Friday, March 4, 2016

My Advice for PhD Applicants

So you want to do a PhD in astronomy/astrophysics/cosmology? Here is some random advice from me (note these are my personal opinions, and not representative of any official policy anywhere I have worked, or currently work).

Preparatory work: 
  • Try to do one or more summer research projects to demonstrate your interests/abilities in research.
  • If you are on a 1 year taught Masters 
    • get to know your lecturer immediately so they can write a good reference. 
    • start your project early. If the course structure has the project late do a summer project, or start your project early (even if they say not to).

Application materials:
  • Write a cover letter, or a description of why you want to do a PhD, and what your subject interests are. This is your chance to show passion for your subject. Do some research on what is available at the department you are applying to first (e.g. don't write about how much you love exoplanets, if no-one in that department studies them....).
  • If you can remain somewhat open to the details of a project/supervisor (you'll be easier to place). Not all faculty will be recruiting PhD students every year, but you can still potentially work with them as a co-supervisor. 
  • Don't leave gaps in your CV. If you are currently working and want to come back to study do not hide it. This is often viewed positively - use your experience to hi-light the skills you have gained in the workplace which should place you above undergraduates still at University. 
  • Be very clear about your nationality - especially if you are British applying for PhDs in Britain. This shouldn't matter, but it seems to.

  • Dress up for the interview (at least a bit - you offend no-one by being over dressed, if you show up in tracksuit bottoms you may send a message that you don't care to some).
  • Show an interest in the department. Stay for lunch if invited. It's not really optional (even if presented as such). Ask the current graduate students if there are any evening plans you can tag along to.
  • Ask questions about the training, help given to find jobs etc. 
  • Talk to everyone - especially current students. If you think you're getting a sales pitch press harder for the real story.
  • Make extra sure you talk to current students of any faculty you think you might want to work with. Ask about their working style. Are they too hands off - are they too pushy - do they take credit for student's work - do they promote their students outside the University. 
  • Be careful you don't assume women you meet are admin staff - assume everyone you meet is a scientist and potentially a future supervisor. Do not address anyone as Miss or Ms or Mr (just in case). 
  • Be polite to everyone you meet. The interview panel might seek input from anyone in the department (including the admin staff).
There's loads of other good advice online about this already, so don't just read this. Astrobetter has a fantastic set of resources (sometimes with an American angle, but many things apply to any PhD programme).

Monday, January 25, 2016

Thoughts on the 9th Planet

The internet was abuzz last week with news of a possible 9th planet in our Solar System, as well as an opportunity to view all five planets visible to the naked eye in the sky at the same time for the first time in more than a decade. Coming on the heels of the BBC StargazingLIVE show, and ongoing coverage of Tim Peake's mission oboard the International Space Station) it feels like space and astronomy has never been more at the front of the UK public’s consciousness.

The possibility of the discovery of a new planet so close to us might seem to make a mockery of how much we claim to know about the vast expanse of space. You might ask how we can claim we understand the structure of galaxies in the distant Universe when we have potentially missed an entire planet in our own solar system for so long. But this planet, if it turns out to be real, will be very dark indeed. The predictions suggest it orbits the Sun, 20 times further out that Neptune (which in turn is 30 times further out than the Earth). At this distance the planet would take 10,000-20,000 years to orbit the Sun, moving incredibly slowly against the background stars. And the illumination from the Sun would be over 300,000 times less than it is here at Earth, making it both a very cold and dark place, as well as an incredibly hard thing to spot with a telescope. Astronomers all over the world will now be searching for this tiny speck of light, in an interesting parallel of several previous searches which have happened following earlier predictions of missing planets (these earlier searches led to the discover of Neptune, as well as Ceres and Pluto – two objects we now consider dwarf planets, but which we initially called planets). 

Of course the last time the number of planets in our Solar System was in the news we all had to come to terms with losing a planet. Pluto is still exactly where it always was, but in 2006 was reclassified as a dwarf planet following the discovery of potentially hundreds of Pluto like objects in the outer solar system. As an astronomer it never fails to surprise me how much this reclassification, which you might dismiss as an obscure technical discussion, captures the public imagination. This has recently been back in the news following the amazing pictures of Pluto sent back by the New Horizons Mission. While I’m often surprised at the interest this generates, I’m also pleased for the opportunity it gives to remind us all that science isn’t a fixed and static thing. We reclassify planets on the basis of new information, and we can still have the opportunity to discover massive new planets in our own backyard. 

