Deanna Matthews - PhD student in Astrophysics

Deanna Matthews
Deanna Matthews

Tell us about yourself.

I was born 26 long years ago in Melbourne, where I am still based. I guess you could say I am the odd one out in my family as no one else has ventured into the weird and wacky world of science.

Where did you go to school and how did you get into astronomy?

I spent my undergraduate and honours years at La Trobe University in Bundoora, enrolled in the Bachelor of Science (Space Science) degree. At the end of VCE I knew I wanted to do either astrophysics or archaeology (there is a link there somewhere), eventually deciding to go with La Trobe because they had a dedicated Space Science degree. I remained at La Trobe to undertake my PhD and was lucky to be granted co-supervision by ATNF.

What does being a PhD student involve?

The life of a postgraduate is pretty good! There is definitely a lot of work to be done (most of which isn't easy) and so much to learn, but the experiences and adventures you have along the way are worth the slog. Meeting other students, postdocs and researchers, whether it be through ATNF or at conferences, has been the best part of my PhD. You make friends all around Australia and get to see many different places.

There is also the opportunity for International travel. In April I attended a workshop in Vienna, after which I travelled around Austria, Germany and the Czech Republic. There is a definite need for strong self-discipline - which I have been known to lack. You have three years to complete a PhD thesis and time does tend to get away from you!

Deanna with fellow astronomy students at a conference dinner
Deanna with fellow astronomy students at a conference dinner. Conferences are important as they provide an opportunity for scientists and students to meet, discuss their latest research, network and socialise.

What is the subject of your PhD Thesis?

I am investigating the Magellanic Stream for my PhD project. Orbiting our Milky Way Galaxy are two dwarf galaxies known as the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds (LMC and SMC). Since our Galaxy is so much bigger than the Magellanic Clouds its gravity has pulled a large amount of matter off the Clouds resulting in a huge ribbon of neutral hydrogen gas trailing their motion.

Using the Australia Telescope Compact Array in Narrabri we have observed the Stream from its beginning at the SMC and Magellanic Bridge (a bridge of gas, molecular clouds and stars joining the SMC and LMC) to the equator. Half of the observed field is shown with the SMC at the bottom left. The beginning of the Stream is a clumpy and filamentary complex web of gas exiting the SMC and Bridge at high velocities (250 km/s in the Local Standard of Rest frame). Further along, the Stream can be seen to separate into two distinct filaments which appear to twist about each other.

There are two main theories for how the Stream formed. The Tidal Model, which sees gas stripped off the clouds by the Milky Way's gravity, and the Ram Pressure Model, where gas is ripped off the clouds (through direct interactions) as they pass through the Milky Way's Galactic Halo (kind of like a ball of gas passing through a dense medium, a bow shock is created and the material stripped off is left behind).

My job is to try to figure out exactly where the web of gas and two filaments came from, how they are different, and how they will evolve. To do this we are looking at the structures present in the gas, how turbulent the gas is, how fast the gas appears to be moving, and any variations in velocity and structure along and across the Stream.

The Magellanic Stream
The Magellanic Stream

What does a typical work day involve?

My typical workday varies immensely depending on where I am. A normal uni or ATNF day is spent at my computer analysing my Magellanic Stream data, working on my thesis, chatting with supervisors, and wondering what on Earth I am doing here! A "normal" day at a telescope involves staying awake all night while observing and trying to get work done. Trying not to eat too much chocolate or watch DVDs can a little tough though!

Deanna observing on the Parkes radio telescope
Deanna observing on the Parkes radio telescope. She is in the observer's control room in the tower of the telescope.

have you discovered anything?

Have I discovered anythin? Well I guess I would say no. Although our observations of the Magellanic Stream are the highest resolution to date giving us a detailed view of the Stream gas never before seen by astronomers. Hopefully our observations will enable us to unravel the mystery of how the Magellanic Stream formed and how it will evolve.

What is the most satisfying thing about your work?

Getting first class honours was pretty satisfying, although I am looking forward to completing my PhD.

Are there any downsides or frustrations in your work?

Many many times I ask myself what I am doing here, why would anyone want to be an astrophysicist?! I suppose that is part of the learning process and being a student. The enormous lack of knowledge you have when beginning (and throughout) your PhD is very daunting. You never think you will reach the end.

Low points are not the best times to focus on, but I would say honours year is the toughest time I've experienced. The amount of work and the pressure to get the grades to get a PhD scholarship were trying.

M16, The Eagle Nebula
Credit: NASA, ESA, STScI, J. Hester and P. Scowen (Arizona State University)
One of the gas pillars in the Eagle Nebula (M16).

What motivated you to choose a career in science and astrophysics? Were you a natural at it in school?

Most definitely not! I was not a natural in physics or maths at school or uni, working hard for every little mark. I suppose when I was little, among other "when I grow up"s I wanted to be an astronaut. This led to me enrolling in science classes at school and here I am now. I just found the images of the universe really fascinating, and when a "Starlab" came to visit our school one day I was hooked! I really enjoyed learning about all the constellations, how they came to be named, what they were, and what were all those rainbow-coloured gas bubbles in NASA images. After all, who wasn't awe-struck by Hubble's "Pillars of Creation" from The Eagle Nebula?

What do you see your career ten years from now?

Where do I see my career heading? For now I would very much like to finish my PhD! There is a lot I want to cram into the next 5 or 10 years. There are so many places to go and things to see! Hopefully I will have a job in astrophysics at some nice research institution or you never know, you may find me at a dig in Egypt!

What do you do when not at work and studying?

Life outside uni is very busy, particularly as I move between Sydney and Melbourne often. I am a member of the Melbourne Cricket Club, Melbourne Football Club and Melbourne Victory, attending as many matches as possible. I also don't mind attending a cricket match or two over the summer months.

Spending time with my family and friends when I am home is very important to me. Watching Most Haunted or old movies is a favourite pass time, as is meeting my friends at Koko Black for a chocolate fix! I also like to get outside whenever I can, be it running, tennis, swimming, skiing or going to the beach. I just like being outside. I have also been known to dabble in climbing, cake decorating, jewellery making, piano playing and sewing.

Deanna touring in Europe
Deanna skiing in Austria and visiting Neuschwanstein in Bavaria on her recent trip to Europe for a workshop. Being a PhD student is not all work.

What advice or suggestions would you make to young people considering a career in science or engineering?

The best advice I can give to anyone considering a career in science is give it a go! You will never know what you could do if you don't try. There is so much to explore in all sciences, not just astrophysic - but we get to explore the biggest things! There will be times when you think you can't do it, and when others suggest maybe you shouldn't be doing it. That is all nonsense; if you are keen and have the drive you will get to where you want to in the end.

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