Nuffield Research Placements student Hannah Blyth helped astronomers discover over 20 new asteroids and a comet in the process of breaking up whilst on her summer placement at the University of Glamorgan. One of the asteroids, which is more than 300 million miles away, may be named Hannahblyth following verification from the Minor Planet Centre at Harvard University.
Hannah worked with Dr Paul Roche on the Faulkes Telescope Project for 4 weeks in Summer 2011. We asked her a few questions about her experience…
Why did you decide to apply for a Nuffield Research Placement?
There was a time when I was positive I wanted to do medicine, I was determined to do so. However doubts started forming, and I was starting to think of other possibilities. I decided that I needed more experience in another area of interest - science. The Nuffield programme seemed, and turned out, to be an ideal opportunity to gain some invaluable experience in what it’s like to be a scientist. I went for an Astronomy placement as the subject is something that genuinely interests me, and after choosing my AS level subjects Astronomy had fallen a little by the wayside, I was keen to get back into the subject and what better way than to get a chance to work with the Faulkes telescopes - an opportunity missed during my Astronomy GCSE.
What were the aims of your project, and how did you go about achieving these?
The main aim of the project was to aid amateur astronomers in their endeavours whilst simultaneously increasing the resources available for schools to use on the Faulkes website, so that they too can get experience and then get involved with real-life Astronomy research. To achieve this aim I had to keep in communication with the amateur astronomer I was working with. Letting them know which telescope I was in control of at which time so they could send me a list of targets, exposure times and filters.
The project developed throughout the four weeks of my placement into imaging asteroids, helping with the confirmation process and even (quite by accident) discovering a few of my own. There was also a period when comets were a focus, after a co-discovery was made on a fragmenting comet.
Most of my time was spent actually going through the data I was collecting whilst using the telescopes. Downloading the files and putting them onto special software that would allow me to animate the images and then, by eye, scour them for tiny, faint moving ‘blobs’ (fond term that emerged as my project went on for an asteroid). Comets are slightly easier to spot, most of the time, due to their tails, but on occasion even they can be tricky. Spotting something in these animations is only really just the beginning of the work that has to be done.
What did you learn most from your placement experience?
I learnt a lot about myself. That I am totally able to adapt to changes in the plan, that my communication skills are better than I thought and that I can overcome my nerves when speaking to an audience. I learned a lot about how asteroids are catalogued, the naming process and how they are discovered.
Due to the media attention my project received I also learned a lot about the way tv broadcasts are put together - it’s definitely eye opening. As a viewer you just don’t see the kind of work that goes into making even the smallest segments on screen. The most enjoyable part of my experience was knowing I was genuinely helping the team I was working with, and that each day there was a potential for something exciting to happen. This potential meant that my project could evolve into something totally new each day. My work experience became more and more of a life experience as each day went by.
How have you shared your placement experience with others?
Via social media sites such as twitter and facebook I let my friends and followers know what I had been getting up to that day, occasionally sharing some of the images I had taken using the Faulkes telescopes, all of which caused some interest.
When I return to school I will hopefully have time between classes to continue working with the Faulkes telescopes and aiding amateur astronomers in their projects, while possibly getting others involved too. There is also currently some interest being expressed in the possibility of visiting various classes throughout the school and showing them the work I have done over the summer placement.
What are your longer term plans and how did your placement experience affect these plans?
Originally my plan had been set in stone, I wanted to do medicine and I was pretty certain of it. The placement has however cracked me open to another world of other totally viable, and exciting, future careers in science - be it in education, communication or research.