My goal for the ICRAR work experience was to get an insight into the exciting careers in astronomy to be well-informed when I was ready to choose a career. However, what unravelled was much more rewarding than I had anticipated. Overall, these 5-days at ICRAR were extremely stimulating and memorable. I learnt a lot and got a sneak-peak into the work of various professions working together in this amazing space. However, the best part was meeting the people who were so generous in sharing their knowledge and experiences with us. It has definitely given me a new perspective to learning. My heartfelt gratitude to everybody at ICRAR for creating a unique experience for school students like me! I highly recommend this placement to anyone with an interest in astronomy or even science in general. There is so much to explore! Below is a synopsis of my experience at ICRAR to share my journey and motivate those who may be considering to apply.
My first day was at the Curtin University node of ICRAR. It began with a meet-and-greet with our supervisor Kathryn Ross, a PhD student, and three fellow students. Kathryn took us around for a tour and looked after us all day.
We met Dr Sam McSweeney, an Associate Lecturer, who was researching Pulsars. We learnt how pulsars were discovered, how to calculate the radius of one, why they were so dense and why they emitted a constant radiation at very specific intervals. He also taught us a bit about object visibility in the night sky in general and some basic orbit physics.
Following this, we met Dr Maria Kovaleva, an Associate Lecturer, whose work focussed on developing Antennae such as those used in the Murchison Wide-Field Array (MWA). We learnt about problems in developing antennae for example, how sand entering antennae may cause short circuits due to its conductivity and how static and current electricity related to these problems. She told us more about the electromagnetic spectrum and its relation to the MWA. We also got to attend a talk on Radio Transients by Dr Natasha Hurley-Walker, Although the talk was a bit too technical for me, I learnt more about how pulsars emit radio frequencies.
Thereafter, Kathryn had organised a fun activity for us where we made a Pokémon computer game using Python. She shared some tips and tricks for programming in general including how arrays and lists worked and showed us simple battle mechanics and explained why coding was a critical skill for a modern astronomers.
Towards the end of the day, we met Ms Mia Walker, a project officer on the MWA, who discussed the technical aspects of the MWA, including its development and the practical issues involved in its construction and maintenance.
Our second day was spent at the University of Western Australia (UWA) node of ICRAR where we met our supervisor Mr Greg Rowbotham, who had interviewed us prior to our selection. After a tour of the UWA ICRAR Centre, we met Mr Kevin Vinsen, a Senior Research Fellow, who was an expert in the details about the new upcoming Square Kilometre Array (SKA) and the history of radio telescopes in general. Subsequently, we watched a very informative 30-minute video on Cosmology which sparked many questions on astrophysics and general science and we got to discuss these with Mr Rowbotham.
Thereafter, we got an opportunity to talk with a PhD student who was developing an Artificial Intelligence program in Python to locate galaxies on an image using only visual information. He not only showed us how his program worked, but also showed us the different types of galaxies and how the age of starts was determined.
Next, we spoke to Professor Peter Quinn about his journey, how he became a professor and the different pathways into scientific research, what skills and experiences were useful and life as an academic.
We concluded the day by talking to Dr Adam Stevens, a Research Fellow, who was a Simulations researcher. Instead of basing his research on ‘real’ observations like all the researchers we had previously spoken to, he was very skilled at computing and created extensive simulations in an attempt to mimic things not easily observed in space. I found it very fascinating.
Our third day was possibly the most exciting day for me. We went to the Pawsey Supercomputing Centre, located at Curtin University. Upon our arrival we met our supervisor, Ms Ann Backhaus, Pawsey’s Education and Training Manager, who took us on a tour of the Centre. Sadly, due to renovations we weren’t able to see the 3D Data visualisation room or go inside of the supercomputing chamber. However, we were able to see Magnus, the ginormous petascale computer, from the upper windows, from where we took many pictures.
Shortly after, we met a Quantum computer scientist who gave us an in-depth talk about the world of quantum physics and future prospects. In detail the talk included: quantum physics, Schrodinger’s cat and other thought experiments, quantum entanglement, the double slit experiment used to determine whether light was a wave or a particle and finally how quantum computers work and what quantum computers mean for the future of computing in general.
