Students with a Global Jet Watch telescope

Students with a Global Jet Watch telescope

Katherine Blundell is a Professor of Astrophysics at the University of Oxford and a Research Fellow at St John’s College. She was the recipient of the Royal Society’s 2010 Rosalind Franklin Medal, which is awarded to an individual in recognition of their outstanding contribution to any area of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).

In honour of International Women’s Day 2016, we caught up with her to discuss her life, research, and outreach.

Why astrophysics?

I’ve always enjoyed finding things out, learning new ideas, understanding new things – that’s why I chose to do a degree in physics. The main reason for then choosing astrophysics was that it encompassed many of the areas of physics that I enjoyed, like relativity, plasma physics and electrodynamics. In addition, at the time, my boyfriend (now Katherine’s husband, physicist Stephen Blundell) was already doing a PhD in an area I was interested in. So, I was determined to do something different.

How did you get to where you are today?

I was very fortunate to have had a very supportive upbringing. There was a strong steer that you should try to be good at everything… the clear message was: whatever you do, don’t do nothing!   From that platform of freedom and encouragement, I was given the sense that things are out there to be understood, explored and enjoyed.

I did both of my degrees in Cambridge, and moved to Oxford before I finished my PhD when my husband became a Research Fellow there.  I gave myself 12 months to figure out what I wanted to do, and within that time, I managed to get my own Research Fellowship from Balliol College, followed by a Fellowship from the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851. In 2000, I became a Royal Society University Research Fellow, and that was just wonderful.

What impact did the Royal Society support have on your career?

It gave me years of academic freedom – I had the opportunity to dream big dreams. You only get that when you’re not faced with immediatism; when there isn’t the constant pressure to put out papers quickly. For me, the papers that matter are those that change the way people think, so having the time to design pertinent observations, reflect on your data, drink it in and ponder what it is telling you, are vital. It also led me to dream up Global Jet Watch, my current project.

Can you tell us more about Global Jet Watch?

It is a round-the-world telescope project designed to investigate the behaviour of matter in microquasars in our Galaxy, the Milky Way via sustained optical spectroscopy.

What’s a little unusual is that four of my five observatories are located in boarding schools, and I encourage the pupils to participate in using the telescopes. After local bedtime, I operate the telescopes by remote control to observe our target microquasars. I earnestly hope that the legacy of my project will not just lie in the astrophysical results, but in inspiring a new generation of scientists.

Why do you need multiple telescopes?

Microquasars emit radio waves and x-rays because of the black holes found at their centres. For much of my career I worked on powerful quasars in the distant universe. With Global Jet Watch, we can investigate small-scale black holes in microquasars in our own Galaxy. Because they are much lower mass than many quasars, everything happens more quickly (think about a Boeing 777 turning a corner versus a Peugeot 205 – the smaller one is much more nimble!).

This means that changes can be observed over human timescales, hours and days rather than several thousand years! But we can’t see them at optical wavelengths once the sun is out. My solution was been to set up dedicated observatories in locations around the world – Chile, South Africa, India and two in Australia – so there was always at least one of them in darkness to give round-the-clock spectroscopy of important targets.

Could you describe a moment of discovery?

Scientific advance comes from asking the right questions, locking onto something, gnawing away at it like a dog with a bone and then working towards finding the answer.

I distinctly remember one particular ‘gnawing’ phase, some years back when I was looking into the evolution and life-cycles of quasars. One evening, while making dinner I found myself puzzling, puzzling, puzzling over a question, and I had a eureka moment. Of course, in the process, I managed to massively burn dinner! I was standing over it, stirring the pot, but my mind was completely elsewhere. I think it was worth it – the work ended up in a Nature paper.

You were awarded the Rosalind Franklin prize in 2010 – what did it mean to you?

I felt very honoured!   I used the prize money to set up a two-day workshop in Oxford called Future Science Leadership Seminars, for early-career researchers. I was very honoured that the speakers included two Dame FRSs (Kay Davies and Jocelyn Bell Burnell) and a Nobel Prize winner (William D. Phillips).   80% of the attendees were female, and I made it a condition of attending that they each give a talk in two schools – one in their university city and one in their home town.  I am a great believer in “trickle down” and so was eager that many people beyond me should benefit from this award.

Do you have any advice for young women who want to enter the world of physics?

Don’t be afraid to be excellent. Make sure you are free to think.  Figure things out, be confident, ask when you don’t know, and keep learning. Most of all, make every moment matter, really, take every opportunity you can. And if you’re in a lab with shiny kit, press the buttons and figure out what they all do!