Interview

Claire Davies

Astronomy Research Fellow at the University of Exeter


Who are you and what do you do?

I'm presently a research fellow, working in the Astronomy group at the University of Exeter. In particular, I work in the Interferometry group of Prof Stefan Kraus. My research focuses on using arrays of optical telescopes to study the inner regions of the discs that exist around stars as they form. As these discs provide the natal environment and materials for planet formation, these observations allow me to probe how both stars and their planets form. To get to where I am presently, I've had to do two degrees: one undergraduate masters and one doctorate. I did my undergraduate studies at the University of Birmingham and undertook my PhD at the University of St Andrews.

What does your role involve?

My job as a research fellow is rather varied. I'm employed on a research-only contract so most of my time is spent writing computer code to analyse astronomical data sets, writing up these analyses for publication in academic journals, and promoting my work at conferences. As an observational astronomer, I also conduct astronomical observations at global telescope facilities. For instance, I am the primary observer for the MIRC-X collaboration which means I spend around 2 to 6 weeks per year at the CHARA Array of telescopes at Mount Wilson Observatory in California. I also spend around two months a year solely focused on writing telescope proposals in order to continue to have exciting things to work on! In addition to my job, I also have volunteered for additional roles within my University. I am the College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences' coordinator for my University's staff LGBTQ+ network and sit on the Physics and Astronomy department's Inclusivity Working Group.

How did you get your job? Was it easy?

To be a researcher at a University, I had to first do a PhD. In applying for PhD places, I missed out on my first and second choice universities but received offers from two other universities, opting for St Andrews. I felt isolated in many different ways during my PhD and my research really suffered as a result. I tried to bolster my CV in other ways which increased my work load, adding to the already huge sense of "academic guilt" I felt whenever I wasn't being productive. I spent the full final year of my PhD applying for jobs while still doing everything else I needed to do to finish my thesis. That year was filled with rejection after rejection. The role I am in now was the final academic job I was willing to apply for and I was frantically applying for a whole load of private sector positions when I received my offer.

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

There really is no such thing as a stupid question!

What do you enjoy most about your role?

That moment when weeks if not months of ideas, discussions and coding culminate in a consistent interpretation of all available data and a tiny, tiny step forwards in our scientific understanding.

What is the most challenging part of your role?

Dealing with the continuous rejection of research proposals for funding and telescope time.

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

I would love to still be working at a UK University and would hope to have secured a permanent contract within the next ten years.

When did you become interested in space/the space industry?

I can't remember a time when I haven't been interested in space. I used to love staring out the car window at the stars on the way home from visiting my grandparents as a kid and just wondering about what was up there.

Is there anything you wished you’d learned at university that would come in useful now?

I wish we'd done more on coding. We only ever did introductory classes so all of my coding skills are effectively self-taught.

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

The Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn and Titan holds a special place in my heart. The sheer beauty of the images that were returned by that mission is amazing before even considering the improvements in scientific knowledge.

What are some of your favourite things?

I'm a Liverpool fan but a fan of the sport first and foremost. I used to play as a kid but, through injury, I'm restricted to just watching now. I also research into my family tree in my spare time.

My favourite place I've travelled to is easily the big island of Hawaii. I got to go there to conduct observations during my PhD. I'd go back in a heartbeat.

Author

Emma Collier

Emma studies Physics with Astronomy at the University of Southampton.

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