My name is Hannah Wakeford (@stellarplanet) and I have just handed in my thesis for a PhD in astrophysics at the University of Exeter. My research focuses on investigating the atmospheres of exoplanets, planets orbiting stars other than our sun in our galaxy. Though I have also spent a lot of my time alongside my studies to conduct outreach and public engagement events promoting the research being done at Exeter and by the hard working PhD students. Lucky for me Soapbox science is coming round for a tour in Exeter just before I make the big move to my next job, where I will be working at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, USA for the next two years. But first a little background.
I got interested in science when I was very young. My mother is a fan of science fiction and I always remember shows like Quantum Leap and Sliders being on the TV. But, it was not until we watched the black hole episode of the TV show Stargate SG1 that I knew I specifically wanted to be an astrophysicist. I was hooked, I needed to know everything. My father used to drive me to the local Astronomical society in Guildford and I clearly remember the first night we went out to the field with our binbags to lie on the ground and look up at the meteor shower overhead. With one of the amature astronomers say ‘now just remeber you are on a sphere floating through noting and you are currently looking down into space’. At this point everyone put their arms out to the side and grabbed the grass like they would suddenly fall off the planet. I lucky enough to go to a school with some great teachers where the science teachers in particular gave me the freedom to approach things in my own way and try things out, strangely more so than any of my english, art, or design technology teachers did.
My GCSE’s and A-Levels became an easy choice for me with media and film, and DT: resistant materials rounding out the science heavy selection. After A-Levels I moved to Aberystwyth in Wales to carry out an MPhys in Physics with planetary and space physics. But it was not about the place or the degree at that point for me it was all about where I could see my self living seperate from my family for a protracted period of time and the opportunities open to me. That and the degree sent me to the Arctic for my final year to live in Svalbard studying the northern lights and experiencing a once in a lifetime opportunity for my studies. I honestly do not know how you can resist that chance if it is there. The main focus of my studies was limited to the atmospheres of our solar system and the Suns impact on the Earth’s atmosphere. The first time that exoplanets really entered my scope as something other than science fiction was not until 2009 when the Kepler Mission was launched by NASA and it suddenly dawned on me that all of those fantasy worlds I had wished to go to while watching Stargate might actually exist in some form.
Prior to starting my PhD I knew very little about exoplanets or astronomy beyond our own solar system. I really was learning on the job, which I feel gave me a valuable perspective on everything. Investigating the atmospheres of exoplanets is still a relatively new topic in astrophysics with only a few dozen examples that have been observed in detail thus far. For my PhD research I observe the transit of these exoplanets as they pass in front of their stars. As they do this they block out a small portion of the stars light, which can be measured over time. This can tell us a lot of information about the planet and its orbit around the star. It can also reveal a lot of information about the planets atmosphere, as some of the starlight will have passed through it before reaching us at our telescope. I use this tecnique, known as transmission spectroscopy, to look for water in the planets upper atmospheres. Because the Earth’s atmosphere already contains a lot of water we have to go to space to do this, and I have been lucky enough to work with my supervisor Dr. D. Sing using the Hubble Space Telescope to do this. My thesis titled ‘Cloudy with a chance of water’ explores the composition of exoplanetary atmospheres from the detection of water vapour to investigations on the impact of clouds in the atmospheres of giant close-in planets orbiting their stars in under a week.
Soapbox science is a brilliant way to showcase the amazing work being done by scientists that the general public do not normally get to learn about. The focus of outreach so much these days is on schools and young children that the older public are neglected. My favourite outreach is to those who for some reason or another had to enter the real world and leave education behind. These people are naturally curious and passionate about learning and I hope to spark some intrigue in them as I demonstrate my work.