(this was written by Niruj Mohan Ramanujam and read out at the funeral by Delia Marshall)
We have come here as a large family to bid farewell to our Carolina Johanna Ödman. When I look at this gathering, I see grief and deep loss. I see an ocean of genuine love, compassion, and empathy. I also see wonder and a sense of gratitude for having had a person like Carolina in our lives.
Her professional bio reads “She brings an engineering problem-solving mind, an academic analytical perspective and many years of experience working in the developed and developing world using science and technology to drive growth and development”.
Though true, we know that this statement hides an ocean of talents. She has always transcended simple boundaries, forged deep connections between different knowledges and people, and has brought sheer joy and happiness to all our lives.
Carolina was born on 3 July 1974 to Maud Mariana Ödman and Sten Erik Ödman in Lausanne, Switzerland, and has a sibling, Micaela Louise Ödman. She went to school at École primaire d’Aubonne, and then the Gymnase de Nyon. Inspired by her high school physics teacher, she decided to pursue a career in the sciences. She then became someone who herself would inspire young people across so many countries to pursue their dreams, and actively help them with it.
Her school days were no less remarkable than her later years. Born to a Swedish family living in Switzerland, she could speak Swedish, English, and French fluently. She became adept at playing the harp and the piano, performing ballet, playing golf, and skiing really well. Her interest and her skill at all things technological was obvious from an early age. She was part of the local computer club in Aubonne called Ghostbusters, that pirated games, and was later named Club Infomatique d’Aubonne, or CIA. Some of her colleagues will recognise where her interest in ‘dot astronomy’ and hackathons clearly grew from.
Carolina then joined the prestigious Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland for a MSc degree in Physics Engineering. While at EPFL, she joined the Equal Opportunity Office to promote gender equality in scientific careers. At that time, she was interviewed for the ‘Women’s career’ magazine and said “I would like to practise a profession where the human aspect takes precedence over pure theory”. She never disowned this mindset.
Her father was reminiscing that when she was at EPFL, she once stepped up to replace a sick vocalist at a rock concert she had helped organise. Her singing was so amazing that the band offered her a job on the spot. She declined out of respect for the original artist, else she would have been a rockstar as well! I am sure she has told almost each one of us at some point that we were a ‘superstar’ or a ‘rockstar’ when we did something she really liked. Maybe, unknowingly, she did form a music band after all, just with all of us friends and family in it.
After EPFL, she worked for 5 months as a research engineer at the Centre Hospitalier Universitaire Vaudois in Lausanne, where she worked on ‘Modelling of blood flow and mechanical evaluation of vascular grafts using fluid dynamics simulations’. If you look at her twitter account, her pinned tweet is about her fascination in knowing that this work probably had a part to play in developing the Whipple procedure she underwent for treating her pancreatic adenocarcinoma.
She then joined the Cavendish Laboratory at University of Cambridge, UK, for a Ph.D. in astronomy. Carolina received the Isaac Newton Scholarship after the first year at Trinity Hall College in Cambridge. She then switched to Girton College. This was also the period when she briefly became a hedgehog foster mum too!
She then spent a few months in Paris in 2003 as a consultant in the research team for the UNESCO, preparing its World Report “Towards Knowledge Societies“. I was going through this report, and some of the topics that struck me were: Knowledge economics, innovation culture, science and society, indigenous knowledge, women in knowledge societies, etc. – all themes that we know have remained very close to her heart since then.
She then spent 4 months in Cape Town in 2004 as a tutor at the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences, after which she went back to Europe, being awarded the well-known Marie Curie Postdoctoral Research Fellowship, which she did in Rome, Italy. Here she worked on Theoretical cosmology, bayesian statistics, and programming. By then her interests and talents had vastly outgrown the constraints of mainstream academia, and when she found an advertisement for a position to design and manage a new project on astronomy for young children, she jumped at the chance and moved to Leiden, The Netherlands.
