Category Archives: MSSL Life

Six Months Left

I have tended to ignore this blog while in the middle of tasks, or feeling stuck. I only really turn to it when I feel a milestone has arrived, whether in terms of time passed or task achieved. As the title of this tells you, this time is no different…

In 6 months I reach the end of my PhD funding, and so in my mind I reach the end of my PhD.

The natural question for others to ask me seems to be “what will you do afterwards?”, and I will write a blogpost in answer to that at some point, but for now I’ll leave that topic at: “it’s sorted, but it feels so far away right now I can’t concentrate on that yet”. 

I have almost reached the end of my second science chapter, out of three. And by almost, I mean that I consider it basically done, but I’ll email it to two people early next week and I’m confident they will have constructive suggestions to make it better. How much more work I will need to do as a result of those suggestions is something I will find out, but for now I can move on and start approaching my final science chapter.

The first project took me 21 months. The second (until now) has taken 9 months. And so 6 months left to start and finish and 3rd project feels alternately doable and scary. Plus to finish writing an introduction, of which maybe 60-70% is written at the moment, and a conclusion too… I’ll stop thinking about that now 🙂

Ignoring that is actually what’s worked for me so far this year (2016). I have a general sense that I need to work quickly, efficiently and with as little procrastination as possible, but I haven’t caught myself worrying about the big picture so much. Focussing on what I can do right now, the progress I can make right now and then allowing myself time off to recharge without guilt seems to be an effective method.

I suppose I’ll find out in 6 months if this plan has worked 😉

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Nearing the end of Year 2…

I feel like my posts here have become significantly more infrequent over the last year, compared to during the first year of my PhD. I went back and briefly counted, and it’s not as drastic a difference as I expected; I posted 12 blogs during my first year, and have done 8 so far this year. This just goes to show that how I feel something is going is not always the most accurate measure of reality.

I think learning how to separate my immediate perception of my progress from the reality of my progress is the most important lesson I’ve learnt in my PhD so far. I have spent a lot of the last 12 months being frustrated with ‘not moving fast enough’, ‘not doing well enough’, and generally struggling with the idea that I “should” be at least a stage further forward than I am. Every time I speak to another PhD student about their work they seem to express the same idea, which hints at the fact that this is something we are all dealing with! Continue reading

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Small victories?

Sometimes a victory that feels huge can suddenly sound obvious when you try to explain it. For me, the key is to remember how important it is to you.

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Why is a PhD like a ‘rubber duck’?

A 3-D reconstruction of the Rosetta comet (67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko) in a 2003 model from the Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: NASA, ESA and Philippe Lamy (Laboratoire d’Astronomie Spatiale)

A 3-D reconstruction of the Rosetta comet (67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko) in a 2003 model from the Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: NASA, ESA and Philippe Lamy (Laboratoire d’Astronomie Spatiale)

On the left is an image reconstruction of our ‘best guess’ at what comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko looked like in 2003. This was created using images from the Hubble Space Telescope in preparation for ESA’s Rosetta Spacecraft mission to travel there and take a closer look.

This closer look happened more than 10 years later, and just last week the Philae Lander was released and performed the very first soft landing ever on a comet. But even before this landing, we knew a lot more about comet 67P than we had in 2003. Images from Rosetta as it approached and began orbiting the comet showed us a completely unexpected shape, shown on the right, leading it to be nicknamed the ‘rubber duck’ comet.

The soft landing (or more strictly, bouncing) of Philae has been all over the news for the last week or so, but it was this article in Universe Today that drew my attention to the huge increase in knowledge about 67P over the last decade. We can easily get caught up in particular events and achievements but it isn’t often that we really sit back and appreciate how far we’ve come over a longer period of time. Continue reading

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Up(grade)s and Downs

While usually I try to focus these blogs on positive aspects of PhD life, today I want to focus on how I felt driving home after a mediocre day.

Yesterday was not a good day. Nothing particularly bad happened, but work didn’t go very well and by the time I left the office I was frustrated.

I ranted about it whilst driving home; about 45 minutes of “Why doesn’t it work?”, “Why can’t I write faster?”, “Why don’t I understand it all yet?”, “Why is science so *frustrating*?” etc etc

The frustration I’m feeling is down to the stress of meeting deadlines, not the work itself.

