From identifying satellites through a telescope as a child to using the data they collect to measure spinning stars: Meet Heidi Thiemann


Heidi Thiemann is finishing the first year of her PhD at The Open University. Her research focuses on creating a cross-match between observations of stars that vary in brightness in the optical and X-ray wavelengths to study the relationship between how fast a star spins and the X-rays it gives out. From this, she will use machine learning to detect even more of these variable stars.

You can see Heidi on a soapbox as part of Soapbox Science Milton Keynes on 30th June where she will talk about: ‘stellar ballerinas’ – how studying the way stars pirouette and spin. Her studies can help us answer some big questions: What is going on inside a star? Should we be paying more attention to how our star, the Sun, affects our everyday life?


Follow Heidi on Twitter: @heidi_teaman


SS: How did you get to your current position?

HT: I’ve always loved space but having spent time flying both as a hobby and in the Air Cadets as a teenager, I didn’t know whether to study Physics or Aerospace Engineering. What swayed me was probably spending summers at Space School UK, and in the end the best route for me was to study a degree in Physics with Space Science and Technology at the University of Leicester. During my combined undergraduate and master’s degree, I got to grips with using astronomical data to look for exoplanets, that is planets outside our solar system, and to study the brightness changes in galaxies (flux variations in an Active Galactic Nuclei). In a nutshell, I loved learning about astronomy.

After my degree, I considered two routes: industry or academia, and this time I applied for both PhDs and graduate jobs. Happily, I was offered a PhD studentship at The Open University in 2017, and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it so far.

I’m researching the rotation-activity relation, or the relationship between how fast a star spins and the X-ray light it gives out, with the aim of producing a new catalogue of stars which we can use to study this relationship because there could be millions that we don’t know about. In the next step of my research, I’ll be using machine learning to search for even more stars which show this relationship. It’s an important relationship, and it could contribute to our understanding of the inside of stars, helping us to understand our Sun better.


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

HT: When anyone asks me why I’m an astronomer, I always jokingly blame an old family friend. At the age of 11 or 12, a friend’s dad showed me how to use a telescope and how to identify satellites in the night sky. From then on, I developed a love of space, got my own a telescope, and headed off to Space School UK. As a teenager, I planned on being an astronaut, and it’s still a dream for me!

But, even before I was introduced to astronomy, I remember firmly blu-tacking a poster of the Beagle 2 mission to my side of the bedroom I shared with my sister. I was pretty upset when two of the spacecraft’s solar panels failed to deploy, and it was lost for over 10 years until a photograph from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter rediscovered the unlucky spacecraft.


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

HT: The most fascinating thing about my work is maybe the thing I take for granted every day: the data. When I’m working with rows and rows of numbers, it’s very easy to forget that the data comes from a satellite in space, thousands of kilometres away – its journey to my computer is really impressive!

In April, I visited mission control at ESOC (European Space Operations Centre) in Darmstadt where ESA’s astronomical spacecraft are controlled. I got to meet the people controlling the satellite whose data I use every day – that was a great way of seeing the human side of astronomy and it really made me appreciate where my data comes from.

And it’s also the people that make the work so fascinating. Every person in research has a unique bit of science they’re working on – they have so many stories to tell about their work and their path into research.


SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place?

HT: Outreach and public engagement is something I’ve always got involved in – since science aims to make people’s lives better, it’s important to me that us scientists share our work with the public, otherwise what’s the point in doing research? Friends had spoken at previous events and I was inspired by how much they enjoyed it.




SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day

HT: Fired-up!


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

HT: I’d like to see more collaborations between science and the arts, in something we call ‘STEAM’ – Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Maths’. The world we live in doesn’t have a clear divide between science and art, and I think these two disciplines could learn a lot from each other.


SS: What would be your top recommendation to a woman studying for a PhD and considering pursuing a career in academia?

HT: Find a mentor! I always thought mentoring and peer-to-peer mentoring was one of those fad ideas until I got the chance to spend time with a mentor. They don’t have to be in your field, but it’s so incredibly valuable to have someone with which you can float ideas, get constructive feedback, or get a reality check or some mental health advice from.

It’s also a great time to go into science – there’s so many opportunities to meet and collaborate with the most interesting people and travel across the world. And you’ll pick up more skills than you’ll know what to do with, so if you decide that academia isn’t for you in the long run, you’ll be able to move into industry.

And I couldn’t end without a quick astronomy plug. It’s a new age of huge astronomical surveys and multi-messenger missions, and you might just be working on discovered Earth-like exoplanets or detecting gravitational waves from new sources!

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