My job explained: Astrophysicist

Astrophysicist Catherine Heymans uses NASA’s famous Hubble Space Telescope to try and understand the many mysteries of the universe. Read on to find out why she feels her job might be one of the best on this (or any other) planet...

What inspired you to study physics?
I was always fascinated by the universe when at school. I also had a great physics teacher who spent a week at NASA at a teacher’s conference and came back so enthused about space science that she inspired me to think about that aspect of physics.
How long did it take to train and what did the training involve?
I did a three-year BSc and one year Masters course at Edinburgh University and then went on to do a PhD in Oxford. My degree involved lots of lectures and experiments in the labs. During my masters, I got the chance to use a telescope to measure the distance to a cluster of stars, which wasn’t easy as it was often cloudy up in Scotland!

Then I went on to do a PhD, and what I loved most about that was the opportunity to travel to La Palma in the Canary Islands to use large telescopes there. My research used the data collected from these visits to find out how much dark matter there is in the universe. Dark matter makes up a more of the universe than normal matter (which is what we’re made from) but beyond that we don’t really know what it is. We do know that it’s useful though, as it surrounds our galaxy and holds it together.
Can you describe a typical working day?
I usually start the day off by checking and answering emails. Because I work with people all around the world, I have emails coming in through the night as everyone is in different time zones. Most of these emails are from colleagues telling you about their work. I then spend some time reading all the latest research published that day and make up my mind on whether I agree with them and whether their work effects mine.

Then I tend to meet up with my post-graduate students to discuss their progress, and meet with people more senior than me to talk about how I am getting on. I also give tutorials to undergraduate students, which takes about an hour.

Quite an important part of my job is writing proposals to get money for future projects, or for trips to visit the telescopes. Our work uses the Hubble Space Telescope at Nasa and several large telescopes in Hawaii. At the moment we’re trying to get funding to build telescopes up in space – like Hubble, only bigger and better!

Finally, a big part of my day is spent working on computer programs to analyse our data. We have to write the programs ourselves so that we can make sense of the information coming from the telescopes.
What's the best thing about your job?
It used to be the travel that I liked best. I go to some amazing places all over the world for meetings with colleagues and to visit observatories. My favourite trip was a conference in Kyoto (in Japan), which was very interesting. Now I have a daughter, I really appreciate my flexible working hours. If she is ill, or there is a special activity that I need to be a part of, I can easily take off a day and make up the time at the weekend.
What have been the challenges in getting to where you are now and how have you overcome them?
Well, I would say that a degree and PhD in astrophysics isn’t easy. You don’t have a boss or much structure, so you have to be motivated and be able to organise your own time. As a woman in a male oriented field, it was hard to be taken seriously at first. But for every negative comment, there were hundreds of supportive and positive points. You just have to ignore the bad ones and get on with presenting yourself and your work as best you can and eventually you earn peoples’ respect.
What qualities and skills do you think are important for your role?
Perseverance, patience and self-motivation are all important. You need to be good at dealing with a range of people too. You have to present your findings to colleagues at conferences and there is also a lot of teaching, so it helps if you can express yourself with confidence.

As for more technical skills, maths is one of the most important things you need, as well as being organised and understanding computers.
What advice would you give to someone thinking about following in your footsteps?
If you’re comfortable with maths, then you’ll probably enjoy physics, so if you’re interested in becoming an astrophysicist, pay attention in maths lessons! I spent some summers working with astronomers as an undergraduate, which helped me to realise that this was the job for me, so relevant work experience, if you can get it, can be really useful.
What is your favourite physics related invention?
Well, the digital camera is really thanks to astrophysics. The CCD chip that records the photos was invented for telescopes to take pictures of galaxies.
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