Seeing Clearly

As a PhD student I spend a lot of time sitting in the office, and almost all of that involves looking at my laptop or computer monitor. Over the last year I have found it more and more difficult to spend full days at my desk without feeling muscles aches, tiredness or general restlessness. All this makes it harder to work consistently throughout the day.

From PhD Comics. Credit: Jorge Cham (Click on image to return to original webpage)

From PhD Comics. Credit: Jorge Cham (Click on image to return to original webpage)

In some ways I have a good situation here as the office I’m in has just been refurnished (with unwanted desks from another department), I have a reasonable size HD monitor to attach to my laptop which more than doubles the screen space, my laptop sits on a raised surface to keep it at eye level, I use a shelf above my desk to store textbooks, notes, papers to read and personal items and I own a reasonably decent office chair that reduces the strain on my back.

 Two weeks ago, on a whim, I made my first visit to the opticians for about 6 years.

Five days ago I picked up my first pair of glasses* 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

Continue reading

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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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X-ray Universe 2014 – Dublin, Ireland

A full session hearing about Athena and the future of X-ray astronomy. Credit: @antmarcarr on Twitter. Click on the photo to go to the original tweet.

A full session hearing about Athena and the future of X-ray astronomy. Credit: @antmarcarr on Twitter. Click on the photo to go to the original tweet.

Last week I went to my first international astronomy conference, X-ray Universe 2014. This was organised by the XMM-Newton Science Operations Centre and had about 350 delegates, 217 talks and 135 posters.

I took a poster, showing my work so far this year, and the consortium I’m in had six talks about our NGC 5548 campaign on one afternoon (I’ve explained the main result we announced in this post).

While this was my first international astronomy conference, it wasn’t my first international conference, as I had attended the International Planetarium Society’s 2012 conference in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. That one had 700 delegates, so the 350 people at X-ray Universe felt less intimidating than it would have done otherwise! 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.

Continue reading

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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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PhD Milestones

ESA's Gaia spacecraft launching on a Soyuz rocket from French Guiana (19 Dec 2013). Credit: ESA

ESA’s Gaia spacecraft launching on a Soyuz rocket from French Guiana (19 Dec 2013). Credit: ESA

It’s been quite a while since I’ve posted anything here. That’s partly due to being incredibly busy in December and partly due to doing very little over Christmas & New Year.

But since the last post I have reached a few milestones in my PhD:

  • First MSSL Christmas Lunch
  • First rocket launch watched at MSSL
    • ESA’s Gaia spacecraft was successfully launched on 19 Dec from French Guiana (see photo)
  • First term completed. Which makes me one ninth through my entire PhD…
  • First presentation on my research area (at ISSI)
  • First STFC-based outreach
    • Helping with an STFC Roadshow called ‘Seeing the Universe’ during a BBC Stargazing event at Royal Holloway, University of London
  • First (and second!) successful development of Python code to do something useful (and relevant)
    • The first was using it to plot graphs
    • The second was extracting, reformatting and manipulating data from one software program (Cloudy) so another can use it (SPEX)

There’s one more milestone coming up quickly and that is my first Panel Meeting. Continue reading

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I am a scientist, I do not work alone. (Switzerland!)

The Seyfert 1 galaxy NGC 5548. Image taken by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey.

The Seyfert 1 galaxy NGC 5548. Image taken by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey.

When I started my PhD I became part of a consortium, a group of researchers at different institutions who work together on specific projects. This consortium is led by Dr. Jelle Kaastra, a Senior Scientist at SRON (the Netherlands Institute for Space Research) and has members not only in the Netherlands but also in France, Israel, the USA and of course the UK (all at MSSL – my supervisor, her previous PhD student, and now me).

Working with other researchers from different institutions, and different countries, causes a lot of regular interaction to be through email. I’m sure everyone reading this will be aware how much faster some conversations can be if they are face-to-face instead! Therefore this consortium arranges meetings to help the process of working together. The next one is in Switzerland on 8th-13th Dec, at a place called the International Space Science Institute in Bern, and I’m going! Not only am I going, but I have a 20 minute slot to ‘present my preliminary results’ to the rest of the consortium (having started this PhD only two months ago I’m both excited and nervous about that part!).

The International Space Science Institute's logo

The International Space Science Institute’s logo

Continue reading

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Impostor Syndrome, Happiness and To-Do Lists

I was asked recently, “What’s your life goal, your aim?”.

Starting a PhD involves lots of people asking if academia is the career you’ve decided you want. It also involves lots of people assuming that academia is the career you’ve decided you want. Either way, those people tend to tell you what they consider are the most important skills to build up during a PhD. This mostly consists of being told things.

When I was asked what my life goal is, I had to think for a while. In the end I decided the only true way to answer that is by saying, “I want to be happy”.

Then I was asked, “What makes you happy?”. “Oh” I thought, “That’s a difficult question”. 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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