Sandy - MPhys Physics 2010

PhD Research Student, Instrumentation for James Webb Space Telescope, Edinburgh

SandyThere are some factors (about 9000 good ones, now!) that entice us Scots to stay North for our University education. Fortunately the Physics department in St Andrews offers an education and experience to rival that of anywhere.

My St Andrews degree didn’t just open up the door to my current position, but provided opportunities throughout my four years. The first opportunity was to challenge myself - the flexible degree structure allowed some of my cohort and I to take 2nd year physics and maths courses in our entry year. This theme continued throughout the degree, whereby a modular degree structure ensured core knowledge was gained while elective modules allowed interests to be pursued to a higher level (I chose some advanced astronomy classes).

Perhaps my best time at St Andrews was the time I wasn’t at St Andrews! In my second year, I was selected for an exchange year to the University of Texas at Dallas. Being put forward and supported by my home department made this possible - it allowed me to experience the US, and its education system, which was otherwise unreachable to me. Study abroad years are of course relatively common, but the one-to-one help and support provided to me must be more remarkable.

I was lucky enough to be able to choose in the Masters year of my degree a project with Duncan Robertson and Dav Macfarlane, looking at radar remote sensing of volcanic ash clouds. Being immersed in the research environment of the school drove the success of the project. The work was published in a journal letter, and gained me a top three finalist place in the Science, Engineering & Technology NPL Physics Student of the Year Award (2010).

Having got hooked on research and with a good degree, a PhD seemed a sensible next move. In interviews, my degree was seen favourably, particularly the large fraction of practical classes - Honours level Computational Physics and Physics Labs, and Masters level Astronomy Data Analysis - that I had been able to take alongside the standard physics lecture courses. A summer project working on airborne meteorology research instrumentation with the UK Met Office also helped me in finding a PhD position - my selection for the Met Office project was in turn thanks to experience in instrument/computer interfacing in the Physics Lab classes.

As of writing, I have just completed the first year of a 3.5 year PhD in high-redshift astronomy at the University of Edinburgh (Royal Observatory Edinburgh). Following the theme of combining science and instrumentation, I am working on two complementary projects. Working with Ross McLure and Jim Dunlop, I am investigating the history of star formation in the first galaxies to form in the universe - about 500 million years after the Big bang, or some 13 billion years ago. With Gillian Wright of the UK Astronomy Technology Centre, I am part of an international team readying the Mid Infra-Red Instrument for launch on the forthcoming James Webb Space Telescope. JWST will, with its unprecedented size, allow these first galaxies to be observed with precision and sensitivity far surpassing that which is currently possible from space or mountain-top observatories.

Sandy relaxing

It should be clear that I am grateful to the School for the opportunities it has provided, then and now. But one final thought: undoubtedly my PhD work would be more challenging, if at all possible, without having sat some advanced astronomy classes in my final undergraduate year. In fact, I had not fulfilled all the prerequisite requirements for them - so a “thank you” to the School for the individual attention in allowing me to pursue my interests all along the way.

Royal Observatory Edinburgh

Mid Infrared Instrument for the James Webb Space Telescope

Star formation in early galaxies

Web news page about Sandy's UK Physics success

James Webb Space Telescope

First posted BDS 20.7.11