Amy Rankine is a PhD candidate in the Institute of Astronomy and a member of Clare Hall. Here, she tells us about being the first in her family to go to university, why she decided to pursue an academic career, and how the brightest things in the universe affect the formation of galaxies. 

I first developed an interest in astronomy at high school during a project run by the University of St Andrews. I grew up in a small town on the East coast of Scotland, not far from St Andrews and so my high school was involved in the University’s First Chances project. The project was for pupils from the local area who would be the first in their family to go to university. I chose to investigate the different methods used to detect planets outside our Solar System and by the end of the project, I had decided that I wanted to study astrophysics at St Andrews. After graduating from university in 2017, I moved down to Cambridge to start my PhD in Astronomy.

Choosing to study for my PhD at Cambridge was the best decision I could have made.  The Institute of Astronomy is an extremely friendly, welcoming and inspiring place to work, with an array of research taking place — on exoplanets, star formation and galaxy evolution to name just a few areas. This really helps me to explore different ideas when it comes to my work; because I can speak to so many passionate researchers who each have a fresh perspective and their own expertise. Through my supervisors, I have access to international collaborators which will hopefully help broaden my career prospects in the future. I’m still considering what career path I want to take, but through my PhD, I hope to develop the skills to successfully transition into a postdoctoral researcher position, or into industry.

In my research, I investigate the relationship between galaxies and the supermassive black holes that sit at their centres. Hot gas swirls around the black hole before it reaches the event horizon, and just as hot metal shines red or even white, and stars shine bright, this hot gas emits a lot of radiation. We call these objects active galactic nuclei (AGNs) and some of them are the brightest objects we see in the Universe — so bright that they can outshine the rest of the host galaxy. I want to explore how the brightest of these objects (quasars) affect their host galaxies and investigate their role in galaxy evolution throughout the history of the Universe.

I spend most of my time writing code to analyse observations of these bright AGNs. At the moment, I work mostly with quasar spectra which tell us how much of different wavelengths of light is emitted by the quasars. The spectra can tell us a lot about the quasar; for example, how massive the black hole is. I also read a lot of scientific papers and attend talks at the Institute of Astronomy to keep up to date with my field and to satisfy my interest in other areas. I’ve given talks at international conferences which are also important in astronomy for sharing our work and forming collaborations.

A key moment for me was completing a summer research project during my undergraduate degree. I was awarded funding from the Royal Society of Edinburgh to complete the Cormack Vacation Scholarship, which allowed me to undertake a six-week research project. This was my first experience of research, and the project really opened my eyes to the possibilities of a career in academia. My project won the Cormack Undergraduate Research Prize, and the whole experience helped me decide to do a research degree. Beforehand, I didn’t think that research was something that I wanted to do, but after thoroughly enjoying the project I decided that a PhD was my next step.

There shouldn’t be anything that prevents anyone from following their passion.  My advice to any woman thinking about pursuing a degree or career in a STEM discipline would be to go ahead and do it! I was lucky enough to have a lot of support at home and at school but I know this isn’t the case for everyone. Reach out to other women in your chosen field and don’t be afraid to ask about opportunities open to you.

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