The already iconic view of Pluto from the NASA New Horizon's Mission.

If you want to see all six planets visible to the naked eye at once (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn) you can get up early on any clear morning over the next month or so. Venus and Jupiter will be the two brightest points of light you can find in the sky – Jupiter is to the West, and Venus to the East. In a rough line between them will be the noticeably orange tinged Saturn and Mars. Mercury is a challenge as it’ll be a small point of light fading into the dawn light as the Sun rises – of course Earth you can see all the time (just look down). 

A screenshot from the free planetarium software Stellarium showing all 5 visible planets together in the sky at 6.50am on Tue 26th Jan 2016
To see the International Space Station and wave at Tim Peake as he passes by, you can look for notifications of the next visible ISS passesonline. The next ones visible from where I live (in the UK) are Feb 2nd and 3rd in the evening. The ISS looks like a steadily moving constant point of light to the naked eye, and you see the reflected sunlight off its solar panels.

A real picture of Stargazer Lottie in Space

This weekend Tim Peake posted this actual picture of his Stargazer Lottie doll on board the ISS!

Now don't get me wrong, I've been loving the #lottieinspace illustrations created by ESA and explaining what life is like in space, but they were also obviously faked, and I've had to explain several times already that that doesn't mean Lottie isn't up there, just that those images are faked. Now we have an actual real picture, that explanation got a whole lot easier. :)

If there's any kids in your life, they can Ask Lottie all their space questions. She's waiting by her computer! 

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Toys in Space

My involvement with Stargazer Lottie, and the fact that she's gone to space with Tim Peake, has made me really curious about other toys which have flown to space.

It's amazing what you can find with a bit of digging on Wikipedia and beyond...

In 1985 there was a Space Shuttle Mission (STS-51-D) which among many other things, flew an experiment called "Toys in Space". The idea was to create an accessible way for children to learn about microgravity, by comparing how the toys acted in space, to how they would behave in their own classroom. According to the NASA Website about Toys in Space, this experiment was repeated on the shuttle in 1993 and 1998 (on STS-54 and STS-77 respectively), while in 2002, Expedition 5 to the International Space Station, also took back some of the same toys.

There are a series of videos available showing the toys being used in space, which you can watch below.

The toys included commonly available toys, such as a spinning top, yo-yo, skipping rope (or jump rope), marbles and a football (soccer ball), as well as some toys which could be build by children (an origami flipper, simple card boomerang). NASA also created a set of resources for suggestions of how to use the videos to complement classroom experiments with the same toys. There's even a book about the experiments (and other playful activities in space).

Fast forward to 2008, and the Toy Story action figure, Buzz Lightyear flew into space on Shuttle mission STS as part of an educational collaboration between Disney and NASA. Again NASA created a set of activities and videos for children to use the behaviour of Buzz Lightyear in space to learn about microgravity.

You can see some of the videos of Buzz Lightyear's Mission Log (which are also available to buy on DVD) on Youtube, including the one below.

Meanwhile, sending toys to the edge of space (usually using modified weather balloons) has become quite a thing as a quick Google will show you.

This story of a dad sending his son's toy train to the edge of space gets a lot of hits.

I also like this story, of two little girls from Seattle who sent a picture of their cat and a lego R2D2 figure to the edge of space.

Hello Kitty has been to the edge of space, as has a Lego Space Shuttle, along with lots of other odd things.

This is all very cool (especially that you can do it for yourself with a bit of effort), but orbiting is much more challenging.

 Of course astronauts get to take some small items of their own choice into space. It should be no surprise that the first Danish astronaut took Lego figures with him to space (just back in September 2015). These specially designed Lego figures were then to be used as prizes in a competion for Danish school children after he returned from his 10 day mission.

 For more Lego fun in space, Japanese astronaut Satoshi Furukawa made a model lego ISS on board the ISS in 2012. He then used this in a series of videos for Japanese children.

And in 2013, astronaut Karen Nyberg made a toy dinosaur onboard the ISS. She found materials on board to make the toy which she gave to her son on her return home.

