Lecturer in Astrophysics at the University of Oxford
What does your job involve?
My job is to discover and study planets around other stars than the Sun (exoplanets). Specifically, I use data from telescopes in space and on the ground to looking for tiny dips in the brightness of stars, which occur when planets pass in front of them. I then try answer questions such as: are other planetary systems similar to or different from ours? How frequent are they? How did they get there? How do they evolve?
I also teach physics and astronomy to undergraduate students, and supervise graduate students’ research projects.
What interested you in working in the space sector?
I grew up in Toulouse, in France, where there is a big aerospace research centre, and I had the opportunity to hear about, and even see, some of the satellites that were being built there. I loved the idea of using state of the art technology to learn fundamentally new things about the Universe, but I was fascinated by many other aspects of science too. After studying Physics at University, I had the opportunity to spend a year working first at the Institute of Astronomy in Cambridge, and then at the European Space Agency. Once I started doing astronomical research for real, I was hooked.
What do you do in a typical day?
There is no fixed pattern to my day, which is one of the things I love about it. I most of my time analysing data from telescopes using computer programs, which I mostly write myself. I use data from the CoRoT spacecraft, the Hubble Space Telescope, and the Very Large Telescope in Chile, amongst others. Sometimes I might alert a colleague at a telescope somewhere to ask them to follow-up on a signal I have detected, or have a meeting to plan a next-generation instrument. And of course, I spend time talking with people in my group and my department, writing up my findings for publications, preparing talks for conferences, and preparing and giving lectures or tutorials.
Are there any other interesting aspects to your work?
I travel a lot. Once or twice a year, I go to places like Chile or the Canary Islands to use telescopes (the best sites for astronomical observations are in dry places at high altitude). I also go to international conferences a few times a year, and to meetings of the satellite science teams I belong to every couple of months.
I frequently give public lectures – to amateur astronomy societies, schoolchildren, or the wider public in places ranging from pubs to science museums. I also give talks to other astronomy research groups in the UK every few months.
Recently, I’ve started to interact more closely with colleagues in other fields: planetary scientists, who study the planets of the solar system, and machine learning specialists, who work out the best ways to extract useful information from data using computers. It’s extremely instructive and I am starting to apply the techniques they use to exoplanet data, in the hope that it will give rise to new results.
What is it about your job that fascinates or inspires you?
Where do I start… On a philosophical level, I love the fact that I am right at the sharp end of discoveries, which have the potential to change the way humanity thinks of itself. I also relish the very practical challenge of eking out a signal from noisy data. I love the diversity of the problems I have to tackle in a given day, from the abstract to the organisational. I love the interactive aspect of my work: discussion with colleagues and students is at the centre of much of what I do. I also love the contact with the general public: everyone is so enthusiastic and it’s great to work on objects and concepts which are both extreme – some of the planets I work on are very far away and very much unlike any of those in the solar system – and still tangible enough to excite the interest of pretty much anyone. In short, I think I am incredibly privileged to be able to do this job and get paid for it.
Why is what you do important?
Studying the Universe in general, and exoplanets in particular, puts the Earth and humanity in context. We are on the verge of finding out how frequent planets that can sustain life are, and we may be the first generation to find it. We are also gradually learning to understand the physical processes which shaped the solar system.
For me, this is reason enough: what higher purpose can there be than to understand the world around us better? However, there are also more pragmatic reasons.
We are attracting young people into science, giving them the background they will need to be successful in a rapidly evolving technological society. We are also training them to view the world with a scientific eye, to make decisions based on evidence and to find logical solutions to problems.
Our work provides the motivation to develop and test new techniques and new technology, which are initially too risky for commercial development, but ultimately have applications well beyond pure research.
What advice would you give to someone considering a career in space?
Study maths and science – the more you learn, the more fascinating it will become. Study broadly – you may specialise in one discipline such as physics, engineering, maths or biology, but it is by making analogies across disciplines that the biggest leaps of progress are often made. Don’t wait for it to come to you: work hard, and be pro-active; look for work experience during your studies, contact people for advice.
Never stop asking questions.