Interview

Ryan Milligan

Solar physicist at the University of Glasgow


Who are you and what do you do?

My name is Dr. Ryan Milligan. I am a solar physicist, and my research mainly focuses on the study of solar flares. I currently hold a 5-year STFC Ernest Rutherford Fellowship at the University of Glasgow. I spent 8.5 years studying for my degree and PhD at Queen's University Belfast. Prior to moving to Glasgow, I spent most of my career working at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Centre near Washington DC.

What does your role involve?

My research focuses on the study of solar flares, the most powerful explosions in the solar system. I use data from a variety of space-based solar observatories to trying and understand the physics that underpin these colossal releases of energy.

How did you get your job? Was it easy?

I never had any aspirations to be a scientist, but was always fascinated by space and astronomy as a kid. I didn't even study physics for my A-levels! After high school I trained to be a sound engineer, worked in fish factories and coal yards, before getting my HGV license and becoming a truck driver. I was 23 when I finally decided to enrol in an astrophysics degree course. I had to do a foundation year having been out of education for so long, and I continued to drive trucks on nights and weekends to make ends meet. After graduating with a PhD I was awarded a NASA Postdoctoral Fellowship, which kick-started my research career.

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

Study maths at school, and science if possible. Join an amateur astronomy group, go to talks and lectures at your local college or university, and ask lots of questions!

What do you enjoy most about your role?

Being on the frontier of discovery. Society is becoming more and more aware of how the Sun can (adversely) affect our daily lives, and its exciting to be a part of a community so devoted to trying to understand our parent star.

What is the most challenging part of your role?

Having to sustain research funding. Research grants often only last a couple of years, so it feels like you are constantly reapplying for funding to sustain your career. This can often mean moving around a lot to go where the work is.

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

If you asked me that 5 or 10 years ago, I couldn't have predicted that I'd end up where I am now. I'm just happy to be along for the ride!

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

Growing up in the countryside as a kid we had uninterrupted views of the night sky, and I remember seeing Halley's Comet in 1986. That was when I really wanted to learn more about space.

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

I was very fortunate to have supportive and encouraging mentors while at university. They got me interested in the study of solar flares, and I've been lucky to be able to continue on that path throughout my career.

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

How to write better grant proposals!

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

I don't think there is ever one deciding factor, but I've tried to make my research stand out. I try to find new ways to use data to answer long-standing unanswered questions.

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

To me, there is nothing more exciting, beautiful, or deeply profound as witnessing a total solar eclipse. To have day turn to night, feeling the temperature drop, seeing a 360 degree sunset, and watching the Sun reveal its pearly, ethereal outer atmosphere; the corona. It is a life changing experience, and I have travelled to see 8 eclipses to date.

What are your favourite things? 

I am a huge fan of live music. I go to see my favourite bands whenever possible; this can often mean booking a flight or organising a road trip. I also love travelling and being out in nature, particularly hiking and biking. As there was no solar eclipse this year, I travelled to Vietnam to go on a culinary backpacking trip.

Author

Emma Collier

Emma studies Physics with Astronomy at the University of Southampton.

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