There's been loads of space related Barbie Dolls over the years, but I can find no evidence any of them have actually flown into space... so I think Lottie might actually be safe with her claim to be the first doll in space.

(I'm not the only one to have this idea, you can read this Gizmodo article "25 Famous Toys we Blasted into Space" from 2013 - and they got most of the same ones as me!).

Stargazer Lottie in Space

One thing I’ve spent a little bit of time on over the last few years is consulting on the development of Stargazer Lottie. I first heard about her when Lucie Follett from Arklu contacted me in August 2013 to discuss their plans to develop a stargazer doll. I’ve talked with the developers on and off ever since, providing suggestions on the clothing Lottie wears to go Stargazing (making sure she was wrapped up warm), and what kind of telescope she might be able to have (her telescope looks a bit like a Galileoscope, which is an inexpensive, but optically accurate telescope developed by astronomers). I also helped with some of the information on the box (making sure the planets were in the right order), and checked over the handout which comes with Lottie about women in astronomy. I also suggested the company contact UNAWE for links to kids activities (which did work out!).

 I’ve been delighted by the reaction to Lottie Stargazer, since she was released back in March 2015 and my own daughter (who is now 8, exactly the age Lottie is supposed to be) is a big fan of her (my son who’s 5 is a bit keener on Finn, but does like Lottie too)!

I've been hearing rumours for a while that Stargazer Lottie might go into space with Tim Peake. The company worked with ESA Kids in some of the promotion of the doll, and this wonderful idea came up a while ago, but was obviously kept well under wraps until it was decided if it could actually happen. So I was super excited when I found out it was going to work out, and Stargazer Lottie is now on the ISS with Tim Peake and his crewmates.

You should watch this adorable video about the little girl, Abigail, who first suggested to Arklu that there should be a Stargazer Lottie.

I also love this series of photos of Lottie on the ISS that ESA have made. Follow @lottie_dolls on Twitter for more.

Many congratulations to Lucie and her colleagues at Arklu for making this happen, and providing this inspirational doll to little girls everywhere. I'm really proud of the tiny contributions I've made to this project.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Brighton Cafe Scientifique

I spoke at Brighton Cafe Sci last night. Making this post mostly to keep a record of the link to the page about my talk, which has some feedback (as below).

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Opening Doors - Gender in Education

Yesterday I attended the Opening Doors Conference, run by the Institute of Physics. Here are some of my notes on the conference.  One headline - the plan is that this will be the first of an annual series of conferences, and I would certainly encourage people to attend in the future as it was a very interesting day.

The main theme of the conference was opening up gender non-conforming opportunities to post-16 children (e.g. girls doing traditionally "male" subjects as well as boys doing traditionally "female" subjects). The Institute of Physics have just published a report "Opening Doors" (download here) which follows a series of reports on the status of physics education at post-16 in the UK.

 Peter Main from the Institute of Physics kicked off the programming presenting the new report and the background research which led to it. He motivated this by pointing out the different trends seen in Maths and Physics A-level participation since 1985. Maths A-level has had a monotonic increase from 30% of the cohort being female in 1985 to 40% today, while Physics A-level has remained at around the 20% female mark across 30 years of tracking (actually 22% of Physics students were female in 1985 and 21% in 2015).

This trend promoted IoP to recognise that doing the "usual stuff" clearly wasn't working and do a survey in 2012 of girls attitudes to Physics ("It's Different for Girls"). This revealed that school culture seemed to play a big part in participation choices - in fact girls out perform boys at both GCSE and A-level physics (on average), so it's not anything to do with ability to do the subjects. But there are big differences in participation of girls in physics between schools (with single sex and independent schools tending to have a lot more girls continuing from GCSE to A-level than state schools).

This lead the IoP to work on a broader study of A-level Choices across a range of subjects demonstrating different gender balance ("Closing Doors", published in December 2013). The subjects they chose to investigate were Physics (roughly 20% girls), Economics (30% girls), Maths (40% girls), Biology (55% girls), English (70% girls) and Psychology (70% girls). The study looked at the progression from GCSE to A-level across a wide range of schools in the UK, and demonstrated that 81% of schools either maintain or worsen gender stereotypes at this transition point.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, schools which do better at balancing gender in all subjects, also do better at balancing gender in Physics (this seems obvious once you recognize there's a fixed pool of students, so relatively more girls in physics mean relatively fewer girls elsewhere in more "female" subjects - evening out the gender balance more broadly than just in physics).

