Hannah Wakeford just finished her PhD at the University of Exeter and is about to start her new Postdoctoral position at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center this August . She is an astrophysicist studying the atmospheres of exoplanets, planets that orbit other stars than the Sun, through observations of their transmission spectra. Catch Hannah on her Soapbox Near Princesshay Square, Exeter City Centre, on June 13th 1-4pm, where she will be talking about “Exploring alien planets”. Her talk is sponsored by the Science & Technology Facilities Council (STFC).
SS: Hannah, How did you get to your current position?
HW: I followed a very direct path to my current position. In fact I have never left school since I was 4 years old, which is strange to think about. I selected my GCSE’s and A-Levels based on what I wanted to do and got a scholarship place at the University of Wales: Aberystwyth to study for my MPhys with a semester of field research at the University Center in Svalbard (UNIS) for my 4th year. During my 3rd year I started looking at PhD places and worked out what I wanted to do and where I could do that. I then applied and was accepted at the University of Exeter to do my current work on exoplanet atmospheres with Dr. David Sing. Now that I have finished my PhD I will be moving on to start a NASA Postdoctoral Position at Goddard Space Flight Center in August to continue my research for the next 2-3 years.
SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science?
HW: I would love to say it was one of the many amazing women in the history of science and discovery, but as a child I was unaware of the fantastic achievements that have paved the way for us working today. Now I am aware of them and they continue to drive my inspiration. My direct inspiration mostly came for my teachers at school who just let me work things through in my own way. But my main inspiration will always be stemmed in the TV show Stargate SG1 and the character of Sam Carter played by Amanda Tapping, work hard and don’t take no for an answer. So I think I still follow that principle.
SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research?
HW: I am looking at 1% of 1% of light that has passed through the atmosphere of a planet orbiting a star hundreds sometimes thousands of lightyears away. These planets are so strange it is truly hard to imagine them. If we had a hot Jupiter in our solar system it would shine thousands of times brighter than venus right next to the sun as it rises and sets. What is not fascinating about that?
SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place?
HW: Soapbox science is a new way of communicating to an audience for me. I am used to communicating science on the radio or through film which although it to the audience and shared with them there is no direct interaction. Unlike exhibition events like the big bang it is a very different way of talking so it is something new and challenging for me so should be lots of fun.
SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day – excitement? fear? thrill? anticipation?
SS: If you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be?
HW: Remove the fear. Science is still a feared word by many. It signifies something complex and specific that takes years of training to understand and accomplish. But so does being an artist, or a racing driver, still people try their hand at it everyday. Why not give science a go. I doesn’t even require any equipment just a simple path of logic and observation. So I would like to remove the fear, make it fun, make it interesting, make it simple.
SS: What would be your top recommendation to a female PhD student considering pursuing a career in academia?
HW: Go for it. If it is something that you want to do nothing should be stopping you. You just need to look at the female scientists throughout history to the present day to see that we all carve our own path sometimes in-spite of what others think. Be confident in yourself, turn the negative into a positive, and take everything as a learning experience.