Friday, June 17, 2016

Women of the Future 2016 Nominations now open

The Women of the Future Awards are the platform for successful young women in Britain. These awards are aimed at unearthing and recognising the inspirational stars of tomorrow across diverse sectors. I was honoured to win the Science category of this award in 2014, and I am keen to encourage more engagement with the awards from women in STEM. Please feel free to contact me directly (karen.masters@port.ac.uk) if you have any questions/concerns about what these awards are all about.

I personally view participation with this organisation as a great way to engage in outreach about STEM subjects with women in general. The low numbers of women in science means that we are often in a minority in a group of scientists, but also within a group of women. The young people who attend events organised via the Women of the Future: Ambassadors Programme (at which Award winners and shortlisted candidates are invited) are not seeking out discussion of STEM subjects as careers specifically, so this can be a great way to get outside the group of already engaged. And the Women of the Future Network provides the opportunity to network with successful professional women in the UK across all sectors (which is inspiring and interesting, as well as potentially useful). This has led to interesting opportunities - for example I was invited to discuss the issues of women in STEM at the House of Lords this year.

The Awards are open to all women aged 35 or under (candidates must be aged 35 or under on December 31, 2016) living or working in the United Kingdom (Mentor of the Year and Young Star Awards have different eligibility, see below).

Award Categories which I think would of Interest to Women in STEM:

Science
This category recognises a group of truly remarkable young female scientists, forging new ground in research and scientific achievement. Within this category, WoF are also seeking nominees with a career in the sciences who can demonstrate a track record of academic excellence in the field of science; and are showing signs of success in pushing through scientific developments to commercial application.

Recent winners:
2015: Dr. Tessa Baker, Postdoctoral Fellow at All Souls, University of Oxford
2014: Dr. Karen Masters, Senior Lecturer in Astronomy, Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation, University of Portsmouth
2013: Dr Janice Turner, technical project manager, Roke Manor Research

Technology and Digital
This category recognises talented, ground-breaking young women from the worlds of digital and technology.

Recent winners:
2015: Dr. Laura Toogood, Managing Director of Private Clients, Digitalis Reputation
2014: Brie Rogers Lowery, UK Director, Change.org
2013: Kathryn Parsons, founder, Decoded


Mentor of the Year
This award, recognises active mentors behind the success of younger women in British life. Many successful women pay tribute to role models and supporters who have enabled them to flourish in business, professional life, science or whatever their chosen field. This award pays tribute to some of the most influential and unsung heroes and heroines in British life.
The award is open to men and women of all ages.

Recent winners:
2015: Alex Peace-Gadsby, Director, Musto Limited
2014: Dr Vanessa Ogden, Head Teacher, Mulberry School
2013: Helen Milford, south regional director, Asda

Young Star
This award acknowledges high achievers aged 16-21. It is for teenage girls showing exceptional promise within their industry, university or school.

Recent winners:
2015: Phoebe Gormley, Managing Director, Gormley & Gamble
2014: Suzanne Birney, Apprentice CAD Technologist, Doosan Babcock
2013: Eliza Rebeiro, founder, Lives not Knives

Entry deadline: September 12th 2016
Judging Day (central London): October 14th 2016
Awards Night (London Hilton on Park Lane - shortlisted candidates get a complimentary ticket): 16th November 2016

There are two ways to nominate (self nominations are welcome):
1. Complete the application form (https://womenofthefuture.wufoo.eu/forms/women-of-the-future-2016-nomination-form/) - self nominations are welcomed.
2. Email candidate suggestions to info@womenofthefuture.co.uk (they will then be contacted and invited to fill in the application form).

For more details: http://awards.womenofthefuture.co.uk, or contact me at karen.masters@port.ac.uk.

Please pass this message on to any Women in STEM groups you are part of.

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.

Interview: 
  • 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).