University of Regina, University of British Columbia, Columbia University
BSc Honours, MSc, PhD
Space Telescope Science Institute, University of Manitoba, Royal Institute of Technology, Cardiff University
Favourite thing to do in my job: I enjoy solving problems by taking new and creative approaches to them.
I study black holes and neutron stars, which are among the most extreme and energetic objects in the universe!
My research makes use of high energy measurements of very dense objects known as compact objects. These include neutron stars and black holes. While neutron stars have about the same mass as our Sun, black holes can have the mass of a typical star, or they can be supermassive and be the same mass as a whole galaxy.
Because they are so dense, they have extremely high gravity, and attract material toward them, which rotates about them in what is known as an accretion disc. The accretion disc is made up of very fast-moving and hot particles. Sometimes jets are also seen, and material moves along these jets, away from the central object, with very high energy. If we happen to be looking along a jet toward the object, we can see a lot of variation in the light and radiation we measure. From this variation, we can understand more about the black hole and how it affects the material near it. When we happen to be looking along the jet, the object is known as a blazar.
A neutron star is formed during the collapse of an ordinary star which is somewhat more massive than our Sun. The collapse of the star leads to a supernova explosion, which heats up the material in the nearby space and produces a supernova remnant, a beautiful glowing cloud of hot gas in space.
After a supernova, a newly-formed neutron star rotates very fast and has a very high magnetic field. Every time the neutron star spins, it flashes, and it is known as a pulsar.
In my research, I study supernova remnants, blazars, and pulsars. I use data from satellites designed to measure high-energy radiation, such as X-rays and gamma-rays. Gamma-rays are the highest energy radiation on the electromagnetic spectrum. I work with other scientists who observe these same objects in visible light and in radio waves. Radio waves are the lowest energy radiation on the electromagnetic spectrum. By combining our data, we can learn even more about compact objects.
My Typical Day
I do research, attend meetings, and teach students.
I enjoy meeting with my colleagues to discuss teaching or research. I also regularly meet with students to talk about projects and their coursework. On some days, I give lectures or help students with laboratory exercises. The rest of my time is spent doing research and preparing for teaching.
What I'd do with the prize money
I would use it for a new project to measure cosmic rays, involving local schools.
Cosmic rays are high-energy particles, such as protons, travelling through space. These particles are emitted in extreme events in the universe, such as core collapses of stars, or collisions between neutron stars.
When a primary cosmic ray in space interacts with the Earth’s atmosphere, it produces a cascade of secondary particles, including charged particles called muons. Fortunately, it is possible to detect these muons at the surface of the Earth. A specific type of detector known as a scintillator lights up when it is hit by a muon, and this happens typically every few seconds. If we keep track of the flashes of light, we will know when muons hit the detector.
The amount the particle cascade spreads out when it reaches the Earth’s surface is determined mostly by the energy of the primary cosmic ray. Therefore, by using many detectors over an area of a city, we can determine the energy and direction of the initial cosmic ray.
With our new project at Cardiff University, the Cardiff University Cosmic Ray Array (CUCRA), we aim to build several muon detectors and give them to local schools in and around Cardiff. The students at these schools and their teachers will have the opportunity to work as part of our research group and use the detectors to do real science to study cosmic rays and muons. University students will build and test the detectors, and will visit schools to invite secondary students to become involved.
I would use the money to buy the parts for some of these muon detectors, and to get students and teachers at local schools involved in our exciting project!
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
determined, creative, enthusiastic
What's the best thing you've done in your career?
I programmed a 2 tonne stratospheric balloon payload to point and take data for days without any human intervention.
What or who inspired you to follow your career?
my physics teacher
Were you ever in trouble at school?
If you weren't doing this job, what would you choose instead?
a musician, a veterinarian, or a photographer
Who is your favourite singer or band?
Matt Cardle. He has a fantastic voice. I am also into jazz and classical music (both listening and playing).
What's your favourite food?
anything with chocolate in it
What is the most fun thing you've done?
swimming with dolphins
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
the opportunity to do research, enthusiastic students to join me in that endeavour, to travel to and work in space
Tell us a joke.
An atom says to his friend, “I lost an electron”. His friend says, “Are you sure?”. The atom says, “I’m positive”.