Synge Street, NUI Maynooth, Trinity College Dublin
Bachelor of Science and PhD
Trinity College Dublin and the Paris Observatory
Researcher in Solar Physics
I am 27 years old, from Dublin and I study the sun for living! I originally did a degree in astrophysics at NUI Maynooth, then went on to do a PhD on the sun in Trinity College Dublin, which I finished in 2013. I recently moved to Paris and started a job at the Paris Observatory where I’ll be researching the sun for the next 2 years.
Why study the sun, I hear you ask! Well, the sun gives us the heat and light the allow life on Earth, but is also has a violent streak. On a daily basis, powerful eruptions of gas blast out of its atmosphere into the solar system. These eruptions or ‘solar storms’ carry about 10 billion tons of material into space at over 1 million kilometers an hour (we work with big numbers in astrophysics!). If one of these storms is fired towards the Earth, the consequences could be disastrous. Solar storms can cause damage to the technologies we use everyday, for example our mobile phones. They may also cause damage to electricity networks of entire countries and cause a power blackouts for days. As well as this, the particles that accompany solar storms are dangerous for the men and women working on the International Space Station. So, we have a need to protect ourselves from these threats. To protect us, we must be able to predict solar storms and know if they are potentially dangerous. Solar storm prediction is known as ‘space weather’, because it’s much like weather forecasting storms on Earth.
As part of my job I look at solar storms in the beginning of their life, close to the sun’s surface. I use NASA and European Space Agency telescopes in space to image the sun and this violent activity. By analysing these images and using physics, we can work out how storms are born, how they behave and why they happen. This allows us to forecast space weather and protect ourselves from our closest star.
A solar storm. This is a huge eruption in the solar atmosphere, known as coronal mass ejections or CME.
My Typical Day
A typical day includes analysing images of he sun and using physics to figure out how it works
A typical day includes downloading images of the Sun from the many telescopes in space which are run by NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA). I carefully look through these images for the tell-tale signs of eruptions into the sun’s atmosphere. I need to read the latest discoveries in astrophysics and solar physics everyday in order to figure out why the sun’s atmosphere looks like it does and why it behaves in certain ways. Nobody yet knows all the details of our sun’s behaviour, so my job is to piece together the puzzle using images, computer programming and the latest advanced physics.
The physics is complicated, so it requires me working with the other scientists in my team. Each of us is an expert in particular details of the sun. To understand how the sun works, we need to bring all of our knowledge together. We have regular meetings where we discuss physics, mathematics and our knowledge of how stars work so that we may figure out why a solar storm occurred. This sometimes requires presenting new science to a big audience of experts to figure out if my ideas a right or wrong.
If my ideas seem correct, I write a scientific report and publish it for everyone to read. Others can then use my work to better understand here own research and in this way we gain small pieces of knowledge at a time. It is very much baby steps, but a build up of small pieces of knowledge allows us to make big breakthroughs.
The suns atmosphere. This is an image of the suns atmosphere at about 1 million degrees Centigrade. It is from a telescope in space operated by NASA which captures images of the sun every 2 minutes, all day, everyday.
What I'd do with the prize money
Tours to Birr Castle Astronomy Centre
I would use the money to allow a students from a school (or schools) to bring young students to Birr Castle. Birr Castle has a extremely rich history in astronomy. In the 1800s, is was home to the largest telescope in the world! The Earl of Rosse, who lives there in the 19th century was the first to draw the spiral arms of galaxies and he named the Crab Nebula. I has a wonderful astronomy exhibition and the old telescope is still on site. I believe students should be given the opportunity to see Ireland’s history in science, and Birr Castle is a great example of this. I would use the money to fund a day trip for as many students as possible to go to Birr, see the castle grounds, learn about astronomy, and learn about a big piece of Ireland’s scientific history.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Inquisitive, Curious, Relaxed
What did you want to be after you left school?
Either and artist or scientist
Were you ever in trouble at school?
Yes, a couple of times.
Who is your favourite singer or band?
Queens of the Stone Age
What's your favourite food?
Any Indian food.
What is the most fun thing you've done?
Moved to Paris
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
Be happy, live somewhere beautiful, do something significant
Tell us a joke.