Radio astronomy, instrumentation and the doctorate defense (Podcast #5)

Welcome to the GradschoolShopper podcast. In this episode, Dr. Nicole Gugliucci shares her experience as a PhD student in radio astronomy and explains the differences between astronomers and engineers working on instrumentation. She also describes what it feels like to present a dissertation, which she recently passed. (Congratulations, Nicole!)

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Are you interested in radio astronomy or instrumentation? Share your passion with others in our comments section!

Dr. Nicole Gugliucci, Radio Astronomer and Blogger (aka “The Noisy Astronomer”)

Episode Topics

  • Radio astronomy and instrumentation
  • Engineering vs. astronomy work on instrumentation projects
  • The thesis defense
  • Plans for the future
  • Advice for undergraduates who are interested in attending grad school for astronomy
  • Advice for students who just started grad school

Episode Summary

Dr. Nicole Gugliucci, oft referred to as the “noisy astronomer,” is a PhD student in astronomy at the University of Virginia, an active science communicator, and blogger for DiscoveryNews and Skepchick. Nicole just recently presented her PhD thesis defense in April 2012.

Radio astronomy and instrumentation

Nicole was a member of the project, “The Precision Array for Probing the Epoch of Reionization,” (PAPER) which involved building a low-frequency radio telescope to detect hydrogen from the very early universe.

Nicole helped build the telescope and worked on developing new techniques to do the imaging from the data acquired.

Engineering vs. astronomy work on instrumentation projects

When instrumentation is involved, engineers and astronomers work closely together and learn from one another.

In this project, the engineering grad students worked mostly on the design of the electronics and systems, as well as the testing of the instruments.

The astronomy grad students concentrated more on the data produced from the telescope, analyzing the results and optimizing the imaging techniques.

The thesis defense

First they tell you that you have 30 minutes to summarize the last 6 years of your life. And you’re like, ‘What? That’s not enough!’

The first part of the defense is a 30-minute public presentation, where you share your research with the department. At the end of the presentation, the audience can ask a few questions before they are sent away, the doors are shut, and only the committee members remain.

In this stage, the committee members begin asking you questions about your research. These questions span your entire research, from the engineering side to basic cosmology and the actual research thesis itself.

Finally, the student is dismissed and the committee remains to discuss its decision.

Nicole, of course, passed successfully. Congratulations!

Plans for the future

Nicole will start her post-doc at the Southern Illinois University Edwardsville Center for STEM Research, Education and Outreach, working primarily on the citizen-science project ,”CosmoQuest.”

There is a lot of data out there and not many eyes to analyze it. CosmoQuest is an open-source science project that invites anyone to analyze planetary data from different sources around the solar system. Through this project, people can help process the science that might lead to new discoveries. It is also a wonderful opportunity to experience what it is actually like to handle data and conduct research work in astronomy.

MoonMappers is CosmoQuest’s current project. This automated system attempts to identify craters on the surface of the moon–although it is not always entirely accurate. MoonMappers faces the challenge of both finding craters on the moon’s surface and validating those the computer finds.

Advice for undergraduates who are interested in attending grad school for astronomy

Visit your prospective grad schools and talk to students without the faculty present to get an honest and accurate perspective on what the school experience is like.

Grad school is hard and very long, and you want to make sure you’re in a place where you have support.

Advice for students who just started grad school

Relax, don’t panic! Grad school can be very hard and exhausting, especially in the beginning, but it will get better.

More Resources

Are you interested in radio astronomy or instrumentation? Share your passion with others in our comments section!


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Advice to Students

Visit the campus you’re considering and talk to current graduate students there. You want to get a real sense of what their life is like and hear their honest feedback about the school. — Gary White, director of the Society of Physics Students and Sigma Pi Sigma, Podcast Episode #3

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