The main cause of my current work-related stress is the fast approaching upgrade process. Continue reading

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The Experience of ‘Work Experience’ at MSSL

Some of the work experience students doing project work in the MSSL gardens. Photo credit: MSSL/Martin de la Nougerede

Some of the work experience students doing project work in the MSSL gardens. Photo credit: MSSL/Martin de la Nougerede

Last month MSSL (where I work) hosted 19 students (mostly 17-18 year olds) for a week of work experience. They had all contacted us themselves to see if they could find out what working in astronomy and space science is really like, so a group of PhD students (including me, and led by Will Dunn) decided to run one week of workshops, talks and project work for them.

MSSL has 100-150 people on site every day, all working in a huge number of areas connected to space. We have the ‘science’ groups, including astrophysics, solar, space plasma, and planetary science as well as the ‘engineering’ groups, including cryogenics, imaging, electronic and mechanical engineering, plus people in various groups who are well experienced in developing and managing space missions. To allow the students to experience as much of this as possible in only one week we developed a workshop for each of Mon-Thurs mornings based on one of the science groups, and those afternoons were given over to group project work. Interspersed throughout the days were talks and Q&A sessions with many of the scientists and engineers who work here.

Group photo of the work experience students. Photo credit: MSSL/Martin de la Nougerede

Group photo of the work experience students. Photo credit: MSSL/Martin de la Nougerede

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ISSI – Discussions, Presenting and Editing

The view from a bridge in Bern (May 2014)

The view from a bridge in Bern (May 2014)

In December, only two and a half months after I started my PhD, I wrote about a trip I was about to take to the International Space Science Institute (ISSI) in Bern, Switzerland.

When I got back I wanted to write about my experiences there, but it was on that trip that as a consortium we tried to work out a consistent picture for the strange data we collected of NGC 5548 over the summer. It was clear that we had an unexpected result and we wanted to minimise the risk of anyone else realising this before we had chance to publish, plus we decided as a group to submit to Science and therefore it was important to keep in mind their embargo rules.

As the first paper from this campaign was published last week, I want to go back and describe the experiences I had at ISSI. I have now spent two weeks there, one in December 2013 and one in May 2014, with almost the same people each time. I learnt a lot during both of these weeks at ISSI, but also found them very different; I will try to explain this in the rest of this post. Continue reading

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Doing science and dealing with Science

A screenshot from an animated journey through the active galaxy NGC 5548, created by Renaud Person, one of the world directors of the famous Assassin's Creed video game

A screenshot from an animated journey through the active galaxy NGC 5548, created by Renaud Person, one of the world directors of the famous Assassin’s Creed video game. Click on the image to watch the animation on YouTube.

It has been almost six about four (EDIT: I counted…) months since my last post, and for once there has been a reason for that other than “I was busy”. I started this blog as a way to write about my research and experiences as a PhD student at MSSL, and for the last 6 months the experiences I’ve wanted to write about have all been directly connected to something I have had to keep quiet.

On 19 June 2014, the first academic paper I have been involved in was published:

“A fast and long-lived outflow from the supermassive black hole in NGC 5548″, J. S. Kaastra et al, Science, 19 June 2014 (10.1126/science.1253787)

A free to access version is available on the arXiv here.

EDIT: A non-specialist summary is on the UCL news page here.

I have written before about my involvement in a consortium; this group of over 30 astronomers has been working together on one set of data, a multi-wavelength campaign studying the active galaxy NGC 5548.

Submitting this paper to Science meant that the whole consortium decided not to publicise our research, as when Science accepts a paper it is then under embargo until publication.

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The Importance Of Your PhD Supervisor

I am really enjoying my PhD at MSSL and the life I have around it, but not every day starts particularly well. Continue reading

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Astro Group Seminar: Satellite Galaxy Evolution and Student Advice

New Hubble image of galaxy cluster Abell 1689. Credit: ESA/NASA/Hubble

New Hubble image of galaxy cluster Abell 1689. Credit: ESA/NASA/Hubble

Every Thursday afternoon (apart from the first one in a month) the Astrophysics Group at MSSL has a seminar. These seem to mostly be by speakers from different institutions and about a wide range of topics. After the main seminar the speaker also sits down with the PhD students to answer any questions and give career advice. I enjoyed both sections and have summarized both in this post.

Although I have been at MSSL for three weeks now, due to a welcome event at UCL’s main campus and the beginning of a month, last week was my first seminar.  The speaker was Dr Anna Pasquali from the University of Heidelberg who talked about satellite galaxy evolution. Continue reading

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