What is an Astrophysicist?

As part of my ongoing series on What is A…. I reached out last month on Twitter and asked for someone who was an Astrophysicist.  This is my dream job!  I have wanted to be this for a while now.  So when I heard from the National Space Centre in Leicester and they suggested Tamela I was so pleased!

I had only visited the Space Centre last Summer.  Now please hear from Tamela Maciel, Space Communications Manager.

What does an Astrophysicist do?

An astrophysicist applies the language of science to the cosmos. They attempt to understand the very remote and very extreme workings of the universe with the laws of physics, chemistry, geology, and biology that we know down here on Earth. There’s always a lot of extrapolation and interpretation going on, as we can’t actually get hands on with the stars, nebula, and galaxies that we want to understand. We have to observe them from afar and make our best guess about what’s going on.

My type of astrophysics uses radio light to understand how supermassive black holes work. While we’d never want to visit these extreme objects in person, it’s incredible that we can piece together how they work (mostly!) simply by studying their light very carefully with large radio telescopes.

How long have you been a Astrophysicist?

I first started thinking of myself as an astrophysicist when I completed a summer internship at NASA Goddard in 2007, so 12 years ago! That summer, I had just finished my freshman year at university, and I was introduced to the topic of radio galaxies, which amazingly became the focus of my PhD several years later!

Did you want to be one when you were younger or something else? / Why did you pick Astrophysics?  

Since the age of 7, I was determined to be an astronaut. In my head, this was the only possible job for me and I did all the research I could to prepare myself for astronaut selection. Along the way, I learned about Sally Ride, the first American woman in space. She became a bit of a role model for me, and since she had a PhD in astrophysics, I figured I would too!

As I started studying physics and astrophysics more deeply at university, I realised that I loved the subject completely independent of being an astronaut. For me, physics was only interesting if it was applied on a grand cosmic stage. I realised that the chances of being an astronaut are slim at best, but that anyone could become an astrophysicist if they wanted to.

Why would you suggest astrophysics as a job for me?

I would absolutely suggest astrophysics for anyone with a passion for the subject. The knowledge and skills you gain along the way are so varied and so useful! As an astrophysicist, you are not only a skilled, problem-solving scientist, you are also an expert computer programming, data scientist, image analyst, and maybe even a telescope operator. Eventually you’ll learn how to teach other students, how to write and speak for wider audiences, and hopefully how to effectively engage the public with the excitement of your science. All of these skills are needed to become an astrophysicist, but they’re also very useful in many other types of jobs. So even if you change your mind years later, you’ll find that being an astrophysicist always leaves many doors open.

What qualifications did you need?  Where did you study?

Before focusing on astrophysics, it’s best to have a really solid background in all the sciences and maths. So my tip would be: don’t specialise too early. Take all the physics, chemistry, and maths courses you can, all the way through university. If you find them interesting, take biology and geology too. And definitely learn some computer programming in a language that astrophysicists use! This is how all images, data, and simulations of the universe are processed, so your most common tool will be coding.

When I was studying, the preferred computer language was python, but languages come and go as technology advances.

Once you have a really good background in all the sciences, then you can start to specialise into astrophysics, and really start to have some fun!

I started life at the University of Oregon, studying physics and maths, then I did a year at the University of Bristol, studying physics and astrophysics, and finally I did my PhD at the University of Cambridge, studying radio galaxies.

What has been the “best day” at your job?

One of the best, most memorable days was printing out my PhD thesis late on a July summer night, knowing that it was finally done after years of hard work! I stood mesmerized at the printer, watching the final copy come out. It was such a feeling of pride and accomplishment.

More recently, I vividly remember working at the National Space Centre on the day that Tim Peake came back from space. We all came into work early on a Saturday morning to following his return. We had thousands of people in the Centre, and it was incredibly exhilarating and terrifying at the same time to do the live commentary as his Soyuz capsule was plummeting towards Kazakhstan!

How did you end up working at the National Space Centre?

After finishing my PhD in astrophysics, I was looking for something a bit different that allowed me to use my science expertise along with my love of writing and sharing that science with a wider audience. I discovered that science writing and science communication were actual careers, and I was fortunate enough to land a job as a science writer with a physics organisation in DC. I loved seeing all the new research papers come out, contacting the authors to understand their work, and then translating it into an article for a public audience. I learned so much!

My current job at the National Space Centre is also in science communication. I’m the Space Communications Manager here – a job that is incredibly fun, varied, and never dull! Myself and my team bring space science to life, both with our visitors at the Centre and our online blog. Sometimes we even host an astronaut or two! We’re also beginning a new programme which will take space on the road to local communities, in the hopes of sharing the excitement of the universe with new audiences.

What is coming up next for you?

We can’t wait to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first Moon landing this year! July is going to be a very special month.

I can’t wait to see how it goes in July, watch this space!

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