Interview

Joanna Barstow

Royal Astronomical Society Research Fellow at University College London


Who are you and what do you do?

I'm currently a Royal Astronomical Society Research Fellow at University College London. I studied Natural Sciences at Churchill College, University of Cambridge, before moving to the University of Oxford to complete a DPhil (PhD) in Planetary Science.

What does your role involve?

I mostly work on my own projects. I study the atmospheres of planets both inside and outside the Solar System, but at the moment I'm mostly focused on exoplanets - planets that orbit other stars. I do this by making computerized models of how light travels through different types of atmosphere, which I then compare with observations obtained using observatories like the Hubble Space Telescope, or for Solar System planets space probes such as Venus Express and Cassini.

I'm also a member of the science team for the recently selected ARIEL mission, which will launch in around 10 years’ time and aims to study the atmospheres of 1000 exoplanets.

How did you get your job? Was it easy?

Getting my first job after my PhD was straightforward because I was lucky with the timing. The exoplanets field in the UK was really expanding and I happened to have exactly the background that my supervisors were looking for. 

It took me several unsuccessful fellowship application rounds to obtain my current position though, as research fellowships are highly competitive, only two Royal Astronomical Society fellowships are offered each year!

What advice would you give to people looking for a job in your industry?

Try and get some experience of what it's like to work as a researcher so you can see if it's right for you. The Nuffield Research Placement scheme is great for that.

What do you enjoy most about your role?

I really enjoy the communication aspects of my job - I like presenting at conferences and giving public talks. I actually rather enjoy writing academic papers too. Papers are a sort of 'end product' to a researcher so the process of writing one means seeing something I might have been working on for months finally coming together, and that's very satisfying.

What is the most challenging part of your role?

Like many astronomers I have to program as part of my research, but I was never really been taught to program properly during my studies. That means I spend a lot of time arguing with my computer!

How did you decide which aspect of the space industry to work in?

I was awarded a Nuffield bursary during my A levels for a summer project, and I was lucky enough to work with the Beagle 2 X-ray Spectrometer team at the University of Leicester for five weeks. I loved it and that's when I decided I wanted to become a planetary scientist.

What is the most exciting space thing you've seen or heard about?

There are lots of things in my research area that make me very excited! Recently, though, one of the most impressive things to me has been the discovery of gravitational waves by the LIGO collaboration - detecting something that Einstein predicted a century before.

What are some of your favourite things? 

I am mum to a toddler daughter, and I currently work only 3 days a week so I can still spend time with her. Watching her becoming a little person is wonderful. At the moment being a mum has taken over all of my life that isn't work, but before I had my daughter I used to perform in amateur musical theatre and I hope to go back to it one day. I still exercise my vocal chords on 'proper music' once a week in church, as well as regularly being required to sing The Wheels on the Bus a soul-destroying number of times!

Author

Emma Collier

Emma studies Physics with Astronomy at the University of Southampton.

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