Interview

Luke Daly

Postdoctoral research associate at the University of Glasgow in planetary science research


Who are you and what do you do?

 I am Dr Luke Daly (the Dr still feels weird, wrong and new). I did my Undergraduate degree in Geology at Imperial College London, and my PhD in planetary science at Curtin University with Prof. Phil Bland, where I was also part of the Desert Fireball Network. I am currently a Postdoctoral research associate at the University of Glasgow continuing planetary science research.

My specialty is measuring tiny minerals (< 1 micrometre) in meteorites at a nano-atomic scale, mostly using an instrument called an atom probe (a machine that rips material apart an atom at a time). By measuring these tiny grains I hope to inform our understanding of how and where the first minerals formed in our solar system, how they have been affected by metamorphism and /or fluids in asteroids, and how Elon Musk’s Tesla roadster is currently getting wrecked by the solar wind.

I also help run the UK fireball network, with colleagues at Imperial College London and the Open University as part of a global fireball observatory designed to image fireballs and recover meteorites with orbits.

What does your role involve?

In theory my only responsibility is to ‘do good science’. Between grant writing, forging collaborations, supervising students and my own research this ends up producing a really random work pattern where no two days are the same. Structure is a pipe dream and flexibility is key as the day plan can and will change on an hourly basis. This can be really fun as it’s nice to go into work not knowing what to expect and I’ll be honest, it’s all fun.

How did you get your job? Was it easy?

I was outrageously lucky! You have no idea how lucky!

Three months from PhD submission there was nothing in the job market. I had put in a few half-hearted applications for geology postdocs trying to curveball my spacey skillset back to earth and unsurprisingly didn’t get anywhere. Then staring down unemployment, deportation from Australia, and that uncomfortable thought of what else could I possibly do, I fortuitously saw a tweet from Dr Natasha Stephen at the University of Plymouth: The University of Glasgow and Prof. Martin Lee, was looking for a new postdoc in nano-mineralogy of meteorites… Essentially the job advert was my CV, you couldn’t have written a job advert for me that was a better fit if you’d tried and had me in mind. I saw it and thought this is it, this is my shot… I am not throwing away my shot.

I poured everything I had into that application, I was very lucky and got an interview. I prepped like mad. I read the back catalogue of papers from everyone who had ever done anything remotely planetary. I looked at the instrumentation at the department, the other researchers in the department and figured out how my skill set could best complement everyone else who was already there; what do they have that I lack, what do I have that they lack. I went into that, my first academic job interview, all guns blazing determined to leave nothing behind. If I don’t get, it I wanted to be able to say I couldn’t have done more, I would have no regrets. Again luckily, and I’m immeasurably grateful for being given this chance, a month later I got an email offering me the job and the rest is history.

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

To potentially mis-attribute a quote to Napoleon ‘I know they are a good general, but are they lucky’. And by lucky I don’t mean you have this magical aura where things go your way, you create it yourself by being optimistic, twisting the odds in your favour and finding a way back when things aren’t going your way.

I fundamentally believe that anyone can be a scientist. But getting into academia is hard, I’m not going to sugar coat that. I know so many people that want and deserve to be doing this amazing thing called science but opportunities are scarce and the competition is fierce. So given that you certainly have the ability to do this job if you want it, the biggest asset I think you can have is to be relentlessly optimistic.

What do you enjoy most about your role?

The best things about this work is that you are always sitting on the brink of the unknown trying to discover things and that’s a real buzz. But my favourite thing is actually sharing that new found knowledge with people. Also the people I get to work with both day to day and internationally are awesome!

What is the most challenging part of your role?

Dealing with imposter syndrome. Particularly when things aren’t going as well as I’d like. It’s pretty much once a week that recurring thoughts come along like: I’m surrounded by these hyper intelligent people all the time and I’m really not a patch on them, do I really deserve this amazing opportunity when so many immeasurably more capable people didn’t, or haven’t. I wish I had some good advice to give with how to deal with this but I’ll be honest I’m still figuring it out. Generally something will reengage like the instrument starts behaving or I’ll get a nice supportive email (maybe I should start writing these positives down for the down times) and I’ll get the self-belief back.

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

OK if we want to go into the realms of fantasy the dream is to have a planetary science dedicated atom probe facility, and to be heading up a large planetary science research group…  However, back to the land of realistic possibility I would be over the moon with any sort of permanency of position and to be out of the posdoc meatgrinder. Like I said the two most important things I do is research and then telling people about it so a lectureship would suit me perfectly.

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

In a kind of roundabout way. At secondary school I was fascinated by the stars and planets and really wanted to study space but thought the only way to do that was become an astrophysicist… I realised pretty quickly I wasn’t clever enough to do that. But hey, no worries, this Geology thing lets you travel the world see amazing places that very few people visit and literally learn about how the Earth works, rocks are amazing, lets do that. Fast forward 4 years I was just about to graduate with a MSci in geology and a propensity for fossils and faults. In fact, I was all set up to continue my masters project into a PhD looking at hydrocarbon seeps and the why are there so few molluscs before the K-Pg extinction event (its actually a really interesting problem). Then in the two weeks between getting the palaeontology PhD and having to make a decision. I got a rather left field proposition. My partner at the time had just been in a meeting with her supervisor… a certain Professor Phil Bland, who had offered her a PhD as part of a huge project he was taking to Australia to study meteorites… my heart sank (yeah obviously you have to take that) … “oh and he also said he has enough funding that you could come too and also do a PhD in meteorites”, 5, “what do you think?” 4, “I know it’s” 3, “a big decision” 2, “so take your time” 1. Me: “Yeah lets do it!” 0.

Suck it astrophysics! There is always another way!

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

I love rocks, rocks, rocks, rocks. And space rocks >>>> rocks. So space rocks was just a natural progression really.

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

I really rate the Geology degree I got from Imperial, I wouldn’t be where I am without that rock solid foundation… hehhehheh. However, with advances in planetary science I’m somewhat surprised that there isn’t really an undergraduate Planetary Science degree program. You have to wait until at least masters level to begin learning in earnest about this amazing stuff… Maybe this is something we can work towards.

What decisions or opportunities you took do you think significantly influenced the fact you got that job?

The 5 total seconds it took between being offered a PhD in Australia in meteorites and saying yes. It was a no brainer and hands down the best decision I ever made. Everything that has happened since hinged on that conversation.

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

The most exciting development is the sudden surge in sample return missions like Hayabusa, OSIRIS-Rex and Hayabusa 2, as well as the advent of camera networks such as the desert fireball network to recover meteorites with orbits. Both these things are starting to provide new information we just didn’t have before so it’ll be great to see what new discoveries and paradigm shifts we see over the next decade.

What are some of your favourite things? 

So outside of work I love to dance, I fully recommend lindy hop to anyone! I also play guitar and sing, and when I can find the time I do am dram musical theatre.

My favourite place is the Nullarbor desert in Australia believe it or not, and no, I know its just 1000s of km of desolate nothing but at the same time it’s just beautiful… in my mind anyway.

Favourite food, cheese… not just on its own obviously… well sometimes.

I’m not usually one for quotes but I do like this one from Marie Curie: Life is not easy for any of us. But what of that? We must have perseverance and above all confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we are gifted for something and that this thing must be attained.

Author

Emma Collier

Emma studies Physics with Astronomy at the University of Southampton.

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