North Leamington School, 1997 – 2004
2004 – 2007 University of Edinburgh, BSc (Hons) Physics, 2009 – 2010 University of Surrey, MSc Space Technology and Planetary Exploration, 2011 – 2014 Open University, PhD Planetary Science
I worked as a barman while I studied in Edinburgh and have had a few bar jobs around the place. I also worked in a school for a while.
Research Student, Planetary Science and Space Research Institute
Open University, STFC
Favourite thing to do in my job: Looking at the amazing images that come back from space probes throughout the solar system. They never fail to amaze me—my current favourites are the ones coming back from HiRise on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The level of detail on these photos is utterly amazing (it can make out features 25cm across!) and show some of the most weird and wonderful terrain you could image. If you want to check some out, they’re available here http://hirise.lpl.arizona.edu/
I’m helping to develop one of the instruments designed to look at the atmosphere of Mars that will (hopefully) fly there on the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, as well as simulating some of the processes going on in the atmosphere to work out what we’ll see.
My work takes a couple of different slants. I’m one of the team working to building the UVIS instrument, which is part of a mission designed to look for methane in the atmosphere of Mars.
The mission is called the Trace Gas Orbiter and is meant to be launched to Mars as part of the European Space Agency’s ExoMars programme (though you might have seen in the news that this isn’t looking too hopeful 🙁 ). I do various jobs like building parts and testing things in the lab. This brings in a lot of aspects of space engineering; thermal, electrical, structural and much more, which is great because the work is really varied.
UVIS is a spectrometer that looks at the ultraviolet and visible part of the electromagnetic spectrum. A spectrometer is just some equipment that splits the light up into its different parts and allows you to look at how the different wavelengths of light are affected.
If we look at the atmosphere of Mars, some of the light is absorbed by different gases. Each gas absorbs different parts of the spectrum, so when we look at Mars we would like something like this:
The dips in the spectrum correspond to different gases (which are helpfully labelled in the diagram!). So in this spectrum we can tell that there is water and methane in the atmosphere of Mars.
The other side of my research is trying to understand processes that happen between the surface and atmosphere of Mars. There are a few people in my office looking at this. For example, one is trying to model how dust devils happen on Mars, one is looking at how we can detect molecules that might be a sign of life and one is doing experiments to see where little microbes might be able to survive underground.
My particular area is working out how methane could be released or removed from the atmosphere. We can see that there is methane on Mars, but no one really knows how it got there. Since most of the methane on Earth is released by living organisms, it would be really exciting if methane pointed towards life on Mars! This means I get to use some pretty fancy environmental chambers to try and simulate what it’s like on Mars and examine the processes that might be involved.
The kind of things I use are big vacuum chambers that we suck all the air out of and cool with liquid nitrogen to make more like Mars. Then I’m going to stick some pretend Mars rock in (we don’t have any of the real stuff!) and do a variety of experiments to see how it behaves.
My Typical Day
The best thing about my job is that there is no typical day!
Sometimes I might be in the lab all day or I might have to go in at regular intervals to check on an experiment. Sometimes I spend all day writing reports or I can also spend all day reading (both unfortunately necessary parts of science). A lot of the time I have random little jobs to do or problems to work out how to solve. Most days are a mixture of all of the above, or sometimes I get to go to interesting events, do talks, meet other interesting people and everything else between.
My project is a nice mix of physics, chemistry, biology, geology, engineering and a few other bits, so if I get a bit bored of one particular aspect I can drift to one of the different parts and look at that for while.
The only really constant things are a cup of tea in the morning to help my brain work and every so often printing off amazing pictures of Mars to add to our office wall!
What I'd do with the prize money
I want to turn YOU in to space scientists. The money would help me build a pack to use in schools so you guys can design your own space missions.
I’ve been playing around with an idea for a series of events to run in a school.
It would involve going through the process of designing a space mission with a class (or year (or any other)) group. And I mean the whole process – we would choose the mission, research requirements, design it from the ground up, learning about the different factors all the way through.
I would use the money to buy research materials, model rockets, stationery and things like that, then try them out at some schools.
If you want a sneak peak of what it could be like, download this “simulation program” and have a go at designing a rocket and getting it into orbit http://kerbalspaceprogram.com/ (I didn’t make this, but I’d like to use it with you guys!)
The money would finally stop me having an excuse not to get it sorted!
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Versatile, curious, chilled out
What's the best thing you've done in your career?
Held a bit of Mars.
Were you ever in trouble at school?
I used to do some pretty stupid stuff every so often and was bad at not getting caught, but I guess I wasn’t such a bad kid.
Who is your favourite singer or band?
Varies a lot depending on my mood! At the moment I’d have to say Wilco. You can see what I listen to here http://www.last.fm/user/Boffinboots
What is the most fun thing you've done?
Scuba dived in the crystal clear waters are Comino in the Mediterranean
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
See sunset on Mars. Go diving in the Antarctic (yes, I’m a bit mad). In a slightly more altruistic way, I wish that people would pay more attention to big issues like the environment and how the country is run, and that they would try and fix them.
Tell us a joke.
Most of my jokes are pretty dirty, so I can’t post them here… so you’ll have to settle for a terrible physics joke: ‘A barman says “Sorry, we don’t serve superluminal particles in here.” A neutrino walks into a bar.’ Told you it was terrible. If you want a bonus one, What do you get if you cross an elephant and a rhino? Elephino!