Career case study: Haida Lang

Haida Lang: Professor of Physics
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Haida Lang: Professor of Physics

My job

I am Professor of Physics and head of the Imaging & sensing for Archaeology, Art history and Conservation (ISAAC) Lab at Nottingham Trent University.

The best of my job

My job is very varied which makes it fun. There is research, teaching, mentoring, lots of travelling around the world and meeting new people especially students. My job keeps me very busy, so I am never bored. By far the most interesting projects are those that involve physics and history.

The worst of my job

Dealing with university bureaucracy and setting exam questions.

How did astronomy/geophysics inspire me?

When I was a kid in Shanghai, I remember news about space shuttles and Pioneer missions that inspired me to read more popular science magazines on Astronomy. Later in my 3rd year undergraduate project at Sydney University, we went to the Molonglo observatory to use the radio interferometer MOST to observe the Moon. I loved the environment of the observatory, in the country with the Kangaroos hopping about. Early morning is just poetic, there is just you, the telescope, the countryside and some kangaroos about…It’s the full package about astronomy, the science and the experience, … that made me decide to become an astronomer. At school my favorite subjects were physics and history, and astronomy especially cosmology is all about looking into the past. Later of course that was not enough for me, I wanted to tap into human history and the history of cultural exchange.

What transferable skills have astronomy/geophysics given me?

Astronomy includes many branches of Physics, and astronomers have to know how to write computer programs and do data and image processing which are required in many walks of life. I learnt radio interferometry during my PhD, and now I use that knowledge for optical interferometry for non-invasive imaging of paint layers. Astronomers are also well trained in writing proposals, which most other scientists do not learn until they become full time academics but for astronomers you need to learn how to write proposals to convince people to let you use a telescope.

Bullet point CV

  • I grew up in Shanghai China during the turmoil of Cultural Revolution
  • While I was at primary school, the cultural revolution was declared to have ended officially and academic pursuits were encouraged again along with economic reforms
  • I attended final year secondary school in Sydney, Australia. I thought my English was good as I could understand Voice of America and the BBC quite well when I was in Shanghai, but when I got to Sydney, I discovered the accents were different and conversational English was harder to follow than BBC news reporting. I was able to just about follow Maths and Physics classes since the equations are universal. However, Chemistry was very hard to follow as I learnt the names of the elements and compounds in Chinese and didn’t know their equivalent in English and my chemistry teacher was so enthusiastic that she hardly breathed when she spoke! After my first 3 weeks of schooling in Sydney, I went home crying because I thought at this rate I’d fail!
  • After some fight with bureaucratic rules that did not recognize Chinese secondary school certificates, I was allowed to sit for the HSC (equivalent of A-levels) and came 3rd in the state of New South Wales. Exams in Australia was so much easier than those in China as exam questions had sub-questions that helped you. As long as you worked hard, you can achieve high grades (that was not the case in my selective high school in Shanghai, as you needed to have a deep understanding of your subject!).
  • With the high grade I achieved, there was pressure for me to study medicine as the best students seem to be studying medicine, so I was enrolled for BSc Medicine at the University of Sydney. After 3 months, I decided that the subject I loved most was Physics and I missed Maths and hated anatomy (too much memorizing and dissecting rats was not my thing). I went to the Physics department and they welcomed me with open arms despite having missed the deadline for transferring between faculties.
  • I loved the Australian university education system as it allowed so much flexibility. A BSc Honours degree was 4 years and in the first 2 years you can select a range of subjects. In year 1, I selected physics, pure and applied Maths, Chemistry, Computer Science; year 2, I selected Physics, Pure Maths and Computer Science.
  • I enjoyed most things at university though the physics labs were rather boring apart from the 3rd year labs on optics. I really enjoyed my 3rd year and 4th year projects.
  • I was attracted to particle physics and astronomy (the smallest and the largest), but then I found out that in Cosmology you could have both, so that settled the matter
  • I went on to do a PhD in astrophysics at Australian National University following the recommendation of my summer project supervisor at CSIRO, Professor Ron Ekers, who then became my PhD supervisor. My PhD was on matter distribution in clusters of galaxies where I focused on using the Australia Telescope Compact Array, a radio interferometer to measure the tiny effect call Sunyaev-Zel’dovich effect which allows you to measure the expansion rate of the Universe.
  • After my PhD, I was offered a 3 year postdoc to continue what I was doing for my PhD in Cambridge or a 1 year postdoc to work on a slightly different subject that is using the new ROSAT X-ray data to study clusters of galaxies at the CEA in Paris. The prospect of doing something different and learning a new language (French) made it a more attractive option. So I went off to Paris.
  • Towards the end of the year, I was offered the possibility of staying on for another 18 months, but at the same time an event took place and changed everything. A branch of CEA (the French nuclear energy commission) responsible for nuclear bomb testing had tested their bombs in the Pacific despite protests, naturally I was getting emails from Australia to sign and protest against the testing of bombs! So I signed and went out with friends in Paris to protest in the streets, and a week later I was told that my contract will not be renewed because it is unlikely to pass the security test now that I have protested. The French astronomy community was outraged and various people helped me. For example, IAP, University of Paris, Orsay, gave me a 3 months contract.
  • Eventually I found out that there was a postdoc opening at University of Bristol in an area very similar to my PhD topic, so I ended up in Bristol.
  • After a while I decided that I have experienced different aspects of astronomy research to my satisfaction (from observational astronomy to participation in designing a new telescope),  it was time to see what I can do for another area of my interest that is History.
  • An advertisement in the Guardian caught my attention. The National Gallery Scientific Department was looking for someone who know about imaging and spoke some French to work on an EU project using non-invasive imaging to study historic paintings. I worked at the National Gallery for a couple of years applying my knowledge in Astronomical CCD imaging and broadband photometry to spectral imaging of paintings!
  • I then realized that Universities offered more freedom in the choice of research topics and that a permanent academic job is required to apply for grants to do projects of my interest. In astronomy you just need to apply for telescope time to do your research because all the telescopes are already built for you and no individual can get a grant to build a telescope anyway, but in terrestrial imaging and optics, you do need a grant to build instruments etc.
  • I applied for a lectureship at NTU where the requirement was that I teach astronomy but do research preferably in imaging science. That sounded just right for me and that is how I ended up at NTU and setup a research group on Imaging & Sensing for Archaeology, Art History and Conservation.