Never let that enthusiasm go: Meet Taniya Parikh

Now in the second year of her PhD at the Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation (University of Portsmouth), Taniya Parikh initially studied an MSci Physics at Imperial College London (4 year degree with integrated Masters), specialising in Astrophysics. Her research focusses on early-type galaxies, searching for trends between galaxy mass and radius. Make sure you come along to Soapbox Science Brighton on July 29th to hear more from Taniya and her “galactic tale: from a cloud of gas and dust to billions of stars”.


SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research/work?

TP: Every day I am working on data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey MaNGA experiment, which observes thousands of galaxies. Each galaxy is a collection of billions of stars, the light from which left a hundred million years ago to travel for ~100,000,000,000,000,000,000 miles (that’s 20 zeros!) just to reach us. Research in Astrophysics is driven by our curiosity to learn more about – not just our planet or solar system or even our galaxy, but our entire Universe – and it is exhilarating to play a small part in uncovering these mysteries.


SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science? 

TP: In Year 9 I became interested in cosmology, and physics in general, after reading a book by Simon Singh called Big Bang, which is  about the accepted theory of how our universe came into existence. I read more books (The Elegant Universe – Brian Greene, In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat – John Gribbin), went to see Brian Cox at an Uncaged Monkeys show (where Simon Singh signed my copy of his book and wrote an inspiring message!) and my fascination for astrophysics grew. My secondary school and A-level physics teachers (shout-out to Mr. Stone and Mr. Makepeace!) nurtured this interest and encouraged me to pursue this subject in my further studies.


SS: How did you get to your current position?

TP: After studying physics at undergraduate level, a PhD felt like the natural next step for me. After some unsuccessful applications for a PhD project in cosmology, I had applied for a summer internship at the University of Portsmouth with Dr. Westfall, where he showed a vested interest in my long-term career, encouraged me to apply for a PhD at Portsmouth and then went on to become one of my supervisors! I couldn’t imagine doing anything other than research and I am fortunate enough to be able to do so at the University of Portsmouth, working with experts on exciting research in a friendly and stimulating environment.


SS: Research in STEMM is becoming increasingly multi-disciplinary. Which STEMM (science, tech, engineering, maths, medicine) subjects do you use in your work? In particular, how does maths play a role in your research?

TP: An an observational astrophysicist, my daily tools include applied mathematics and computer science. Calculus, trigonometry and statistics are just some branches of maths which I use regularly in my work. There is particular focus on calculating and propagating uncertainties as these determine whether a result is statistically significant. Programming is one of the most crucial parts of my work and it allows me to carry out the analysis I need, in a short amount of time. With the use of big data, code and supercomputers, scientists can compute and store vast amounts of results – something which would have been impossible just a few decades ago.


SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place – and why Brighton? 

TP: It sounded like a very fun and unique way to engage with the public, while at the same time build my own confidence and get excited about my research all over again. It will also provide me with a unique platform to promote science among families and kids. My university is part of SEPnet (South East Physics Network) and the idea of a science pop-up at Brighton seafront where I could present my own research seemed too good to miss!


SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day – Excitement? Fear? Thrill? Anticipation?

TP: Buzzing!


SS: If you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be?

TP: I would try to make it easier for everyone coming into this field to consider building a career here, if they wish to. There is some fear and negativity about progression in academia – due to positions being highly competitive and the likelihood of a string of temporary roles in different countries before reaching faculty level. This is perhaps one area where more support and encouragement could be offered.


SS: What would be your top recommendation to a female PhD student considering pursuing a career in academia?

TP: I am a second year PhD student so I’m trying to figure this out myself! Along with passion for the work you’re doing and the determination to succeed, it’s very important to network during conferences, present results to the wider scientific community and collaborate with people whenever the opportunity arises – it might just be your future employer that you’re talking to.


SS: What words of encouragement would you give to children who might be interested in a career in science?

TP: Never let that enthusiasm go and take your interest further in every way you can. Watch documentaries, read popular science books and look for inspiration from your family, teachers and role models.

With science, there can be no limit to your imagination. An idea can turn into an experiment which can give new results and lead to us understanding the world around us a little better. A scientist will always retain that childlike wonder and curiosity which got them interested in science in the first place.

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