The new "Opening Doors" report is the follow on from this, based on site visits to 10 schools. Interestingly, 3 of the schools are in the Portsmouth area (Bay House in Gosport, Cams Hill in Fareham and Oaklands in Waterlooville). The report lists best practice and suggestions for how schools can improve progression from GCSE to A-levels in gender non-conforming subjects (ie. girls doing physics, boys doing English) including zero tolerance on sexist language (no matter how "harmless"), senior leadership being committed to gender equality, using the school environment to promote gender equality, and making sure that physics and maths are not presented as more difficult than other subjects.

 There was a discussion of the poor state of careers advice in schools, that parents, teachers and students need support to understand what a Physics A-level can lead to. This also led to comments that the gendered views of parents should be challenged.

 There was a comment that one-off visits from role models don't work - only sustained programmes can make a difference. 

 Finally the IoP is considering initiating an Athena SWAN like programme for schools to recognise those with good gender equality practices.

 We then had a series of three lectures from specialists in gender differences and the links to education. These were from Prof. Louise Archer (Kings College, London) with a sociological perspective, Dr Stephanie Burnett Heyes (Birmingham) talking about what's known about gender differences and the brain, and Dr. Gijsbert Stoet (Glasgow) on the psychology of choices and how this related to gender imbalance in education.

 I was very impressed with the first two of these talks, less so with the third (see below).

 Prof. Archer talked about the social construction of physics as a masculine subject, and how that fits into peoples individual perceptions of who they are. She showed ASPIRES research demonstrating there's no lack of interest in science subject, or any sense that they are not important, just that few girls aspire to be scientists.

 Prof. Archer also addressed the typical profile of British girls who do choose physics (they tend on average to be "proud to be different", competitive, academically competent, encouraged by their family, and come from supportive schools), and the challenges they face to deal with the social pressure against their subject choice (e.g. the often constant need to defend it to friends and family and strangers). Dr Archer suggested we need to put less emphasis on changing girls to fit into physics, and think more about changing the culture of physics to be more welcoming to girls.

 Dr.  Burnett Heyes (Birmingham Neuroscientist) demonstrated fairly conclusively that there almost no evidence of significant differences in the brains of men and women (particularly pointing out that the range of results within each gender is much larger than any difference between average properties of gender in almost every study), and also that even if differences are seen that is hard to interpret. This was a really fascinating talk about neuroscience, although it was hard to draw any general conclusions from it.

 Dr. Stoet I thought spent too much time presenting his own views in the subject, and not enough on an overview of the state of his field. He initiated some significant discussion, partly because as a lot of what he presented contradicted the previous two talks, what many in the room had previously experience of (and even at times his own slides from earlier in the talk). He appeared to want to argue that differences in the gender make-up of different subjects are innate, based mostly on biologically pre-programmed interest in certain topics (this contradicted the research Prof. Archer had shown demonstrating it's not a lack of interest in science which is turning off girls) and therefore was not worth challenging. In fact he was quoted in the Telegraph saying as much in July 2014.

 The panel discussion following these three talks was quite lively as you might imagine. Specific conclusions seemed to be:

* we need to work with families of primary school age children to help both parents and children understand that science is for everyone, that studying science is important even if you don't want to be a scientist.
* children in the UK are pushed to narrow subject choices too early (when they perhaps are not mature enough to understand the significance). There were quite a lot of calls to scrap triple science/double science choice at GCSE, broaden/change A-levels to be less focused.
* We should worry about the future choices of boys in a changing world. Part of this re-balancing needs to consider how we can make traditionally female roles be more attractive to boys (e.g more male nursery and primary school teachers, more male carers etc).

 I'm not quite sure what the take home should be for work to improve the gender balance of students studying Physics at undergraduate level, except that I was rather struck by Prof. Archers comments on the resources girls who study physics have to expend to defend their choice to be female physicists. I was also stuck by her finding that girls who choose physics tend to be academically very strong. I'm now curious look into the gender make up of A-level students with different results in Physics, and wonder about the impact that has on the make up of those continuing to study physics beyond A-level.