Professor of Astrophysics, Head of Astronomy and Exoplanet investigator at the Open University. Also includes — Keeping teaching, research & admin balls in the air. Sitting at a computer. Feeding ideas & data to research students. Reading and writing.
The best of my job
Watching and giving presentations on new research results. Helping students succeed, and occasionally feeling I’ve made a difference. Being able to hold up a candle for rationality. Being paid to read and write and to think about beautiful astronomical images and possible new space missions. The sheer joy of hypotheses which make predictions that seem to work. Travel to interesting places; sunsets and dawns in the mountains. Having interesting and intelligent colleagues in my life. The single best moment for me happened when I was volunteering in an inner city Baltimore School and showed a disengaged 14 year old an optics demonstration which made his face light up. I hope it might have ignited a spark which lasted for him.
The worst of my job
Tedious and / or pointless admin chores.
When I was 17 and 18 (for the equivalent of Years 12 and 13) I had a physics teacher who I think had an unconscious bias against girls. He didn’t bother to mark his classes’ work. Consequently he based his entire assessment of me on a single exam I took when I was unwell. He refused to write a reference supporting me to study physics at university, and said I wasn’t “good enough” to do a degree in physics. I went on to get the best possible grades in Maths and Physics at A-level and S-level, so objectively I think he was shown to be completely wrong. I was very upset by his behaviour, but I was lucky that my parents and my maths and chemistry teachers supported me wholeheartedly. I took the initiative and wrote to a prominent astronomer at Cambridge who kindly replied, assuring me that a maths degree was a good start for a career in astrophysics.
So I went to Oxford to study maths. I didn’t like the Oxford first term maths curriculum very much: it seemed to me that we spent weeks proving that if there existed a number x, such that x lies between 0 and infinity, there were also other such numbers. I’m afraid this seemed a bit pointless to me. I thought about leaving university and giving up entirely on my hopes of an astrophysics career. In desperation by the 6th week of my time in Oxford, I turned up unannounced at the office of Prof Donald Blackwell, the Savilian Professor of Astronomy. I explained my predicament, and he supported my proposal that I should change subjects and do a physics degree instead. He was very kind and patient, and sorted things out for me, liaising with my tutors at University College.
I think I would say to anyone that you should be prepared to push yourself forwards and ask for help, even if that seems a bit scary. Most people are very willing to help if asked. You should not give up easily just because someone tells you that you are “not good enough”. Often such statements reveal more about the person uttering them than they do about the person they are directed at. Worryingly there is evidence that girls may often be discouraged by their own teachers. Of course there are probably some people who would be well-advised not to take a physics degree. If lots and lots of people independently think you are taking the wrong path, it might be worth carefully considering whether they might be right. But my point in sharing this part of my own story is to say that I think it is very important to be tenacious in life, and not to let set-backs stop you. Some people have more luck and an easier path than others, but in the end I think we each have to take responsibility for our own lives and do what we can to shape them the way we want them to be. In most things, persistence and determination are more important than innate ability. And of course all of this partly explains why I work at The Open University – the first and best university to offer opportunities to people for whom the standard path didn’t work. Widening participation, hurrah!
How did astronomy/geophysics inspire me?
My Dad and the Apollo mission inspired me in the 1960s. I wanted to be an astronaut. By the time I was about 10 I realised this wasn’t a very practical career plan. I thought Astrophysics was the next best thing. Fortunately I am good at maths, so this was a fairly practical plan. I am still not completely sure though – I might try a proper job!
What transferable skills have astronomy/geophysics given me?
There were only really two careers I wanted to do after school: astrophysics and art. I chose astrophysics because of the wide number of potential jobs available to people trained in maths and physics, and the transferable skills that my subject develops. I have always felt confident that I could get a job in the private sector if I wanted to using my numerical, analytical, problem-solving, information synthesis, writing and presenting skills. I am interested in the stock market and I use skills I’ve developed in astrophysics to pick shares to invest in.
Bullet point CV
- 1974-1980 Huntcliff Comprehensive School, Saltburn-by-the-Sea, Teesside
9 GCSE equivalents, 6 As, 3Bs (3 O-level, 6 16+ small school did not offer O-levels in most subjects)
- 1980-1982 The Prior Pusglove VIth Form College, Guisborough, Teesside
5 A-levels, 3As, 2Bs; 2 grade 1 Special Papers. Maths, Further Maths, Physics, Chemistry, General Studies.
- 1982-1985 Oxford University, member of University College.
Studied Maths and Physics
Graduated with Second Class Honours in Physics.
Secretary then President of Oxford University Astronomical Society.
Won a blade rowing in Summer Eights and a trophy rowing in Christ Church Regatta.
Worked in a variety of jobs every university vacation.
- Summer 1984, Summer 1985 Research Assistant The University of Texas at Austin.
Research in high resolution stellar spectroscopy – measured many equivalent widths!
- 1985-1991 The University of Texas at Austin
Masters Level studies in Plasma Astrophysics
Observational Astronomy PhD Thesis The Black Hole Candidate Binary A0620-00
Took many postgraduate courses in astronomy, physics, and mathematical techniques for the physical sciences.
Supported myself with a variety of Fellowships, Research Assistantships and Teaching Assistantships
- 1990 Least Important VIP at the Hubble Space Telescope Launch
- 1992-1994 Space Telescope Science Institute
Postdoctoral Research Fellow working on accretion flows, developed research on multiwavelength observations.
- 1994-1997 Columbia University in the City of New York
Postdoctoral then Associate Research Scientist, working on black hole X-ray transients and cataclysmic variables.
- 1995 Barnard College, Columbia University in the City of New York
Lecturer in Astronomy. (Taught Brit-Award winning musician Lauryn Hill)
- 1996-1999 The University of Sussex
Lecturer (Permanent Appointment)
- 1999 – The Open University
Lecturer then Senior Lecturer (Permanent Appointment)
Currently Head of Astronomy
Teaching and Student Support
2003 - Research in Exoplanets; 1999-2003 Research in Accreting Binary Stars
- 2010 Royal Astronomical Society Group Achievement Award as Core and Pioneering Member of the Wide Area Search for Planets (WASP) consortium.
- 2010 book Transiting Exoplanets published by CUP. Repeatedly No 1 seller in Astrophysics on Amazon.
- 2012 – leading the Dispersed Matter Planet Project, discovering low mass planets orbiting bright nearby stars.
- 1995, 1998, 2000, 2001 Hubble Space Telescope Time Allocation Committee, various panels.
- Supervised 14 PhDs, 2 MScs and 1 MPhil (by October 2017)
- Published 129 refereed journal papers. Over 6000 citations (by October 2017).
- 2017 – Member of The European Space Agency’s Astronomy Working Group