Tech Trailblazers

Tech Trailblazer: Saskia Schlagenhauf

  • Role: PhD student in Astrophysics at Armagh Observatory and Planetarium

    What does your typical day look like?

    A typical day starts with a walk to the office. This takes about half an hour, and I spend it listening to music, podcasts and audiobooks. At the office, the first thing I do is read e-mails and MS Teams messages and check my calendar to see if I have any meetings or seminars scheduled.

    Every day is different as the tasks of a PhD student are pretty diverse. I could be doing anything from reading scientific papers, to analysing data from telescopes, to preparing outreach talks and more.

    What are you currently working on?

    Currently, I am preparing my differentiation, which is a big step for every PhD student. In about a month, I will have to present the first written work about my PhD project which is focused on the search for planetary nebulae, a common end state of stars that also exists in galaxies outside of our Milky Way.

    What inspired you to join this company in particular?

    Before applying for this position, I had joined Armagh Observatory and Planetarium during lockdown for a remote International Association for the Exchange of Students for Technical Experience internship.

    This gave me a great insight into what the other PhD students are doing. What especially impressed me was how closely the researchers work together with the Education team and the fact that students are also given the chance to explain their research to the public.

    Armagh Observatory and Planetarium covers a broad range of research topics within Astrophysics. Set within a heritage environment that is rich in scientific history, the organisation provides a place where the story of humanity’s ongoing quest for understanding about the cosmos can be seen and experienced.

    Did you always want to work in this industry?

    The short answer is no. I remember when I was reaching the end of my A-levels, we got a booklet that introduced every course of study you could do in Germany. I marked every course that I fancied as a future career and when I was done every second page of that book was marked.

    So, for me the problem was not to choose one industry but to reject everything else.

    What’s your favourite part about your work?

    Solving a puzzle. Making something work and understanding connections is really rewarding. Also, finding answers to questions that you cannot simply Google because no one has answered them yet, is just amazing.

    What would you say to other people considering a job in this industry?

    Go for it! By studying a STEM subject, you will learn a lot of useful skills and gain a better understanding of the universe we live in. Furthermore, research and technology will always be around us and qualified people are needed in those fields.

    How do you see this technology impacting our lives?

    Astrophysics often seems to be just about the pretty pictures, but it is actually a lot more. The things that impact us most daily are probably time and calendar adjustments.

    For example, the Earth takes slightly more than 24 hours to rotate around its own axis in relation to the sun, but our clocks mark time to exactly 24 hours. To account for that we need to introduce leap seconds. The last one of these was on the 31st of December 2016, a day which was 24 hours and one second long. Another challenge is that Earth’s rotation is changing over time and astronomers have to monitor this evolution.

    One topic that could become important in our lifetime is planetary defence. Astronomers are constantly tracking the orbits of comets and asteroids that pass by close to us and could possibly hit Earth. The earlier we know of a potential threat the more time we have to react.

    Who inspired you to work in this field?

    There is no definite answer to this. I decided to study physics because I was interested in the subject and because I had good grades in Maths.

    What do you consider to be the most important tech innovation or development in recent years?

    One of the most impressive technological achievements I have seen in recent years was the picture of the surroundings of the black hole in the centre of our Milky Way.

    We can see the sun, which is the central star of our solar system, with our naked eyes. However, we are part of a much bigger system: our home galaxy, the Milky Way. To see the centre of the galaxy, we need to harness data analysis gleaned from a network of radio telescopes that are distributed all over the world.

    What tech gadget could you not live without?

    I have to go for the obvious answer here - my phone. I use it as an alarm clock, to listen to music, to watch videos, and to stay in contact with friends and family. There is just no other device I use that often.

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