Scientist studying the aurora borealis and University lecturer
Education1990 - 1994: Bydales School, Marske-by-Sea, Redcar, Cleveland, UK; 1994 - 1996: St. Marys RC Sixth Form College, Middlesborough, UK; 1996 - 2004: Department of Physics and Astronomy, Leicester University, Leicester, UK
QualificationsPhD in Space Plasma Physics, Masters degree in Physics with Astrophysics, 4 A-levels (physics, chemistry, maths, further maths), 10 GCSEs grade A-C
Work History2012 - present: Associate Professor in the Geophysics Dept. at the University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS), Norway; 2009 - 2012: Research scientist at UNIS; 2007 - 2009: Program Manager for EISCAT in Kiruna, Sweden; 2004 - 2007: Research scientist in the Radio and Space Plasma Physics Group at the University of Leicester, UK
Current JobAssociate Professor in Space Physics at UNIS
My Work: I'm an Associate Professor in the Space Physics Research Group at the University Centre in Svalbard (www.unis.no). I use radars, cameras and rockets to see how the magnetic field of the Sun and Solar particles interacts with the Earths magnetic field and upper atmosphere (which creates the aurora borealis). This interaction is often called Space Weather. I also teach undergraduate and postgraduate courses in physics.
I work at the University Centre in Svalbard UNIS in the department of Geophysics. We are the northernmost University in the world, located on the archipelago of Svalbard (a group of Islands in the Arctic Ocean about 600 miles south of the North Pole).
My job has several parts: teaching undergraduate and post graduate students, scientific research, fieldwork to collect data for my research, science outreach to the general public and travelling to conferences to present my research to other scientists. I teach a few different subjects: ‘radar applications in space physics’, ‘upper atmospheric physics’ and ‘remote sensing and space instrumentation’. There is some more information below:
Approximately 60% of my time is spent doing research which consists of collecting and analysing data and writing scientific papers. My research looks at the effect of particles and energy from the Solar Wind entering into the Earth’s MAGNETOSPHERE. The magnetosphere is formed by the Earth’s geomagnetic field and forms a protective bubble around the Earth, shielding us from most of the particles that are flowing out from the Sun (the Solar Wind). At the POLAR CUSP region, however, the Solar Wind can penetrate into our magnetosphere.
Image courtesy of ESA (for a larger version click here )
The energy and particles then travel into different layers of the Earth’s IONOSPHERE (the upper part of the atmosphere that is ionized from about 60km to 600km in altitude). Here they can create the aurora by colliding with Oxygen and Nitrogen.
I use the EISCAT radars (EISCAT) here on Svalbard to look at temperature and density changes when there is aurora in the sky.
EISCAT Svalbard Radars
We also have another radar here called SuperDARN which can monitor how fast the ionosphere is moving (it is normally moving at about 600 meters per second but it can move at over 2km per second!).
Svalbard SuperDARN radar
Here is some data from our SuperDARN radar on Svalbard. It is showing the motion of the ionosphere at 250km altitude.
This radar forms part of a network of 35 radars located across the Earth: SuperDARN
I also use cameras to look at the colour of the aurora. The different colours (or wavelengths) tell us about the altitude of the aurora and also the energy of the particles from the Solar Wind causing it.
The Green aurora is mainly from Oxygen and the red aurora from Oxygen and Nitrogen. You can see the full spectrum of the aurora here:
On Svalbard, in winter time, we have 24 hour darkness (called the polar night). During this time we can see both the ‘dayside’ aurora (normally invisible to the naked eye due to the daylight) and the ‘night side’ aurora. The pictures below are taking with a camera with a special wide angle lens (called a fish eye lens) so we can see the whole sky.
Above: dayside aurora seen from the KHO will an all -sky camera
above: nightside aurora seen from the KHO with an All-Sky Camera
I also help to run the radars when we have rocket campaigns. This involves shooting a rocket into the aurora with lots of instruments on. These are launched by Andøya Space Centre and you can find lots of information about SOUNDING ROCKETS and the GRAND CHALLENGE on their website:
I teach on 4 courses at the University. This takes approximately 40% of my time. I am responsible for 2 of those courses, which means as well as teaching I also decide what is taught and the timetable. The information about my courses can be found here: My courses
I travel to conferences around the world to talk about my research with other scientists.
We get a lot of politicians, journalists and tv crews visiting Svalbard and many of them want to know about the research we do. I often talk to them about my research and help them understand why it is important.
My Typical Day: I don't have a typical day! In the winter season (Nov - Feb) then I spend time at the Kjell Henriksen auroral observatory (KHO) or the radar site. During the rest of my time I'm at the University teaching students, analysing data, writing science papers.
