Monday, 27 January 2014

The Real Deal: Dr. Katie Mack, Cosmologist

Today we have the immense honour of meeting a cosmologist who is currently working in Melbourne, Australia. She quite literally spends her time thinking and talking about how the universe works in all its glory. What's more amazing is that she knew she wanted to be a cosmologist from the age of just 10! 

Her busy lifestyle and ability to work anywhere make her quite hard to pin down, so we're very pleased to have managed to nab her attention for a few minutes. Ladies and gentleman, we're very pleased to introduce Dr. Katie Mack.

(You can catch up with Katie on twitter @astrokatie or via her blog)

What do you do and give 3 words that describe how you got there?

I’m a theoretical astrophysicist – specifically a cosmologist. I study the early universe, the evolution of the Universe, and generally all the weird stuff like dark matter and exotic physics. My work is theoretical in the sense that I do calculations instead of dealing directly with observations or data, but I don’t usually come up with new theories, really. My focus is on connecting existing theories of the cosmos and the early universe to ongoing or future cosmological observations. It means I have to have a good understanding of both the observational and theoretical side of cosmology, and it means I get to be really creative. Coming up with new ideas for testing theories – trying to think about the Universe in a new way – is one of the best things about my job.

Three words: passion, perseverance, focus.

What career did you think you would have when you were younger?

I think there was a brief time when I was very young when I thought about maybe doing electrical engineering (I enjoyed taking electronic things apart and putting them back together) but by the time I was about 10 years old I knew for sure that I wanted to be a cosmologist.

What is it that makes you want to come to work each day?

There are two really great things about my job that make me excited to come to work. One is being able to discover new things about the Universe that no one has discovered before. It is an immense thrill to be able to (as a theorist) use just math and inference from observational data to learn something new about, say, the way galaxies form and evolve, or the physical conditions in the very early universe. The other thing is talking about physics with my colleagues and discovering new things that way (or helping them discover new things). I love that chatting about the Universe is just part of my everyday job. Having a productive conversation about a physics problem always puts me on a bit of a high. Right now I’m in a department where there are a lot of people working on things that are related to what I do, and so having conversations like that is often a simple matter of walking down the hall. It’s great.

What is the one thing you'd love to achieve in your research?

I suppose the dream is to discover something Really Important, and make a big impact on future research and the direction of cosmology for years to come. Second choice would be just to do good work and make a positive contribution to the field I work in by producing research results that people find helpful and insightful and which they can draw upon to advance the field in the future. I’d also like to have an impact as a communicator, both inside and outside academia, because I think good communication can help researchers to find the necessary perspective and connections to make progress, and can also improve access to the field for future researchers.

What is the best/worst thing about your job?

The best thing is being able to spend my time talking and thinking about and discovering the Universe. The worst thing is that this stage of academia (the postdoc stage) can be very uprooting. The way the academic career is structured in my field, it’s often necessary to move to different institutions and in many cases different countries to work on short-term (few year) contracts before moving on to a permanent job. Competition for permanent jobs is fierce, so there’s no guarantee you’ll ever get one, even if you’re very very good. The uncertainty and the unsettledness can be quite hard.

What do you enjoy other than science?

My biggest passion aside from science is writing (and communication in general). I particularly love using writing to share science and academic culture with people who might not otherwise have much access to it. I have a blog where I write about cosmology occasionally, and I also do some science writing for other blogs or publications on a freelance basis. Lately I’ve been doing some other kinds of outreach/communication, such as a YouTube series and various public events. It’s great to be able to share my passion with the public whenever possible.

I also play a lot of sports (pretty much any sport, whenever the opportunity arises) and I go out dancing whenever I can convince people to join me.

What would be your ideal holiday?

Um. I don’t know. I travel constantly (for work) and rarely take holidays. The best holiday I’ve had in recent years was a 10-day road trip across New Zealand. So, probably something like that. It’s really rare for me to be able to take a reasonable amount of time away from work. Science continues; there are always things that need doing. Balance is a difficult thing. So is taking breaks.

Who or what is your greatest inspiration (science or otherwise?)

My grandfather was always an inspiration to me. I wrote an article about him and his influence on me for a blog a while back. When I was a kid, I was inspired by Stephen Hawking (mainly in the sense that I wanted to be doing his job). These days I’m particularly inspired by Neil deGrasse Tyson, who is an incredible science communicator and who very effectively expresses and inspires passion for astronomy.

If you could give your younger self any advice, what would it be?

I’d advise myself to study more math – earlier, and more diligently. More math is always better in physics, and practice is what makes you good at it.

Anything else you'd like to add?

One of the best ways to connect with working scientists is by getting on Twitter. I’ve been using Twitter for a couple of years to talk with other scientists and to chat generally with people about science and science culture. (I tweet as @AstroKatie.) There’s a great community of scientists and science communicators, and being part of it (or even just following people in it) gives you some great insight into what doing science as a career is really like.