Afterwards, we joined several Pawsey staff members for lunch over a talk about Social Media and its relevance in academia. The talk discussed how the supercomputing centre was using it to promote itself and generate community involvement and interest in the growing fields of supercomputers and quantum computing. This was then followed by a talk with Mr Benjamin Arntzen, a System Support Officer for the supercomputer. He had brought in a mini supercomputing built using a several Raspberry Pi modules. In its final form it consisted of 12 Raspberry Pi’s on 2 racks connected to a controller and a power supply. The controller linked to a wireless PlayStation 4 controller and hooked up to the main display in the room. He demonstrated a speed comparison where the mini supercomputer initially used a single Raspberry Pi and then replaced it with 12, where the latter was predictably much faster. However, the main demonstration on the Raspberry Pi’s was of ‘Fluid Simulations’ which could really push it to its max potential. These could be configured to use different amounts of the modules. Ben really made us feel the difference and understand how large-scale computing worked at a larger scale with computers such as Magnus.
Finally, to end the day we spoke to Mr Mark Grey, the Head of Scientific Platforms, who provided in-depth explanations into the how supercomputers worked and also discussed the performance superiority of Graphics Processing Units (GPU) cores over Central Processing Units (CPU) cores in large scale calculations. Overall, this was my favourite day since I got to see some amazing about new advances in this space.
This was our last day at Curtin. We began by talking to Ms Teresa Slaven-Blair, an Outreach Coordinator for ASTRO 3D. She went into detail about what being a science communicator entailed and the central role of communication skills played in this and most science-related jobs. She found it rewarding to explain science to a general lay audience to spark inspiration and further develop human knowledge. Next, we spoke with Mr Dev, a Computer Scientist, who was responsible for developing software and optimising astronomer code for use on computers such as the Magnus. He explained how optimisation was important to save time and resources.
Next, we met an Electrical Engineer who was currently working on resolving the problem of the atmospheric disruption of radio waves travelling from outer space that were to be read by the MWA. He explained that the primary solution would be to send CubeSats (miniaturised satellites) into space complemented with an anti-distortion program that would completely remove any atmospheric disruption of radio waves.
Following this, we got to attend a lesson with Dr Arash Baharamian who was involved in researching black holes and pulsars. In this session he gave us a guided lesson in how to create a predictive mathematical model based on previously observed data that could be used to predict future values using simple programs and an understanding of mathematics. We also met a new PhD student whose aim was to find hidden black holes and pulsars by mapping their velocities.
Later, we met another PhD student who was researching Theoretical Astrophysics. His talk was very different to previous ones and gave us an insight into the world of theoretical science where scientific solutions are thought out using theoretical concepts instead of observations. He also told us how his research was related to wave splitting, double images and gravitational lensing. We also met a post-doc who discussed tidal disruption events and black holes in general.
Towards the end of the day, we got to meet Dr Karen Lee-Waddell, the Director of the Australian SKA Regional Centre. She told us about her past experiences, on how she was originally training to become an astronaut but discovered her passion for research and change her mind. Due to her previous work experience in the military, she was qualified to take on her currently responsibility of leading the AU-SKA Regional Centre.
We spent our last day at the UWA node. We started the day by meeting a PhD student who was studying cosmic dust. She explained how cosmic dust absorbed light and how it could also be a catalyst in the formation of stars.
Later, Dr David Gozzard took us to the roof of the Physics building where we were allowed to enter the Spirit-2 dome and got to explore the telescope while learning the specifics about its placement and angle and why it was constructed in that particular way.
When we came down, we got to see two different versions of a laser transition device that used infrared waves to transmit information. It was currently being tested horizontally since the atmosphere gets thinner with increasing altitude. If the experiment was successful at the desired distance horizontally, it could potentially be used to transmit large amounts of information much faster through the atmosphere. While we were in the Physics building, we also saw the Spirit-5 telescope on the floor since it wasn’t ready to be installed as yet.
Next, we spoke to a PhD Student who explained her research about calculating the angular momentum of galaxies and investigating if this could provide further insights about galaxy formation and evolution. She told us about momentum and angular momentum and how she also uses redshift to determine the speeds of individual stars and then galaxies as a whole due to the Doppler Effect.
Thereafter, we attended a meeting where PhD students were discussing galaxy star populations and metal abundancy in space. Next, we spoke to a research professor who went into detail about what we had previously learned with Jennifer about redshift, calculating speeds and momentum related astrophysics.
Finally, we spoke to Professor Andreas Wicenec, the Director of Data Intensive Astronomy at ICRAR. He gave us an extensive overview of his experiences. He talked about how he had started out as an astronomer and then eventually became increasingly involved in the computing aspect and how he enjoyed using some of the fastest supercomputers in the world. He also went in details about the data generated by the SKA and how he managed it.
I thoroughly enjoyed this work experience at ICRAR and encourage you to come along as well!