Dr Luke Davies completed his Nuffield Research Placement in 2001 in the Physics and Astronomy department of Cardiff University. He is currently a John Stocker Research Fellow in Astrophysics at the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research, University of Western Australia.
What was your project about?
My project was to look for stars in massive, fast moving, clouds of gas surrounding our own Milky Way Galaxy. At the time it was unclear as to whether these clouds of gas were situated close to the Milky Way or at much larger distances, forming part of small group of galaxies in which the Milky Way resides – called the ‘local group’. It was also unclear as to the origin of the clouds. Were they individual galaxies within the local group or simply part of the structure of the Milky Way? A potential way to measure the distance and origin of these clouds would be to identify stars associated with them. By identifying a particular type of star with a known luminosity it is possible to measure its distance, and therefore infer the clouds origin. As part of my project I analysed images in the central region of these gas clouds, identified and measured the properties stars in the region, and searched of over-densities of the particular stars that could be used to determine the distance to the clouds. In this analysis we didn’t find any stars associated with the clouds, which suggested that they are not individual galaxies but are nearby structures associated with the Milky Way. This has subsequently been confirmed.
What was the highlight of your placement?
The highlight of my placement was actually being involved in published research. The work that I did was ultimately published in a high impact journal, of which I am a co-author (Davies, J., et al., 2002, Monthly notices of the royal astronomical society, 336,155). Being able to get hands on with some world leading research and have an academic publication at the age of 17 was amazing. Being thrust into a research environment, and also being trusted to undertake high quality research was a great feeling.
What was your least favourite part of the placement?
I can’t actually remember a bad thing about it! Although it may have blurred with time! The one thing that does stand out in my mind was, having to wait a long time to load the data from the telescope onto the computer. Nowadays massive astronomical dataset are easily shared via the internet and we very rarely have physical copies. At that time our data was stored on old DAT tapes. You would have to put them into a tape reading machine and the data would be read onto the compute incredibly slowly. Luckily while I was waiting for this the astronomers in the department would give me crash courses in astronomy, which got me incredibly enthused about the subject.
Did your Nuffield Research Placement have an effect on the choices that you made after finishing school/college/university?
Definitely. I was reasonably interested in astronomy prior to my placement, but I wasn’t super keen. After the placement and getting a taste for working as a researcher in astronomy, I decided it was something I really wanted to do. To start the ball rolling I pushed to do an A-Level module in Cosmology, which I really loved, and then carried this on to my degree, PhD and ultimately career. I think I probably would have found my way to astronomy on my own, given how much I enjoy it now, but the NRP was definitely an early push in the right direction and encouraged me to start studying astronomy from an young age.
What path did you take after finishing your NRP and how has that led you to where you are today?
After my NRP I finished my A-Levels in Physics, Maths, Biology and History. I then took a year out and travelled around East Africa before going to Bristol University to study Physics With Astronomy. Following that I stayed at Bristol for a PhD, studying the properties of the first galaxies in the Universe. I then did a post-doctorial research position at the University of Portsmouth, back to Bristol for another post-doc, and then 2.5yrs ago I moved to my fellowship at the University of Western Australia in Perth. Here I undertake research into galaxy evolution, primarily focusing on the rate at which galaxies form new stars and what happens when galaxies smash together.
Did you stay in touch with your supervisor?
Yes, I still collaborate with my supervisor. During my PhD and first post doc we didn’t collaborate much as our research was very different. However, over time our interests have moved closer together and we now work on combined project. We have in fact just have just published a joint paper and work very closely.
What would your advice be to young people thinking about a career in STEM?
Do it! But make sure you have a passion for it. I think my job is one of the best in the world. I get to study the mysteries of the Universe, travel to exotic places (where we always build the biggest telescopes!), meet interesting people, learn new things every day and generally just like going into work in the morning (which may not sound like a big thing, but it is!). However, sometimes a career in research can be challenging, and in some cases, doesn’t pay as much as other careers would, so you have to have a strong desire and passion for what you do. If you do, then you will be incredibly happy in your career.
However, that doesn’t say you have to be super passionate right now! I wasn’t really passionate about astronomy as a career until the final year of my undergraduate degree, so if you aren’t set on what you want to do right now, explore lots of things and see what you have a passion for (the NRP is a great way to explore STEM research!).
Last, the most important thing you can do if you want a career in STEM, is to learn to code. Almost every disciple requires it now (and if they don’t it is a bonus). If you are very proficient in coding you will be well placed for a STEM career.