Best of luck to everyone!
University of Texas at Dallas (Ph.D.) – 2012, Dartmouth College (M.S.) – 2004, Smith College (A.B.) – 2001, Bellevue Community College (A.A.S.) – 1999
Ph.D. in Physics, M.S. in Astrophysics, A.B. in Physics, Astronomy
Postdoctoral Fellow (University of Michigan), Research Associate (University of Texas at Dallas), Scientific Programmer (Atmospheric and Environmental Research, Inc.)
Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Radio and Space Plasma Physics group
University of Leicester
Favourite thing to do in my job: Figuring out how different things are connected.
I study plasma in the Earth’s atmosphere to see how it responds to changes in sunlight.
I study the Earth’s ionosphere – the part of the atmosphere that is made up of plasma. Plasma is a substance made up of charged particles that can acts like both a liquid and and a gas. The plasma is created when sunlight hits the atmosphere, and most changes we see are caused by the sun. Some of these changes are easy to see, like those caused by sunrise and sunset. Others are harder to see.
Even though it may not seem like it, the amount of sunlight we get from year to year changes! One important pattern that we see in the sun, called the solar cycle, lasts 11 years. Over these years, the sun changes from being active, sending out a lot of X-rays and creating storms, to being calm. I’m using radar data from two of the solar cycles to see how the shape of the ionosphere changes.
To do this, I write my own computer programs that use data from a huge network of radars, which cover the North and South poles. The radars work by bouncing radio waves off the bottom of the ionosphere. We can use the radio waves that return to the radar to figure out a lot of things about the plasma they traveled through, including how fast it’s moving and how much of it there is! Here is a picture showing how some of the radio waves will travel, depending on how thick the ionosphere is.
Here are some of the instruments used to study the ionosphere that are built near Longyearbyen, one of the northern-most towns in the world.
My Typical Day
I like to start off by coding over a pot of tea, and (if I get all the bugs out of my code) move on to figuring out why my data looks the way it does.
A lot of what I do is writing and fixing computer programs. The data that we measure never has all of the information that we need to see what is going on up in space. We get a bit more data every day, which is great, but it also means that if you want to look at the new data or look at old data in a new way, you need to create to tools to do it yourself.
Once I get my code working, I get to do the interesting part – making plots and trying to figure out why things look the way they do. It’s really helpful to look over the plots with other people. If I can’t figure out what’s going on, another person can usually come up with something that I’ve overlooked.
Another important part of my job is writing. After all, it doesn’t do any good to figure out something cool and then keep it to yourself. Or even worse, forget how you did it! I write everything I do in my research notebooks. I have 15 of them so far! I also write journal articles, to share my good ideas with other scientists all over the world.
What I'd do with the prize money
I would work with local students to create interpretive dances that explain physics concepts
Dance is a fun and active way to express ideas. It can be challenging to figure out how to explain a type of space event or law of physics through dance, but it gives people a chance to think through and master science concepts. I have previously worked with some of my non-science friends to explain my Ph.D. work in the form of a dance as part of the “Dance your Ph.D.” contest. Afterwards, they said it had really helped them understand space weather. I would love to do something similar again!
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Determined, organized, enthusiastic
What's the best thing you've done in your career?
I was really proud after publishing my first paper.
What or who inspired you to follow your career?
My first trip to an observatory made me realize I wanted to discover more about how the universe works.
Were you ever in trouble at school?
Sometimes I’d get in trouble for reading too much
If you weren't doing this job, what would you choose instead?
Ruler of the Universe (or at least the Earth)
Who is your favourite singer or band?
What's your favourite food?
What is the most fun thing you've done?
The funnest thing I’ve done since moving to the UK is learn how to rock climb.
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
I would wish to be able to speak every language (human and non-human), travel the universe, and be perfectly healthy for as long as I live
Tell us a joke.
An astronomer brought a tasty cake into work for tea. When I asked for the recipe, she told me it contained hydrogen and time.