Rosie Johnson

PhD student studying Jupiter's Aurora at the University of Leicester.

Who are you and what do you do?

I am a PhD student at the University of Leicester studying Jupiter's northern lights (aurora). I completed my undergraduate Masters at Aberystwyth University, where I studied physics with planetary and space physics. I completed the last semester of my fourth year as an Erasmus student at the University Centre Svalbard. I enjoy communicating science to the general public as well as working to increase diversity in physics. In my spare time I enjoy white water kayaking, surfing, climbing, and generally all things outdoors.

What does your role involve? 

My PhD usually involves being at my desk either coding or writing. I wasn't a big fan of coding before my PhD and struggled with it as an undergraduate, but now that I'm doing something that is super interesting, the coding becomes more interesting too! I regularly do data reduction, where I take raw telescope data and transform it into something that I can perform data analysis on. The main form of data analysis I do is mapping the properties of Jupiter's upper atmosphere in its polar regions. The writing I do involves writing academic papers, conference abstracts, telescope proposals, and, more recently, my thesis. Occasionally I travel to conferences or to observe using the telescopes in Hawaii, which is a fantastic opportunity to collaborate and network with other in the field and learn observing skills. I really enjoy meeting people when travelling for conferences and observing. The time I spent in Hawaii learning how to use the telescope really enriched my PhD experience.

What is the most challenging part of your role?

No one ever says PhDs are easy. At times I found that doing my PhD was very hard. I found it tricky not to be disheartened when research didn't go to plan, but the whole process of research involves failures and it's the ‘work arounds’ to move past those failures that eventually bring you success!

How did you get your PhD? Was it easy?

I decided to study the aurora during my time spent studying it in Svalbard. The Svalbard course was fantastic and I got a lot of field work experience, which I think helped me become a successful PhD applicant. I applied to do a PhD at several universities and I had several Skype interviews, since I was abroad at the time. This was quite stressful as I felt the Skype interview didn't give you the full experience of getting to know the institution. However, in the end I accepted a PhD with the University of Leicester as they had an excellent reputation for space plasma physics research, which is the field that encompasses my PhD.

When did you become interested in space?

I've always had a keen interest in the physical sciences, especially learning about volcanoes and glaciers at school, but I finally settled on studying physics with space physics after going to Space School UK. Space School UK is a summer residential school, hosted by the University of Leicester, which focuses on all things space!

Where do you want to be in 5/10 years?

I really enjoy research and so I'd like to use the skills that I've acquired through observing Jupiter and apply this to Earth observation. During my PhD I specialised in infrared spectroscopy and similar techniques are used in remote sensing of the Earth, which I'd like to pursue in my future career.

What advice would you give to people looking for Space Physics PhDs?

Since becoming a PhD student I have been added to several mailing lists that often include adverts for PhDs. I wish I'd had access to these as an undergraduate. I would advise that you chat to your lecturers, particularly those in the field of research you're interested in to see if they can add you to one of these mailing lists or forward any opportunities onto you.


Áine O'Brien

Áine is a PhD student at the University of Glasgow. Her PhD project involves the search for organic materials in martian meteorites. As a former high school Physics and Astronomy Teacher, she is passionate about encouraging young people into the Space Sector.

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