Favourite Thing: Explaining my work to other people! I also really enjoy the moment when you finally figure out something you haven’t been able to work out for a while.
Pine View School (1994-2005), Macalester College (2005-2009), University of Victoria (2009-2014)
Ph.D in Astrophysics (2014), B.A. Physics w/Astronomy emphasis (honours) & French double major (2009)
Teaching Assistant – University of Victoria (2009-2014)
Postdoctoral Research Fellow
University of Sussex
Me and my work
I’m an American postdoc working in the UK, and I study what happens to galaxies when they go crashing into each other.
When galaxies collide, they don’t just smack into each other and get stuck – there’s a long period of time where the two galaxies are circling each other before they actually merge into a single object. I study what happens to these galaxies during that early period before they become a single object. Each galaxy pulls on the other due to gravity, which stretches the galaxies apart, slowly changing their shape and moving the stars and gas inside the galaxy into new places.
This is a Hubble image of two galaxies mid-collision – you can see that the galaxy on the right has a stream of stars that now connects it to the other galaxy. Those stars have been pulled out of the galaxy by gravity.
Because there’s so much stretching and pulling of the galaxies going on, some of the gas starts to form new stars – you can see them as the bright blue points in the picture.
About me: I grew up in Florida in the US, moved to Minnesota for university, moved to Canada to do my Ph.D., and I’m now in the UK working at the University of Sussex. Astronomers move internationally a lot. I’ll probably move overseas again after my time in the UK is finished!
My Typical Day
A combination of coding, email, reading about other people’s work, and meetings.
I spend the vast majority of my time working on my computer.
Since astronomy is such an international community, I can be working with people who are on the other side of the world from me, and the best way to keep in touch is via email. This also means you can get work emails at any time of day or night. I usually try and answer any important emails in the morning when I get in. Then I need to check the new papers which have come out that day (also online). Some of them might be of interest to my work, so those I pull aside to read later.
My own work is also usually on the computer – I write my own programs to get the data I’m working with to do what I need it to, so I spend a lot of time trying to fix the errors in my code (or googling how to do it).
Depending on the day of the week, the group of us at Sussex that works together also has meetings, I have meetings with my boss, and I attend meetings via Skype with my old group (where I did my Ph.D), and the whole astronomy department gets together to hear about some new research as well. We also have a visitor from some other university come give a talk once a week.
I try not to work in the evenings!
What I'd do with the money
Travel to schools to speak with students directly!
My travel budget right now is mostly for me to be able to go to scientific conferences and present my research! However, it’d be great to have some money to come talk to students directly, and also to be able to build some more unusual visual aids (like a 3-D printed telescope, so students could hold it in their hands), or a holographic poster that shows off why pulling information from different telescopes together can be really useful.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
space, dinosaurs & volcanoes
Who is your favourite singer or band?
What's your favourite food?
Grilled cheese sandwich
What is the most fun thing you've done?
Traveled to many countries!
What did you want to be after you left school?
A scientist of some form, but I didn’t know what field. I also wanted to speak 5 languages.
Were you ever in trouble at school?
No – I was a very quiet kid.
What was your favourite subject at school?
What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?
Figured out how to explain my science to other people.
What or who inspired you to become a scientist?
My dad – he always made sure to answer all of my questions.
If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?
I don’t know! A singer or a writer, perhaps. If I could get paid to learn languages I might do that.
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
I’d like Neil deGrasse Tyson’s job, enough time to learn languages, and the ability to teleport.
Tell us a joke.
Okay – I’ve got a knock-knock joke. Start me off!
I do almost all of my work on a laptop at my desk. Since the majority of astronomical data comes in the form of either tables of numbers or images, most of these need to be tinkered with on the computer, largely through writing my own code to do things for me.
On a good day (or if I’m procrastinating), my desk looks like this:
More typically, it looks like this: