AQ | Q&A
Where in Australia would you call home?
I'm from the town of Mandurah in Western Australia but I studied in Perth, including my PHD with the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research at the University of Western Australia.
Where in the world are you?
I'm in Zagreb, which is the capital city of Croatia. I've been here for four years working as a postdoctoral researcher in the field of astronomy at the University of Zagreb. Croatia is an amazing country and I've really enjoyed my time here.
In a sentence can you sum up your research?
I'm a radio astronomer. I work with data from large radio telescopes to study the evolution of galaxies to try to understand how and why they have changed over the history of the universe.
What were the drivers that led you to an overseas post-doc?
I really wanted to experience working and living in another country and culture. In a relatively small field like astronomy, it was wise to cast a wide net while job searching and international experience is highly valued.
Has working overseas given you professional opportunities that you wouldn’t have received in Australia?
The biggest advantage was to create and foster strong networks with European and international researchers. This has provided invaluable collaboration opportunities, increased my exposure, and dramatically broadened by scientific expertise.
What has been the biggest surprise or most profound outcome of working OS?
The most profound outcome has been personal growth. Living in a foreign, non-english speaking country has certainly had its challenges, but it has been a defining experience. I met incredible people, experienced a different culture, learned some of the language, gained enormous appreciation for non-native speakers of English, seen beautiful parts of the world and developed independence and personal strength.
Is coming back to Australia attractive professionally?
Definitely. In the long term I see myself returning to Australia to work with the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), the Australian SKA Pathfinder (ASKAP) and the Murchison Wide-field Array (MWA).
ASKAP and MWA have already, or will soon, commence operation in Western Australia. The SKA is a longer-term project and will be constructed in both Western Australia and Southern Africa.
These galaxies are like the lighthouses of the universe. By studying them, we can understand what was going on in the universe at different cosmic epochs .
These telescopes will make Western Australia one of the world's greatest hubs of radio astronomy. That's certainly something I want to be a part of.
Who has been the most inspiring person you’ve had a chance to work with?
I've been fortunate to work with many excellent researchers, but I'm particularly humbled to have had the opportunity to work with the late Professor Steve Rawlings of Oxford University. He was a fantastic role model, an excellent radio astronomer and a driving force behind the SKA. I was lucky to have him as one of my PHD supervisors and he is sorely missed by the astronomical community.
What do you see as the future of your research area? Why should we be interested in distant galaxies?
I think the next generation of giant telescopes, such as the SKA, will completely revolutionise our understanding of the universe. They will help us see deeper into space, and therefore further back in time than ever before. This will help us detect many more distant galaxies than was previously possible.
These galaxies are like the lighthouses of the universe. By studying them, we can understand what was going on in the universe at different cosmic epochs.
Arguably, radio astronomers get to play with some of the world’s most impressive science toys. Do you have a favourite?
Working with big radio telescopes is certainly one of the best parts of the job. I definitely have a soft spot for the Parkes Radio Telescope in New South Wales. It has an enormous 64-metre dish and I'm awe-struck every time I see it.
I spent many hours there during my PHD using the telescope to detect the very faint signals of hydrogen gas in distant galaxies. It's also a movie star – featuring in the film ‘ The Dish' about the role it played during the first moon landing.
Has it been a pretty obvious and straight path to where you are now?
I have actually followed a fairly traditional path through academia, but have also devoted a lot of time to science communication along the way. I'm very glad to see institutions starting to value this sort of work and reward (or at least not penalise) researchers for taking part.
You’re quite a prolific communicator of your science. Which do you prefer more, the science or the science communication?
I think they go hand-in-hand and are equally important. After all, what's the point of producing new research and making new discoveries if no one knows about them? Science affects the daily lives of everyone, so I think it's essential for everyone to have at least a base level of scientific literacy and an appreciation of the scientific method.
Astronomy communication is a very powerful tool in this realm because many people are at least a little fascinated by the mysteries of
I’m very glad to see institutions starting to value [Science Communication] and reward (or at least not penalise) researchers for taking part.
the universe. Astronomy can therefore be used as a hook to pique interest in science, provide exposure to the scientific method and even to build trust between scientists and the general public.
If you were a science superhero, what would your powers be?
I would choose the ability to teach everyone on the planet how to think critically and independently, which is the cornerstone to the scientific method.
We are exposed to a massive amount of information on a daily basis, through TV, social media, newspapers, books and many other platforms. While this can be a good thing, it can also make it difficult to discern fact from opinion, and even from fake news and pseudoscience. I think that if more people could be trained in astute critical thinking, it just might save the world.
If you could give 1st year Jacinta some advice, what would it be?
Two things: 1) Trust yourself. You might not have the same set of strengths as others, but your particular strengths are unique and valuable to science and to the world. Have the confidence to take risks and carve out your own niche.
2) Take very good care of your mental health. Your mind is your most valuable resource so treat it with great respect. Don't view excessive stress and burnout as a rite of passage, but take active steps to manage it properly. Future you will thank you!
What’s next for you? What’s the most exciting prospect?
I'm just about to finish up my contract in Croatia and move on to an SKA South Africa Fellowship at the University of Cape Town. I'm incredibly excited because I'll be working with data from the brand new MEERKAT radio telescope.
MEERKAT will switch on in South Africa this year and is part of the next generation of enormously powerful radio telescopes that will help us to peer deeper into space than ever before.
We have little idea what we'll find out there, making these telescopes our metaphorical ships in one of humanity's greatest voyages of exploration.
I think that if more people could be trained in astute critical thinking, it just might save the world.
IMAGE: Parkes Radio Telescope