, and thought “What have I got into?” The group was serious, there was lots of technical jargon, and everyone was really knowledgeable and committed. Over the first viewing season, Diana went away and was quite a bit behind the other trainees when she got back. Nonetheless, overwinter “I just kept coming to the meetings and the next viewing season, Greg and Terry and others threw me in the deep end. What a feeling of achievement even just to find the moon with the Celestron 14 – that now-retired 1970s orange icon”.

Diana Rosman with 2015 Summer Lecture presenter Dr Luke Davies. Image Credit: Geoff Scott

“At the end of 2014, I finished work and in Puerto Rico, I was thinking about all the things I could do in retirement. I read all the emails about the Observatory closing and POVG being offered a chance to pick up the pieces. So I sent a letter to the POVG Committee offering to help out when I got back, then I worked with Roger and the Transform Committee to develop the terms of the agreement with Parks & Wildlife.”

Roger was unable to continue as Chairperson, so Val MacDuff called Diana and persuaded her to take on the role in May 2015. “As with lots of things I’ve done, I guess the timing was right I was available, I lived close by and there were several experienced people willing to help,” she says. “The first three months were quite stressful. There was so much involved and in hindsight, I must admit it was a bit overwhelming”. It was great that Rob & Brenda agreed to stay on through Parks & Wildlife and that we found Cathy to come on board as Operations Manager.

“For POVG the most important thing to remember is that we are Volunteers – we love this place and we are passionate about sharing what we know, but we are contracted to provide a service to the public. We are here to promote astronomy and space science, but striking the right balance in this area of infotainment is tricky”.
As well as being POVG Chairperson and on various working committees, Diana continues to volunteer as a Telescope Operator and Assistant Host. “I love to have lots to do. I’m not good at sitting down for long”. Terry Edmett is always willing to sing Diana’s praises “She has an ability to communicate with the visitors and establish an almost instant rapport with them, she is magnificent in giving talks and I am delighted she has had a go at being Host. It is always a pleasure to help run a great evening with Diana as Assistant Host and her being there guarantees it.”

So what is Diana’s favourite thing to do at the Observatory? “I’m lucky to be chair as I see more of what’s going on in all the different areas. My favourite thing still, though, is to be at one of our Night Sky Tours on a clear and balmy summer evening – it’s just magic.”

Geoff Scott, Diana Rosman, John Tuffin and Bevan Harris with the WA Community Volunteer Organisation of the Year 2017 Award. Image Credit: Volunteering WA

And do you have any plans for the Observatory? “There are so many great ideas to be implemented. I would love to see us fulfil all of these, but we need to make sure it’s still fun to be here, to build our volunteer base and grow this organisation without being too bureaucratic.”

And of course, any advice for New Volunteers? I nearly gave up in my first few months as a volunteer, so please stick with it! What you get is excellent training and fulfilment – in proportion to what you put into it. A quote I like to borrow from Ray Martin – “just have a go”.

On behalf of all of us at the Perth Observatory Volunteer Group thank you so much Diana for the time and commitment you have given to the group. We’re all looking forward to many more years of your leadership to come.