Catherine Vlahakis

Can't believe this second week is nearly over!

Favourite Thing: Learn new things.



Woodford County High School (1989-1996), Cardiff University (1997-2001), Cardiff University (2002-2005)


PhD in Astronomy and Master of Physics degree in Astrophysics

Work History:

After my PhD, I was a postdoctoral researcher in astronomy at universities in Germany, the Netherlands, and then Chile. I’ve been working as a scientist (astronomer) at the ALMA observatory, Chile, since 2011.

Current Job:

Scientist (astronomer) at the ALMA observatory in Chile.


Joint ALMA Observatory & European Southern Observatory

Me and my work

I work as a scientist/astronomer at the ALMA observatory in Chile – the “Atacama Large Milllimeter/submillimeter Array”.

ALMA is a brand new telescope that we’ve just finished building in the north of Chile. It’s a type of telescope called an interferometer, which means it’s made up of lots of individual dishes (we call them antennas) that work together as one giant, very powerful, telescope.

We built ALMA in Chile’s Atacama desert, at a height of about 5000 metres above sea level, because it is really, really dry there.  At the wavelengths at which ALMA operates – a few millimetres or a bit shorter wavelength – the signals that we receive from space can be distorted by water in the Earth’s atmosphere, so building the observatory in one of the driest places on Earth is really important for getting clear pictures.

myimage5 Here’s what the antennas look like in the desert landscape. (Photo credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), C. Padilla)








myimage4 This is a close-up of one of the ALMA antennas. The dish is 12m in diameter.








ALMA’s antennas can be moved around – they’re not permanently fixed in one place. We do this using machines called “transporters”, which can pick an antenna up and carry it to another spot in the desert.

myimage2 Here’s a picture of a transporter moving an antenna (Photo credit: S. Rossi (ESO)).









They’re impressive machines, and can even be operated by remote control! Of course, astronomers aren’t allowed to drive them, but I did sit in the driver’s seat once, to see what it was like 🙂

myimage3 Here’s a picture of me pretending to drive a transporter 😉











Back to astronomy, the reason we can move ALMA’s antennas is so we can change the amount of detail we get in the pictures we take of the Universe. The further apart the antennas are, the more detail we can see. I was recently in charge of a big project to see if ALMA works when the antennas are really far apart – as much as 15km apart! It was a big challenge, and we really didn’t know what was going to happen, but…it worked!

So in October and November last year we made some incredibly detailed images of different kinds of objects in the Universe. One of them was an object called “HL Tau” (short for HL Taurus, as it’s located in the constellation Taurus), which is another solar system in the process of forming! It’s located about 450 light years away.

myimage1 This is one of the pictures we took of HL Tau (Photo credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO). At the centre there’s a star (just like the Sun is at the centre of our solar system) that’s about 1 million years old, and it’s surrounded by a disk made of dust particles. We didn’t expect a disc around a star this young to appear to be already forming planets. This was a real surprise.




This isn’t dust like you might find in your house. It’s made of small grains like sand, bigger particles like pebbles and huge ones like asteroids! What’s so amazing about this picture is all the dark rings you can see – astronomers had never seen this kind of object in this level of detail before, and the dark rings tell us there might be planets forming there!

You can find out more about ALMA’s image of HL Tau here

I can honestly say that this is the most awesome image I’ve ever seen in astronomy. It made some of us cry when we first saw it because we knew this was something amazing!

I could talk about astronomy all day – my job is pretty cool! 🙂

You can find out lots more about ALMA here

My Typical Day

I really don’t have a typical day – but whatever I do it involves drinking coffee!

Being an astronomer usually isn’t a 9-5 job and in my case definitely not! My job is really busy and really varied, so I rarely spend a whole day doing just one thing. That actually makes it really interesting, but I’m usually multi-tasking like crazy. Almost all the work I do involves using my laptop.

Because I work with other astronomers all over the world, meetings can be at any hour of the day or night, and since email is a big part of the way we communicate in my job it means there’s no time you’re “switched off” from work…unless you don’t check your email 😉 It also means that I get to travel quite a lot (of course always with my laptop!). When we’re using telescopes to make observations of interesting things in the Universe (or sometimes just doing tests) we often work at night too.

Here are some other things that I might do on a typical day:

  • Email. Sometimes I can spend a whole day just reading and sending email.
  • Go to meetings
  • Give talks (and write the presentations)
  • Work at the telescope (which is a plane and bus-ride away, so I usually go for a few days at a time – normally once per month or so)
  • Report or investigate problems with the telescope or with the data
  • Plan the activities my team works on
  • Scientific research (I don’t have much time for this in my current job though)
  • Write research papers (when I’ve found time to to do the research!)
  • Read research papers by other astronomers – that’s how you see what cool stuff other people are doing!
  • Programming (a little, sometimes)
  • Travel to meetings in other countries (I do this quite often)
  • Write documents and reports
  • Write requests to use telescopes around the world. There’s a lot of competition for the time available on telescopes, so you have to write a research plan explaining why it’s important you get to use that particular telescope. A team of experts then assesses all the requests they receive and decide whether you get to use the telescope or not. It’s often very competitive, so you might have to try several times before you’re successful!
  • Drink lots of coffee 🙂


What I'd do with the money

I’d give the money to a local school in a village called Toconao, which is near the ALMA telescope in Chile’s Atacama desert – so they can buy science equipment.

One of the nearest villages to the ALMA telescope, which is in the north of Chile, is called Toconao. The local school there has a special program to help improve science and English education, which is supported by ALMA. Funding for teachers, infrastructure and teaching materials has really helped Toconao students improve their test scores in national tests.

If I won the money I’d give it to Toconao school so they can buy materials for their science lessons. If they invited me, I could even go to visit one of their science or English classes. Or maybe even better, they might come to visit me at the telescope! It’s not far!

Here are a couple of photos from Toconao school (credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)):

myimage6 myimage7

And yes. There really are flamingos and llamas around there!

My Interview

How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

Not. Enough. Coffee.

Who is your favourite singer or band?

I like lots of different kinds of music so I don’t really have a favourite singer/band. What I listen to really depends what mood I’m in and what I’m doing.

What's your favourite food?

I have to say I love cheese – the tasty kind, not the plasticky kind! And very dark chocolate. Usually not at the same time though ;-)

What is the most fun thing you've done?

Scary and fun: snorkelling at night with huge manta rays (in Hawaii)

What did you want to be after you left school?

I had no idea!

Were you ever in trouble at school?

Not really, although I was sometimes a bit late for assembly in the morning, and also sometimes late handing in my homework.

What was your favourite subject at school?

I liked lots of subjects at school – that made it difficult to choose what subjects to take – I wanted to take them all! I especially liked physics, music and languages, though.

What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?

I’m in charge of a brand new astronomy project that has recently produced some amazingly detailed images of different kinds of objects in the Universe – I’m very proud to have been part of that.

What or who inspired you to become a scientist?

Definitely my physics teacher. He always really encouraged me, and helped me do some astronomy as well as the regular physics lessons.

If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?

I have no idea! For me, being a scientist is more of a way of life than a career, so it’s hard to imagine doing something else. If science hadn’t worked out for me at university, I would probably have studied modern languages.

If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!

Tell us a joke.

Other stuff

Work photos: