Elizabeth Cooke – MPhys Astrophysics 2012

PhD Extragalactic Astronomy, Nottingham

I spent a very happy five years studying an MPhys in Astrophysics at St Andrews. The university provided a huge range of opportunities to develop my knowledge and understanding in a wide range of subjects. For example, I picked up two French modules in my first year as well as the Maths, Physics and Astrophysics modules required for my degree. The Physics department also offers a wide range of courses, both theoretical and practical, which allowed me to learn about different areas of physics and find out which areas I was particularly interested in. The range of courses also allowed me to pick up many new skills; such as learning several programming languages through computational labs; or circuit building to produce a radio telescope. This all culminated in my research project in final year where I chose to work on starburst galaxies with Dr Vivienne Wild. This project really sparked my interest in extragalactic astronomy and encouraged me to apply for a PhD.

Lizzie at the Jodrell Bank "Galaxy Maze Garden"
with the Lovell Telescope behind.

I am currently in the first year of a PhD in extragalactic astronomy at the University of Nottingham. My research is on the topic of protoclusters; finding them and then measuring the properties of the galaxies within them. This allows me to look into a not very well understood area of astrophysics that really intrigues me: how galaxies change from star-forming spirals into older, redder ellipticals.

One module which has proved useful time and again both at St Andrews and so far in my degree at Nottingham is Transferable Skills for Physicists. Throughout the module I learnt to: search for appropriate journal articles; write research reviews; give presentations and write a telescope proposal. Having spoken to students from other institutions, the opportunities offered by Transferable Skills in St Andrews are not offered everywhere and the early introduction at undergraduate level has prepared me well for my postgraduate position. Hopefully later this year I will be putting my proposal-writing skills into practice in order to apply to use one of the telescopes at the European Southern Observatory sites in Chile.

My PhD also gives me opportunities alongside my research, such as demonstrating in undergraduate labs as well as outreach events to the local community. For example, I am volunteering with the university planetarium: the Inflativerse. This was also prompted by my experience during my time in St Andrews; helping out with the planetarium at university open days as well as visiting local schools. Now with the Nottingham planetarium I have already had the opportunity to visit a local primary school, as well as help out at a BBC Stargazing Live event in Leicester.

Thanks to St Andrews generally, and the Physics and Astronomy department in particular, I have had the opportunity to stretch myself intellectually; learn about a wide range of subjects and to become involved in many different societies. This has all prepared me with skills which will be useful not only for my PhD but for wherever my career path takes me next.

First posted BDS 20.1.13