The Universe Awareness project (or UNAWE) was the brainchild of George Miley in Leiden, who had just won a grant to start the program. In his message, George celebrates her enormous enthusiasm for the goals of the programme, her personality that exuded positivity and inspiration, her ability to deal with everyone, her love for children, of animals of all sorts and our planet as a whole. Carolina once said of UNAWE “Astronomy is built on a heritage from many cultures; it is built upon things that these children are part of.” And she always carried that thought with her. Carolina was the International Project Manager at UNAWE from 2005-2010, where she successfully transformed the idea into an active program in over 40 countries, fund raised for the project, set up collaborations, and even enabled it to become a ‘Global Cornerstone Project of the International Year of Astronomy (IYA2009)’
She was waiting for a project like UNAWE and UNAWE was waiting for a person like her. For her work on the project, she won the ‘Science Prize for Online Resources in Education’ 2010, from the prestigious journal, Science.
By this time, she was a world expert in astronomy and science, and its connections with development, education, and society, and she was also looked up to as an exceptional administrator and project manager, and as someone who believed that colleagues can also be your friends. Carolina was universally acclaimed and loved, for her ability to transform any idea into an international project with seeming effortlessness, with friends across the globe who loved to work with her, and this is when she truly found her home in Cape Town, South Africa.
Her love for South Africa and its people had made it obvious that she and her partner Kevin Govender would eventually come together in this country rather than any other in the world. George Miley mentions that ‘I am proud that she met Kevin at a Universe Awareness Workshop in Leiden and I regard their union as one of the most important achievements of the programme.” I think we can all agree.
Pedro recalls Kevin and Carolina staying up all night to watch a lunar eclipse at the International Year of Astronomy meeting in 2007 in Garching – one of the events that brought them together.
Carolina moved to South Africa in 2010 as an SKA Research Fellow at the South African Astronomical Observatory. Here she developed e-tools for research, and also re-discovered her old interest by winning hacking contests! She then spent almost a year as the Director of Academic Development at AIMS for the Next Einstein Initiative. Bruce Bassett said of those first years at AIMS/SAAO: “Her energy, optimism and enthusiasm were exactly what we needed and she immediately had a massive impact on the group”. Michelle, who was just starting her research career when Carolina joined AIMS (and is now a colleague at UWC) said “Carolina was the first woman astronomer I ever worked with and was a mentor in my formative years. But she was as warm as she was brilliant, so she was more like a science big sister to the students she worked with.”
Carolina then, as she does, switched gears and spent about 5 years as Chief Scientist at a startup called thumbzup, where they discovered that they had hired someone with a mix of exceptional talents. As Stafford explained, while whiteboarding on an idea for a short video streaming service, Carolina came up with an architecture, which ‘is exactly what tik-tok looks like today’! During this time, she was in the Mail & Guardian Top 200 Young South Africans (2014), and Bilan Magazine 300 most influential people of Switzerland – category under 40s (2013).
In 2018, she became the Associate Director, Development & Outreach, at the Inter-University Institute for Data Intensive Astronomy (IDIA) at UWC, and Associate Professor. She spoke often about how happy she was at UWC, and how her perspectives on science, society, education, development, and inclusion, seemed to find their natural home at the University.
In 2018, she was awarded the International Astronomical Union Special Award for Astronomy Outreach, Development and Education, in recognition for her pioneering work in the field.
She made the Inspiring50 SA in 2020 – recognition of her being one of the most inspiring women in the country, and also in that year won a prize from the International Science Council’s Regional Office for Africa for her concept of developing a ‘Science for Development’ course at UWC to equip science graduates with a broad science perspective on development challenges.
In 2021, she won the Communication Award at the prestigious National Science and Technology Forum (also known as the “Science Oscars” in South Africa) “for reshaping how science is communicated to the general public and in particular research into building a scientific vocabulary in African languages”.
She was a founding member of the African Network for Women in Astronomy and a serving member of its board. Their condolence message reads “She is the embodiment of Nelson Mandela’s well known phrase ‘It always seems impossible until it’s done!’”. She has shown that to be true many times over. She was also active in the African Astronomical Society and in building capacity towards the IAU General Assembly in 2024.
Carolina was unbelievably talented at everything she was interested in. And she was interested in almost everything. She always managed to elevate her interest into something higher, something better than what was imagined before – something that brought together technology, development, and humanity (which was her secret talent).
She fell in love with the chameleons near her home in Muizenberg, and then started to plan a citizen science project around them. She used skype to connect students from different parts of the world under UNAWE. She was an amazing photographer; she got a new camera with a timelapse setting, and made one of the first videos of a ‘breathing’ plant. She was a fantastic dancer, and when she discovered Zumba in Leiden, she decided to become a Zumba teacher rather than a student. A faculty member of Leiden remembers meeting her for the first time as she led her Zumba students dancing past his window on a float down the canal!