I normally get into work at the University at about 9am. First priority is to have coffee and the research group have morning coffee together. After that it can depend on if I am running experiments, teaching or working with data.
If I am teaching then I am with the students in lectures or seminars. As part of the courses that I run, the students also have a week of fieldwork so I sometimes out at the radar site, teaching the students how to run the radar.
If I am working with data then I spend my time writing computer programs to analyse it. I use the IDL and MATLAB computer languages but my PhD student uses PYTHON. A lot of the data in Space Physics is available online or from data servers.
Here is link to the realtime data from a satellite called DSCOVR which is monitoring the Solar Wind (speed in purple, density in orange) and the Suns magnetic field (strength shown in black and direction shown in red). REALTIME SOLAR WIND DATA
I use data from NASA and ESA as well as from other research groups around the world. Once I’ve analysed my data then I have to write a scientific paper detailing what I have discovered and try to get it published in a science journal so other scientists can read about it.
If I am running experiments then I am up at the radar site or the KHO. I am normally running experiments for a few weeks a year and these tend to be during the Polar night when we have 24 hour darkness. Sometimes the experiments can last for a few days and sometimes for a few hours. When I am running experiments I tend to have long work days (12 hours).
I have regular meetings with my students and also with other scientists to discuss our research projects mainly using skype or google hangouts.
How I got into this job: I did a PhD in Space Physics at the University of Leicester. Whilst I was working as a research scientist my supervisor sent me to Svalbard to run some experiments. I got offered a job working at the radar site. I then applied for a job as a researcher at the University (UNIS) here. After a few years I applied for a job as an associate professor at UNIS and I have been here ever since.
I was an undergraduate studying Physics with Astrophysics at the University of Leicester. I got a place on a 6 week summer undergraduate program in the Space Plasma Physics group at the University. (SURE). I really enjoyed working in that research area with the radars so I applied to do a PhD in the group when I finished my undergraduate degree. A PhD is a 4 year study program where you work on a single research project. After the end of the 4 years you produce your PhD thesis which details all your research findings. You have to sit an oral exam (which generally lasts a few hours) where you answer questions about your research. If you pass then you are now a ‘Doctor of Philosophy’ or PhD.
After I finished my PhD in 2004 I stayed on at the University of Leicester as a research scientist. During my time there I was sent to Svalbard to run some experiments using the upper atmospheric radars (operated by a company called EISCAT). I was offered a job to work for EISCAT as a program manager and scientific support person. I left the UK in 2007 and moved briefly to the EISCAT headquarters in Kiruna (Sweden) and then to Tromsø in Norway (another radar site). I then applied for a job as a research scientist at UNIS in 2009, working with radar systems. After a few years of doing that I applied for a position as an Associate Professor at UNIS. I have been in that position since 2012.
What's the best thing you've ever done in your career?
Seeing the total solar eclipse on Svalbard in 2015 from a dornier 10 aircraft at about 10000ft. We had removed some of the seats and rigged up a camera to observe the eclipse from the side of the aircraft. The backdoor of the aircraft was thus open whilst we were flying!
What advice would you give someone who wants to be in the same career as you?
To start with you have to have A-levels in Physics and Maths (and generally another science subject). You need a University degree in physics and a then a PhD (in total you will be in education until you are in your mid - late 20s although you do have a salary when you are studying for your PhD). If you are looking at different Universities to do your undergraduate degree then I would encourage you to ask lots of questions and go to an open day. See what type of research they do at the University. It's always better to go to a University where there is a lot of good research going on in the field you are interested in. I had never heard of Space Physics when I was at school or college. I started out wanting to be an astronomer but I found (through the summer undergraduate program) that I much preferred space physics. I would also say that if you want to be a research scientist then you have to be prepared to take short term contracts in your 20s and early 30s (3 - 4 years in length). This means you often have to be prepared to move to a different city or country to get a new job. The general career ladder is that you will do 2 or 3 short term contracts before getting a permanent job (such as a professor or associate professor position)
What do you see as your next step in your career?
I can apply for a promotion to become a full Professor.
What other sorts of jobs can you do with your qualifications?
Having a physics degree makes you very employable across a wide range of careers. I have expertise in mathematics and computer programming as well as teaching. Friends who also have a similar degree now work in finance, tech companies, teaching, software development.
What's the best part of your current job?
I have a lot of freedom in my job as I get to decide on what I want topics I want to research. I also enjoy teaching the students about space physics.
What don't you like about your current job?
A flip side of my job is that I have to compete with other scientists in the country to get money to do my research. I have a basic salary (paid by the University) but if I want to buy equipment or employ a researcher to help me with my projects then I have to apply to a research council. My application is competing with other applications and sometimes it can be disheartening when your project does not get funded.