Interview

Kate Furnell

PhD student at Liverpool John Moores University studying the evolutionary history of stellar mass in galaxy clusters.


Who are you and what do you do?

My name is Kate Furnell, and I'm a final year PhD student at Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU, having completed my undergraduate degree at the University of Nottingham). I study the evolutionary history of stellar mass in galaxy clusters, particularly Brightest Cluster Galaxies (BCGs, massive galaxies in the cores of galaxy clusters) and Intracluster Light (ICL, a low-surface brightness, stellar component composed primarily of stripped stars from merging galaxies).

What does your role involve?

As a PhD student, I am responsible for conducting research with the oversight of my supervisor, Professor Chris Collins. I am a member of two international collaborations (the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and the XMM Cluster Survey), with whom I associate on a research basis. I travel for conferences, (occasionally) observe the skies with telescopes and volunteer around the department at LJMU (the latter involving a lot of meetings, coffee making and helping to coordinate activities to improve student well-being).

How did you get your job? Was it easy? 

It definitely wasn't easy. I actually applied to the LJMU-University of Liverpool joint undergraduate course during my A-level years but failed to get the required grades. I ended up doing a repeat year at sixth form college, got onto the BSc Physics with Astronomy program at the University of Nottingham, transferred in my second year to the four year MSci course and ended up leaving with a First Class Honours. I then applied to several universities for a PhD and was rejected by a number of them until I landed a PhD position at LJMU, where I will remain until I submit my thesis next year. Don't give up!

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

Be keen! People who show that they're interested, like by doing summer research projects, outreach activities, etc. really stand out in comparison to those that don't. Don't be afraid to get out there!

What do you enjoy most about your role?

The travel. I've been to some amazing places (Chile, South Africa, Tenerife, Switzerland, Germany) that I probably never would have been to otherwise. My memories of my travels I'll carry with me for life.

What is the most challenging part of your role?

It's difficult to keep motivated at times, especially when you feel stuck. Make sure you and your supervisor have a good working relationship and see eye-to-eye as much as possible!

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

I'm really not sure - I'm thinking I might like to work in the healthcare profession, possibly in either mental health or radiotherapy. I would also be quite keen to continue doing outreach for STEM, if possible!

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

It's a cliche, but since I was little. I loved how small it made me feel, and it gave me a philosophical fulfilment that nothing else ever could. So I guess you could say I studied physics so I could study space!

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

I liked learning about space, so for me it was obvious to go down the research route!

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

I wish I'd learned how to manage my time better. I've improved since I started my PhD, but I am the queen of procrastination.

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

I think the fact that my fourth-year undergraduate research project was of high quality, and the fact that I'd done a summer project, a lot of outreach activities and held a number of volunteer positions within my undergraduate department helped boost my CV to make the ARI mad enough to take me as a student.

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

The Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST, due 2021-2022) is really exciting - it's going to image the entire northern sky once per week! There's so much data that's going to be coming from it that huge parts of the astronomy community have had to club together in order to form data-mining infrastructure to cope with the load.

What are your favourite things? 

I love most food, but I have a huge sweet tooth (especially for pancakes, waffles and French toast). I think it's the Canadian in me, as effectively I'll use any excuse to eat loads of maple syrup. In terms of hobbies, I love listening to music, listening to audiobooks, taking long baths, dancing and playing videogames. I also have a pet royal python called Dwayne, who I love very dearly.

Author

Emma Collier

Emma studies Physics with Astronomy at the University of Southampton.

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