Profile of a career in Astronomy
Sydney Institute for Astronomy,
(Adapted from an original article in the Sydney Morning Herald, 21 August 2015.)
I'm part of a team of astronomers studying hydrogen in galaxies over the past 8 billion years. We are using the new Australian telescope ASKAP to make discoveries in a time of the universe's evolution that has previously been largely hidden. I regularly get to operate ASKAP, and point it at interesting galaxies to search for hydrogen!
In the near future, I'd love to continue working with ASKAP and on its data as it becomes fully operational over the next couple of years! ASKAP will produce thousands of terabytes of amazing and complex data that I can't wait to get my hands on. In the future future, I have no idea! I love astronomy and I love data, so something combining the two would be excellent.
As a kid, my parents were hugely encouraging about me having a broad range of interests including science, and I visited many museums, observatories and exhibits on science-related topics. I remember being blown away by Questacon at a very young age, but I also wanted to be a writer of children's books for the majority of my childhood. In early high school years, I found science kind of difficult and boring (too many wedges and pulleys!)... but by late high school it got really interesting again and I decided to possibly study it at university.
My high school physics teacher, Kevin Mahony, played a huge role in my interest in physics during Year 11/12. He was enthusiastic and made the subject fun and interesting, and also relevant. When I started university, I had the chance to work with some researchers on small projects as part of my course. During that time, I met Professor Anne Green and Dr Tara Murphy from the astronomy department, who later became my honours supervisors! Like Mr Mahony, they were super enthusiastic about their topic and convinced me even at that early stage that pursuing physics was both a noble and necessary cause.
I'm particularly inspired by my current boss, Professor Elaine Sadler. She is an amazing astronomer, extremely passionate about the work we do, and also a really great person. As well as being the Director of CAASTRO, the head of the FLASH team and on various important astronomy committees, she still makes time to catch up with those of us working with her and we also hang out outside of work sometimes! The FLASH team has a lot of involvement with the ASKAP telescope commissioning team at the moment, and I'm also incredibly inspired by all the researchers and engineers and CSIRO staff who are making ASKAP happen. It's awesome seeing a telescope go into operation from this early stage, and I feel pretty privileged to be a small part of it.
Depends on the age of the younger me, but I'd advise the younger me to start coding sooner! And possibly to do some formal training in computing, to better prepare me for the kinds of challenges we now face in astronomy. I probably also would have told my younger self not to eat so many cheeseburgers in late primary school.
I'm fortunate to be in a field of science that almost always makes people go, "Wow!" The study of the sky above us, and the universe in which we live, is a topic that various people in society can generally relate to because I think everyone has looked up at the night sky and wondered about our place in the universe at some point. People are generally excited about astronomy, and always have great questions that they want to know the answers to. That said, I think the perception of scientists in a broader social context in Australia is of people who focus on some small aspect of research, aren't very "useful" to the general needs of society, and don't know much about the "real world" or how to communicate the importance of their findings with others.
Through the efforts of various science communicators and educators, I think this is changing already. But it needs to be clear that scientists are real people too, because there seems to be this perceived divide between scientists and the rest of society. The only thing that makes someone a scientist, in my opinion, is the ability to question and the desire to understand or solve a given problem based on evidence rather than belief. It's the notion of critical thinking and evidence-based decision making, which everyone in Australia does at some level but may not realise. Wider awareness of the relevance of the scientific approach to people's everyday lives could help with changing this. In particular, inspiring the younger generation (and their parents) is of huge importance, and making everyone realise that you don't at all have to be a 'genius' to be a great scientist. It's also important for parents to play a role in this, by encouraging and supporting their children in a diverse range of interests that hopefully include STEM subjects. We need parents on board with STEM too.
I've played basketball for 13 years, and have played with the girls on my current team since around 2006 - we're currently top of the comp. I also am into treasure hunting, though not necessarily in the buried treasure sense. Really, it's more like exploring the world and finding cool stuff along the way. Sometimes treasure. And I really like doing outreach as a guide at Sydney Observatory, although I guess this could be considered as a part of my profession. I do tours maybe once a week, with a group of around 20 interested people who I get to talk to about astronomy, objects in the night sky and what I do as an astronomer. It's lots of fun!
People are often surprised to find out that I'm really keen on coding and data, they seem to generally assume that this is not something astronomers (particularly female ones!) like very much. As well as using Python almost constantly as part of my career in astronomy, I also use it for a variety of other things. I used it to make an online tool called arXiver, which reprocesses new astronomy papers into a more visual and easy to read form. I've also used coding along with astronomy equations to write a program that helps me figure out when galaxies are above the horizon in the Murchison desert, so I know when they can be observed with ASKAP. And I even used archival Bureau of Meteorology data to help me decide when the optimal time was to take a walk at the Australia Telescope Compact Array, in order to maximise sun but minimise heat. Being able to code things and visualise data is amazing!
Read the original article here.
See the ASA Factsheet on How to become an Astronomer for more information on life as an astronomer and more profiles of Australian Astronomers.