Technology plays a big part in many people’s jobs today, not just in the tech industry.
We talked to Dr Claire Davies, an astrophysicist and Research Fellow at Exeter University, about how new telescope technology has allowed her to study a brand new field – star and planet formation.
Claire also told us about why STEM needs female and LGBTQ+ role models, and how she’s helping to improve visibility of both.
Claire, your title is Research Fellow. Can you tell us what that means?
The Research bit means I find things out, and university lecturers then pass that information on to the students. The Fellow bit is an olde-worlde, typically masculine term, to be quite frank. It basically means I’m a learned scholar with a PhD.
What kind of research do you do?
I work in the field of star and planetary system formation. The planet on which we live, the Earth, hasn't always been here. It had to be built from scratch, similar to how you pack snow together to build a snowball. But unlike a snowball, it built itself! We don't know very much about how that happened.
Now, powerful telescopes allow us to study nearby baby stars, to learn from those. We can see frisbee-like shapes around these stars, called protoplanetary disks, that form into planets. We hope that by photographing them around stars of different ages, we might work out how the Earth was formed.
New telescopes allow us to study frisbee-like shapes around nearby baby stars, called protoplanetary disks, that form into planets.
So advances in technology are opening up new areas of research?
Definitely. When I was studying astrophysics at university, we had to skip over how stars were formed, because we didn’t know very much about it, and we couldn’t observe faraway baby stars.
But towards the end of my degree, people were starting to talk about a new generation of telescopes that would be able to peer into the disks that exist around the stars for the first time. That was really exciting, and it was one of the reasons I chose to do a PhD in that area.
It’s a very new research area in general. The first exoplanet, a planet around a star other than the Sun, was only discovered in 1995. I was born in 1989, so most of what we know about planets outside our own Solar System has only been discovered during my lifetime.
What’s been your most interesting discovery?
We’ve recently found out that some of these protoplanetary disks are torn and warped, rather than being a single flat structure.
It means their planets might not be all neatly aligned and orbiting around the star’s equator, like the planets in our Solar System. Instead, the planets might have inclined orbits, which can affect the length of day and night, and the number of collisions that they have with meteors or comets.
What do you like about this particular area?
I love the sense of discovery; being one of the first people or the first person to find something out. I love the fact that I can share knowledge with other scientists, and also with my friends and family.
I love the sense of discovery; being one of the first people or the first person to find something out.
How did you get interested in observing stars?
When I was about 13, my family and I stumbled on an open day at an observatory in the Museum Gardens in York, where they were inviting people to look through a telescope at the Sun. It isn’t normally safe to look at the Sun through a telescope, but they had special equipment.
When I looked through the telescope, I saw that the Sun wasn’t just a glowing orb. It had spots on its surface and the astronomer explained that as heat inside the star rises to the surface, the magnetic field escapes with it, causing the spots.
"When I looked through the telescope, I saw that the Sun wasn’t just a glowing orb. It had spots on its surface."
He also showed us butterfly diagrams created by tracking the spots on the Sun’s surface. You get a butterfly shape as they come towards the Sun’s equator, and the pattern repeats every 11 years. This cycle lines up really well with the cooler and warmer periods we had here on Earth before the Industrial Revolution. It amazed me that something so far away could influence our own experience.
After that I dragged my parents to the York Astronomical Society, because I had too many questions that they couldn’t answer!
Was that when you decided to become an astrophysicist?
No, back then I wanted to be a sportswear designer! I didn’t really understand what a scientist was or that it could be a career.
But I was good at a lot of subjects at school, and I wasn’t sure whether to study history or physics at university. At an open day, someone explained that physics could open more doors for me after graduation than history could, and that made my mind up.
You also work as an advocate for women and for LGBTQ+ people in STEM. Why is that needed?
In physics and astronomy, only around 20% of my peers are women, and there hasn’t been much progress in decades. Visibility and awareness are a problem – when you think of a physicist, you might think of Einstein. You might struggle to think of female scientists to aspire towards. So I try to be visible as a woman who's an astronomer and physicist.
More recently, I’ve felt comfortable enough to be visible as a gay female as well. My sexuality and the way I express my gender mean I'm protected from some gender-based discrimination, but some environments are still challenging. For example, there’s often talk about maternity leave, but not paternity leave, adoption leave, or shared parental leave. I can bring a different perspective to these discussions and to others.
It’s taken guts to ‘come out’ professionally, partly because of an almost ingrained concept that being LGBTQ+, or expressing that, is somehow unprofessional. But that’s changing with the generations. Students are totally fine with me being gay, but some senior academics have a view of ‘I didn’t ask you, so I don’t want to know’, which makes you feel like you have to hide it.
It’s taken guts to ‘come out’ professionally, partly because of an almost ingrained concept that being LGBTQ+, or expressing that, is somehow unprofessional.
What advice would you give to an 8-12 year old girl if they’re inspired by what you do?
I would say stick at it and ask lots of questions. Go to the library or to museums. There’s lots of cool stuff on YouTube, too.
For slightly older kids there are websites like 500 Women Scientists or 500 Queer Scientists, with profiles that explain who they are and what they do, and how you can contact them. I'm sure they'd be massively overjoyed that somebody was interested in what they’re doing.
And how can their parents or carers support their interest? My parents stopped being able to answer my questions when I was about 10! So from my experience, I’d say take your kids to the library, or find local societies or interest groups. There's a website called Meetup where they’re listed. They might be open to parents going along with their kids, and they should know more about the local resources as well.