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Researcher, University College Cork

Mark Kennedy

Job title
Researcher
Company
UCC
Industry
Astrophysics
Experience
Just finished my PhD
Education
  1. Bsc in Astrophysics from UCC
  2. PhD in Astrophysics from UCC
Favourite subjects in school
Physics
The best thing about my job
My favourite thing is definitely the feeling I get when I see something unexpected and new in my data, and realise I’m looking at something that no one else in the history has seen yet – it’s really exciting, and helps renew my interest in my work.

Don’t be afraid to take risks. A lot of research in astrophysics, or even in science in general, is based on people asking “what if?” and seeing what happens. Also, the sooner you learn a bit of computer programming, the better – computer programming is used in many, many fields these days, not just science!

 

My Main Tasks

My main tasks are focused on analysing data of binary star systems called Cataclysmic Variables, or CVs. CVs are cool objects as they have left over cores of dead stars, called white dwarfs, at their centre, and these white dwarfs are stripping away material from a nearby star.I spend a lot of time writing proposals to use telescopes like the Hubble Space Telescope and XMM-Newton to look at objects like these. Once I’ve got new data, I use PYTHON to analyse the data and figure out exactly what is going on in these systems. I think the most important thing to have when working in astrophysics is a good imagination, as, some times, some of the problems are so difficult and weird that the only way to solve them is to think about them in a totally unexpected way – a lot of “out of the box” thinking is required.

Challenges

I find the amount of time it takes to accomplish anything in science, particularly in astrophysics, to be a real challenge. I tend to have a short attention span when it comes to my projects. This mean if it takes several months to analyse a dataset and write and publish a paper about it, quite often I become bored for the last month or so, and I typically have to have 2 projects going at once that I can switch between so I can keep renewing my interest in each project.

Who Influenced Me

I think a natural sense of curiosity has influenced my career the most so far. Ever since I visited Kennedy Space Centre when I was 10, I’ve been fascinated with space, and whenever I’ve been fortunate enough to see the night sky on a dark night, I’ve also asked myself the question “I wonder what’s up there?” - this has really influenced my career as whenever I look at a new dataset, the first question I ask is “I wonder what’s causing this?” and try to imagine the system that might be doing it. As for people, I think it’s fair to say my PhD supervisors, Paul Callanan and Peter Garnavich, have influenced me the most so far.

Work/Life Balance

At this point in my life, I’m not entirely sure it does – I’m currently looking for a post doctoral (post-doc) position in a research group, which are notoriously hard to find in astrophysics right now. The biggest issue I have is that an awful lot of post-doc positions require me to move abroad. While I don’t really mind this, moving countries every 2-3 years can be exhausting, and it’s not for everyone! Also, my work/life balance has not been very good recently. During the last year of my PhD, I found myself working more than I would have liked, and not being able to do some of my hobbies as I was under pressure to write up and submit. Now,  I’m nearly the polar opposite – I do very little work and spend a lot of time catching up on all of my hobbies (reading, playing games, sleeping). I guess I’m just a person who embraces extremes!

Most Useful Aspects of my Education

There are 3 main skills which I learned during my undergraduate degree and my PhD which I think are very useful, regardless of what I end up working on in the future. The first is basic problem solving. A lot of physics ends up being less about learning equations and doing calculations and more about how to approach solving problems by thinking outside of the box. The main thing a degree in physics will give a person is a toolbox to use when problem solving, which is a very useful thing to have. The second aspect is technical writing. When writing a lab report during my undergrad, or writing papers during my PhD, being able to write my papers in a very concise way that explains my research clearly was very important, as a scientist needs to be able to convince people that their science is correct without being biased – which is not a very easy thing to do! Finally, I’ve learned a lot about how to do  teamwork properly. During my undegrad, every week we had problem sets that the class had to work on as a team to solve, and this carried over to my PhD when I was working in collaborations made up of people from all over the world as we tried to solve mysteries about particular cataclysmic variable stars.

Useful Work Experience 

Working in any kind of research group would definitely help – it will give people an idea of whether they like research or not, and if they do, what type of research they prefer. Many universities will take students on for work experience if the students ask – when I was in transition year, I spent 2 weeks working in the science department in Waterford Institute of Technology. This was my first real exposure to research, and it inspired me to study astrophysics in college.