Friday, 17 January 2014

The Real Deal: Dr. Sarah Kendrew, Astronomer and Engineer

Photo Credit: RD Alexander
Today we meet a researcher and engineer whose work crosses the boundaries between science and engineering. She says she's inspired by: 
"people who lead interesting and varied lives, who never lose their passion, and who aren't afraid to speak up for what they believe in" 
...but we think that description sums her up pretty well too! We've been inspired by her passion and enthusiasm and hope you will be too. We particularly like her advice to her younger self "don't worry, you'll be fine". Brilliant! 

So with the usual questions, High Heels in the Lab is pleased to introduce you to Dr. Sarah Kendrew...
(You can also catch up with her on twitter: @sarahkendrew

What do you do and give 3 words that describe how you got there?
I'm a postdoctoral researcher and engineer in astronomy, and I just moved from the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg (Germany) to the Astrophysics department at the University of Oxford in early September (2013). A major part of my work is developing new and novel instruments for the world's largest telescopes, here on Earth or in space. I have worked on, or am currently involved in, instrument projects for the Very Large Telescope in Chile, and for two major observatories of the future, the European Extremely Large Telescope and the joint US/European/Canadian James Webb Space Telescope. In parallel with my instrumentation work I carry out astrophysical research into how massive stars form throughout the Milky Way Galaxy. So my work is a nice combination of "pure" research and projects that produce real hardware.

Three words: Love, Sweat, Airmiles.

What career did you think you would have when you were younger?
I think I wanted to become an explorer. I wanted to be on a ship for years and discover a new continent. Of course, I soon realised we'd discovered all the continents already by the 1980s, and I think I'd have been rubbish on a ship. But I guess I was something of an academic from childhood.

What is it that makes you want to come to work each day?
I like learning new things, and finding solutions to difficult problems, and that pretty much sums up research really. What I love about academia is having the freedom to think, develop my own ideas, and find creative solutions. That is an amazing luxury. And I get to work with some of the brightest people around.

What is the one thing you'd love to achieve in your research?
Research is incredibly slow and hard work so I try to keep my goals realistic! I'd like to achieve some independence in my work, the freedom to choose what problems I tackle and the opportunity to teach and work with students. But I would never want career success to come above all else: I want to be a happy, interesting and well-adjusted person, more than "just" an excellent scientist.

Scientists have a lot to contribute to moral, legal, cultural and political discussions in society and I think as a community we should be getting more involved in those debates. I find that quite an important aspect of what we do really. What's the point of writing papers if you're not making a valued contribution to society and people's lives?

What is the best/worst thing about your job?
It's great to be in an job where it's actually considered cool to try something different, to innovate, to have crazy ideas. As telescopes tend to be in very remote locations, I get to travel to some amazing places as well, like the Atacama desert. Travelling can be lonely and stressful, but it's always worthwhile in the end.

The worst thing is the academic career structure, which is incredibly tough with 2-3 year contracts, lots of pressure and competition. This means that lots of very bright people move into other industries despite really loving their research, because they're tired, burnt out or simply not able to get a job near their loved ones. That's a big loss for science.

It also makes it very hard for young scientists to really follow through on those crazy ideas: to stay in the game you can't afford to take too many wrong turns. Unfortunately, science doesn't really work that way.

What do you enjoy other than science?
I'm quite sporty, I'm out running 4 or 5 days a week, and when I'm not running I might be in a swimming pool somewhere. Running is the perfect sport for my busy travel schedule and irregular hours - all it takes is a good pair of shoes. But I equally enjoy (maybe secretly more?) lazing around with a book or watching a movie. I also love playing in chamber music ensembles when I have the time to practice my scales!

What would be your ideal holiday?
Skiing in perfect powder snow under a crispy blue sky, then falling asleep with a glass of wine in front of the fireplace.

Who or what is your greatest inspiration (science or otherwise?)
I'm inspired by people who lead interesting and varied lives, who never lose their passion, and who aren't afraid to speak up for what they believe in. Thankfully such people exist in all walks of life, past and present, in science as well in the arts. I'm fortunate to have some very inspirational people in my everyday life and work as well.

If you could give your younger self any advice, what would it be?
Don't worry: you'll be absolutely fine.

Friday, 10 January 2014

The Real Deal: Hayley Smith, Accelerator Physicist

Today I'd like to introduce a woman whose job involves operating and improving the most powerful proton accelerator in the UK. Cool, huh?

I'm pretty excited to introduce another woman in my very own field (accelerator physics), who arrived here through a rather different route to me. Hayley went through the STFC graduate training scheme (which means straight out of university, rather than doing a PhD) which proves that you don't always need to go down the PhD route to do excellent science for a career.

She's sporty, curious about everything, plays jazz trumpet and once wanted to be an astronaut but seems to have settled for a spot of astrophotography. Whew, what a range of interests! Without further ado, meet Hayley Smith...

Hayley Smith, Photo credit: STFC, 2013
What do you do and give 3 words that describe how you got there?

I work at ISIS as an accelerator physicist*.

Three words: Luck. Curiosity. Fun.

As an accelerator physicist at ISIS my work is mainly split into two categories, operations and development. In both cases the work involves trying to better understand how the accelerator works. 

Operationally this means working to achieve a more stable, high intensity, proton beam efficiently accelerated onto the target. This also involves creating new beam control tools, performing practical beam experiments and comparing the results of these with those from computer simulations. 

