Mark, what made you want to study Astronomy?
"For as long as I can remember I have been fascinated by space, and wanted to understand how the galaxies, stars, planets and eventually life came to be.
This was combined with general interest in almost all areas of science, making it difficult to decide on one area of science to study at University.
Fortunately, Astrophysics allows you to be curious about all aspects of science. Understanding the origin of Galaxies, Stars, Planets and Life requires knowledge of Physics, Chemistry and even Biology, meaning there is always some new avenue to investigate."
How did this lead onto teaching?
"My career has followed a typical route for an academic studying Astrophysics; after my PhD I carried out postdoctoral research in the US and Germany for 7 years, before moving to UCLan to take up a lectureship in Astronomy."
What course do you lecture on?
"I teach on the Physics, Physics with Astrophysics, and Astrophysics courses, where I am module leader for a second-year module on how the chemical elements are created and distributed throughout space by various Astrophysical processes. I also oversee our hands-on Astrophysics laboratories that involve observing with our large research-grade telescope out at UCLan’s Alston Observatory."
What’s the future of Astronomy?
"The future of astronomy is very exciting. Over the next decade a number of powerful new facilities will be coming online. These include the replacement for the Hubble Space Telescope (the JWST), the largest telescope ever constructed (the 39m wide Extremely Large Telescope), and finally the Square Kilometer Array (which will study the radio Universe.) These new facilities will provide unprecedented views of the Universe, allowing us to observe the very first stars that ever formed, to measure the atmospheres of planets around other stars (and potentially detect the conditions necessary for life), and to study the unique Physics at the very edge of Black Holes."
Where has Astronomy taken you globally?
"One of the real perks of being an observational astronomer is that the telescopes you use have to be located in exotic locations, where the skies are clear on the tops of mountains far from heavily populated areas. I regularly travel to telescopes in Hawaii, the south western US, and Chile to obtain my data, and have been fortunate to travel to other interesting places throughout the world to present my work at conferences."
Tell us something interesting about your research. What’s the most memorable thing?
"One that springs to mind is a reminder of the importance of serendipity in science, even when studying a vast Universe. I once travelled to Hawaii to use a telescope to observe a galaxy 300 million light years away. When we came to setup and start observations we couldn’t recognise our target because the star pattern looked wrong. It took us 5 minutes to realise that it was because a new bright star had appeared. We worked out that the new star was a supernova, an exploding star, in distant the galaxy we were studying. That supernova exploded and its light travelled across the Universe for 300 million years, first arriving at Earth the day before we started our observing night. If we had been there a day earlier, or a few weeks later, we would never have seen that supernova, which proved to be quite helpful in telling us about the galaxy we were studying."
Research wise, what are we doing at UCLan right now?
"We currently have very active research groups studying how galaxies form, how stars and planets form, and how the Sun and its “weather” affect the Earth."
Where can an Astrophysics Degree take you?
"Outside of an academic career studying the Universe, students with degrees in Astrophysics are highly sought after by employers in a very wide variety of areas. This is because Physics/Astrophysics students develop highly desirable skills such as confidence with high-level practical mathematics, computer programming, problem solving, and the ability to summarise complicated concepts accurately and concisely. Almost all graduate career options are possible including careers in business, finance, “big data”, teaching, and scientific research."
11 November 2019