Interview

Claire Burke

Researcher in Astro-ecology at Liverpool John Moores University


What does your role involve?

I apply techniques and methods regularly used in astrophysics to help with conservation ecology. To do this I use thermal cameras and other sensors mounted on drones. With a thermal camera we can see animals as a result of their body heat - and in the data they glow in the same way as stars and galaxies, so I can use astro techniques to automatically find them. Once detected, I then use machine learning to identify different species of animals, and poachers. This information is used to catch poachers and inform conservationists about the animals that they are interested in so that they can devise the best ways to conserve them. I am also exploring other ways that we can use knowledge and techniques from astrophysics and other technical disciplines to help address various environmental challenges.

How did you get your job? Was it easy?

Nothing that's worth doing is ever easy! I didn't have great grades for the first few years of my degree, I had to work really hard to get a 2:1 at the end of my MPhys course. I felt really lucky to get accepted onto a PhD (astrophysics), and as a result I worked really hard through the whole thing. I did a post doctoral research job in astrophysics for a few years, then I changed fields. I worked as a climate scientist at the Met Office - researching how climate change affects the most extreme weather events (floods, droughts, hurricanes, etc). It turns out that the physical understanding and analytical skills used in astrophysics are directly applicable to studying the climate. Changing fields is no easy task, knowledge-wise it was like starting a PhD all over again.I moved to my current position in astro-ecology a few years ago. At the time astro-ecology was a completely new field of research. Since then we have grown into a varied team of interdisciplinary researchers. Its great to know that all the tools and understanding we've developed to study the Universe on the largest scales can be used to help solve major challenges down here on Earth.

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

Follow your passion and give it your all. And be interested in things. Having multiple different scientific interests only strengthens your skill as a researcher, and it opens many doors career-wise.

What do you enjoy most about your role?

The massive variety of different things I do as part of my job. In the past 18 months I've studied the physics of the atmosphere, vegetation composition in jungles and deserts, animal skin properties, and underground fire, all as part of my research. One day I can be in a field flying a drone to gather training data for my machine learning system, the next I'm chatting with search and rescue experts about how our system can be used to help them find people lost at sea.

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

Leading my own inter-disciplinary research team using drones for good.

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

I really loved space and physics as a teenager. I had a very inspirational female physics teacher at school. I remember her classes on the life cycle of stars was how I really got hooked on space and the wonders of the Universe.

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

I like to take as many different and varied opportunities as I can. I think the fact that I had done a lot of different things really helped me get the job I have now. For example, I've always taken up opportunities for public speaking, or interacting with researchers who I wouldn't normally meet in my everyday work. Not being afraid to change direction has also helped me. If a role isn't working for you then look for something different. I think if I hadn't changed careers and moved to climate science, then I probably wouldn't be working in an astrophysics-related field now.

What are your favourite things? 

Coffee. Cats. Climbing. Chocolate. Not necessarily in that order.

Author

Theodora Varelidi Strati

Theodora is currently doing an Msc in Theoretical Physics at the University of Edinburgh.

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