This week’s interview is with Rachel Street.
Jessica Barton: What is your job title?
Rachel Street: Project scientist.
JB: What does your work at LCOGT involve?
RS: My work is mainly research, and mainly studying exoplanets, but there are a lot of things that go into that. I spend time observing, doing data reduction, data analysis, writing software, and writing for publication. Another part of my job is presenting this work verbally or in writing for colleagues, the public, media, websites, conferences, and scientific papers. There’s also some of what you could call astronomical admin. I’m part of what we call the TAC, or Time Allocation Committee. Scientists submit proposals for time on our telescopes and the committee reviews the proposals and chooses the ones that are the most worthy. I am also occasionally asked to review papers as part of the peer review process.
JB: Could you tell us a little bit about yourself - your education, interests, past work experiences.
RS: I was dedicated to astronomy from the start. I knew I wanted to be an astronomer when I was eight years old. I went to the University of Birmingham for my undergraduate degree in physics with astrophysics. My program, like many astrophysics programs in the UK, had an emphasis on cosmology. I was very interested in the universe on a large scale, but then just as I was finishing up university, the first exoplanet discoveries were announced and I was hooked! I went to St. Andrews for my PhD and studied exoplanets. My job was searching for transiting planets in open clusters. Yiannis Tsapras and I actually studied for our PhDs together; he was working on finding planets via microlensing at the same time. Next I went to Queens University in Belfast where I held a PPARC fellowship to help build SuperWASP. That’s the Wide Angle Search for Planets. My work with the project involved writing data reduction software and analysing the data. We found our first planets just before my contract ran out! Then I came to LCOGT where I’ve been for the past 6 years. I study both transits and microlensing now because our telescopes are ideal for these techniques. I still collaborate with my colleagues from St. Andrews and SuperWasp.
JB: What led you to the career or job you are doing now?
RS: My Mum gave me a book by Patrick Moore one holiday and I was fascinated by the exotic phenomena it described. It amazed me because they weren’t science fiction, they were real! My parents took me to a local amateur astronomical society and I also tried to do astrophotography from my backyard. There was a lot of light pollution where I lived though, and this was in the days of film cameras. My attempts were not very successful! But I loved every second of it. I watched the Galilean Moons orbiting Jupiter through a small refractor from my bedroom window, night after night.
JB: What is a typical day at work like?
RS: It’s really varied and it’s difficult to get into a routine. For example this morning I met with Dave Sand who is an instrument scientist, and had a driving lesson from him on how to use the spectrograph he’s developed. There’s an exciting microlensing event going on right now, so my day will be planned around taking observations. I have to make sure I’m finished with my lunch by 1pm so I can start observing on the Liverpool Telescope. Then I’ll work my weekend around observing time on FTN because we want to get some spectroscopy observations of this target. It’s a new application of FLOYDS that should help us learn more about the spectral type of the star being lensed in this event. Microlensing fields are so dense with stars, it can be really difficult to figure out details about the lensed stars.
JB: What advice would you offer people wanting to go into the type of work you do?
RS: You have to go through university, and you need to make sure you get a strong background in math and physics. You should also get involved with an amateur astronomical society. Many amateur astronomers are so knowledgeable that the only difference between them and professionals is that they don’t get paid. They can really inspire your interest and help you get started.
JB: What do you wish you had known about being an astronomer?
RS: There are a lot of pressures in this career and it can be quite stressful. Professional science is extremely competitive and can be very intense. You are under constant pressure to research and publish and most work contracts are very short term until you get tenure. The hours are extremely irregular, which can be positive and negative. You get to travel a lot, and meet and work with people from all over the world. I hadn’t realized that about this career but it’s been very rewarding and fun.
JB: Is the search for life what interests you about exoplanets? Do you think we will find life on other planets in our life times?
RS: Of course the search for life is fascinating and I think we will discover life somewhere else in our galaxy one day. Whether it will be in our life times I’m not sure. We can look for bioindicators on other planets, but it will be difficult to ever be sure that they are caused by life or by something else. Perhaps we will even find evidence of life elsewhere in our solar system first. When I was first getting interested in astronomy, the Voyager mission was just reaching the outer planets and revealing so much more about them and how different they are. Now we know of hundreds more planets throughout the Galaxy. It’s really the stunning variety of different planets that interests me.
JB: Thanks Rachel!