Job Dreams: Astrophysicist
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As part of our Job Dreams series, we speak to professionals from different careers and share their advice with you. Last month, we learned what it's like to be a full time dog walker. And this month we met Luke who told us what it’s like to be an astrophysicist!
What do you do?
I’m studying an astrophysics PhD at University College London.
Can you tell us what your day-to-day is like?
Right now I’m focussed on analysing data from the ALMA telescope. It’s an incredible facility located on a vast mountain plateau in the Atacama Desert in Chile. The dry conditions there are perfect for astronomy because Earth’s atmosphere doesn’t interfere with the astronomical signals. My observations look at ‘protoplanetary disks’. These are the huge swirling disks of gas and dust that surround newly formed stars, and are the birthplace of new planets. In the last couple of decades we’ve discovered over 4000 planets outside our Solar System, and the majority of them are nothing like Earth! So, my ultimate goal is to determine exactly what these disks are made of, and how this leads to the incredible diversity of planets in our galaxy. On a day-to-day basis, I split my time between analysing these observations, and creating models of the disks with a complex computer code. Comparing the models with the observations helps refine our understanding.
What do you love most about your job?
One of the most exciting things about studying a PhD is that you are performing original research into a topic that no one else has looked at before. Having the chance to better understand the Universe and make a meaningful impact in the scientific community is an amazing prospect! But the best thing is being able to engage with other scientists and learn from their expertise. I’m very lucky to have a fantastic supervisor to guide me and share his knowledge.
What do you find most challenging?
The more I learn, the more I realise I don’t know! Astrophysics encompasses a huge range of topics in physics, chemistry, mathematics and computer science, so I’m constantly working to improve my understanding of scientific concepts.
What did you see yourself doing when you were a kid?
I wanted to be a professional guitarist (which I managed for a short time!)
What challenges did you face in reaching where you are today?
I studied both my undergraduate degree and master’s degree part-time, while working full-time as a professional chef. The process took me 11 years…so staying motivated to study while working in an intense professional kitchen environment wasn’t easy, but well worth it.
If you weren’t working in this field, what do you think you’d be?
I’d definitely still be a chef. There’s nothing quite like the professional kitchen environment. It’s very rewarding getting to work with amazing produce on a daily basis.
Where do you see yourself going next?
I still have three years of the PhD left, so haven’t thought any further than that!
What do you know now that you wish you’d known when you first left school?
Studying to pass an exam, and properly learning about a topic are not the same thing. I think that it’s very possible to pass an exam without gaining a real knowledge of the concepts involved. There are so many brilliant studying resources online now, and I wish I’d found them sooner!
What advice would you give to someone interested in joining your industry?
The most important thing is to show enthusiasm and passion for the subject, and demonstrate that you’re able to think critically and solve problems independently.
What’s the best piece of professional advice you’ve been given?
Be reliable! Don’t show up late, cancel plans at the last minute, ‘forget’ about the meeting etc. People will appreciate you for it!
What quote do you live by?
“Perfection is lots of little things done well” – Marco Pierre White