She was at home while talking about science funding in EU meetings with world leaders. She was at home while riding to a village in India on the back of a motorcycle holding the Earth ball for an astronomy workshop. She was at home dealing with the exigencies of carrying a telescope into Gaza to conduct a UNAWE program with Palestinian children. She was at home everywhere.
Throughout her life, Carolina was passionate about helping the youth of this world attain their potential, and then a bit more. She was the biggest fan of South Africa’s learners and students, and believed in them even when some may not have believed in themselves. She once saw a tweet from a student who needed assistance to go to Germany and she moved mountains to make sure that the woman student from a rural community could reach her dreams. But we know that she did a lot more, quietly, and without fanfare.
Carolina was incredibly brave and honest about herself. When she was fighting against cancer, she also thought it important to write about her experiences publicly, talk about her journey, and form communities of solidarity with other cancer patients, True to her nature, she also developed a genuine curiosity about the biology of the disease and read medical journals, and talked to specialists on their own turf.
For her, emotional honesty, human empathy, and scientific curiosity were always natural allies, and seeing them as distinct human experiences was alien to her world view. She even gave a TED-x talk exploring the emotions and love she feels as a mother, in the context of both sociology and biochemistry – while carrying baby Cyprian in her arms!
Carolina Odman was one of those rare individuals who genuinely brought happiness into the lives of the people she met. She was a brilliant mind and a polymath, and like a renaissance person, saw no distinction between domains of human knowledge. That brilliant mind was always accompanied by kindness and joy, empathy and solidarity.
Some of us may know that she also had a wicked sense of humour, and when she was in the mood, you would join her in becoming children again. As a friend put it, ‘she was the kind of person you would want with you if you were shipwrecked.’
What stays with us is her constant ability in finding beauty in things we have learnt to take for granted. In finding science inside nature around us and inside art. In finding art inside technology we use everyday. And to be greeted with her smile when she did find them. Once, after she had left Leiden, there was a lovely sunset, which none of the astronomers were interested in. The shout which got them all out of our offices was a colleague going “Come, don’t miss this, it is a Carolina sunset!”.
At the centre of her world were Xavier and Cyprian. It was always easy to see how much she loved them and how proud she was of her boys. She always wanted to give them all that she had – all her intellect, all her heart, all her skills. In the last weeks of her life, when she knew that the cancer was spreading and that she may not be around to fully do this, her one special wish was for all those who knew her, who knew her different roles, to tell the boys about her from their many different perspectives, and thus help in some way to give them an idea of who she was and what she would have given them.
It seems scarcely believable that we have had someone like Carolina in our lives. Someone so talented yet so humble and willing to teach. Someone who would go out of her way to believe in you and support you so much that you start believing in yourself. Someone who finds beauty and science in everything around her, and sees the two as intertwined. Someone who cares deeply about other people’s suffering and forged her own way of helping. Someone who was truly at home and at peace everywhere, but had a special love for South Africa. Someone who loved her family fiercely, and wanted to help make a better world for her two sons, along with Kevin. Someone who we have lost, but who has taught us all so much, loved us all so much, and will be with us all forever. All she would ask in return is that we pass on that love to others too, and keep her boys in our hearts.
Buzani captured it well when she said “uCarolina ngumntu” – which literally translates to “Carolina is human” – but the meaning is much deeper and means she represents the best of humanity and is a model of how people ought to be as human beings. Sivuyile expanded on this and said “the late Steve Biko always refers to the world with a human face similar to Buzani’s concept. Carolina is “ingelosi yomhlaba” – an angel on Earth – and as an African I believe she lives as long as we continue to call her name and remember her.”
It is usual to end an eulogy with appropriate quotes from famous authors and poets. But we know that we have our own poet and philosopher in Carolina, so let me end with some of her own words:
“As we have seen in the past two years with the pandemic, it is science that unlocks solutions to the biggest challenges we face, but not without humanity, and that’s exactly the nexus where I get to work.”
“I am so grateful for this life. I’ve looked at what drives me and I’ve realised that I am not driven by insecurities, nor by grudges, greed, fame, nor status. I am only driven by love, for my family, my friends, my colleagues, our students. And it’s such an amazing place to be.”