I particularly enjoy the time spent in the ISIS Main Control Room setting up the beam for the neutron users. On the development side I am involved in projects to model and simulate various beam processes to help plan for, and design, potential future accelerators or upgrades.

It is just plain lucky that I got the job. If I wasn’t curious about the world, physics in general, accelerators and so on then I would never have even applied. I had a great time at University and without that I wouldn’t be able to have this job.

(While she's busy writing this, maybe I can sneak in and tinker with the accelerator...? What, not even for a minute??)

What career did you think you would have when you were younger?
I honestly had no idea, and considered many different options!

I suppose deep down I always wanted to be an astronaut as space and international space programs have always fascinated me. From the age of 13-18 I was a member of my local Sea Cadet Corps and from this experience I was keen to join the Royal Navy. I also considered being a Police Officer. When I was doing my A-Levels I was introduced to the various forms of engineering and both civil and sports engineering looked very interesting to me.

Not once did accelerator physicist cross my mind, although thinking back I did enjoy the self-study module on accelerators during my A-Level physics course.

What is it that makes you want to come to work each day?
ISIS as a facility is allowing scientists to do great stuff with advancing certain technologies and pushing the scientific boundaries. Working in the background, on the accelerator side of things, is just as motivating for me as working on the forefront of these discoveries. Especially when working in the Main Control Room the concept of providing a service is important in my mind. 
And also I really enjoy working in the group here, the people are great and that makes for a very enjoyable working environment.

What is the one thing you’d love to achieve in your research?
The research we conduct in the group mainly focuses on development work for upgrades to ISIS or potential accelerators of the future. If some of the research we do were to lead to a new accelerator upgrade, or facility, in the future that would be fantastic. Any upgrade to ISIS would enhance the opportunities for neutron users, and also we would have the ability to commission a new accelerator based on the research and designs of the group.

What is the best/worst thing about your job?
I particularly enjoy working in the Main Control Room – “hands-on” with the accelerator, setting up the proton beam is a good challenge and different every time.  I also really enjoy creating new tools to use in separate beam experiments – taking measurements, analysing the results, making changes to the machine and ultimately improving the efficiency of the machine is really motivating.  

Also, since I have been working at ISIS I have had the opportunity to travel to attend many training courses, conferences and collaboration meetings.  These have all been amazing chances that I could never have dreamt of happening when I was at school or even university…

Currently I find the most frustrating part of my job to be creating computer simulations and models.  As stated above, I much prefer the operational and experimental aspects to my job – but that’s only because my programming ability is still developing. As I get more proficient I am finding I am enjoying the modelling aspects more and more, and I can certainly see how they are very powerful.  But for now they are still frustrating at times!

What do you enjoy other than science?

Since the age of six I have played football and have been lucky enough to continue all through school, university and now even work where I help to organise a women’s football team. We train weekly and play in the work lunchtime league. I enjoy playing, and watching, all sports. Besides football I particularly enjoy basketball, rounders, squash, tennis and golf.  

Despite having minimal musical ability (that all went to my brother I really enjoy (attempting) to play the trumpet with a local jazz band.

With my first ISIS pay packet I bought myself a 6” Cassegrain reflecting telescope.  Astronomy has been an interest of mine since I was at school, and I have been lucky to be a member of local amateur astronomy groups wherever I have lived.  Most recently I invested in a DSLR camera and have been experimenting with some astro-photography.

What would be your ideal holiday?
Skiing with a big group of friends.

In my first year at work at ISIS a group of recent graduates suggested a skiing trip. I had never been skiing before, but had always thought that it looked great.  We went as a big group and had an absolutely amazing week – and this has been repeated for the past three years, and hopefully will continue to do so!!!

Who or what is your greatest inspiration (science or otherwise)?
This may well sound cheesy, but for me it really is true.  The greatest inspiration would be my family.  I am lucky to be part of a big family and have been supported by, and been able to learn from all the generations.  We get together regularly and it’s always a lot of fun.  

If you could give your younger self any advice, what would it be?
Play more football, but look after your knees better.
Work harder to actually understand things properly - don’t just learn things to pass exams.

*  ISIS is a world centre for scientific research using neutrons and muons. You can find lots of explanations on the ISIS website,, but Hayley has kindly summarised for us: 

Scientists from all over the world come to visit ISIS to use the sub-atomic particles, neutrons, which are produced using a particle accelerator. Other sub-atomic particles, protons, are accelerated to 84% the speed of light. Once at this speed the protons are then smashed into a brick-sized tungsten target which releases neutrons from the target material. By detecting how neutrons pass through materials the scientists are able to work out the atomic structure of the material. Understanding materials on the atomic scale is really important to the world around us:
  • it allows the scientists to work out what is going on in fast biological processes such as pharmaceutical drug delivery 
  • it enables scientists and engineers to develop new materials and methods that could be used for storing hydrogen so it can be used as an alternative fuel source 
  • it helps scientists understand the magnetic tendencies of materials leading to the advancement of smaller and higher density microchips
  • and many more applications…