Andy – Professor of Astronomy Education and Engagement

What attracted you to this job?

I’ve never really grown up from the 6-year-old who was always asking “why?”. With this job, I can go and try to find the answers for myself – especially for questions where nobody knows the answers yet. Combine that with a fascination for space and the universe – the awesome energies and scales involved – then it makes it a perfect job for me.

What does your typical day involve?

There isn’t really a “typical” day, as the job is very varied, but I suppose I start most days checking my email and catching up on any recent journal papers (there are usually a few to at least glance at every day). After that, each day is different. Most of my research work involves analysing observations from telescopes around the world (or indeed orbiting above it) so I spend a lot of my time on the computer writing and testing software to pull every fragment of useful information out of the images. I also might be lecturing to university students or spending some time talking to collaborators or colleagues about the latest discoveries. I’m also lucky that I spend a fair bit of my time working with schools, bringing some of the excitement of astronomy to them, so I often travel around giving talks and workshops.

What gives you the most job satisfaction?

It’s the combination of discovering something new and sharing that discovery – making a breakthrough (however small) and then discussing it with colleagues, writing papers and talking to school students and even just people in the pub about it – that is an amazing feeling. That is really one of the things that distinguishes science from just research. Research is about finding out answers to questions, but science involves sharing that knowledge – with other scientists, the public, anyone at all.

What do your friends and family think about your job?

I think they are quite proud of me – my Mum always records any of my brief TV appearances – and some are perhaps a bit jealous! I have found a career that I enjoy enormously and that I am fairly good at. Since I was a very shy, awkward, geeky child, they are all rather pleased that I have turned into a successful, happy (and still geeky) adult.

Tell us more about your environment in terms of work-life balance

I suppose by many peoples standards I work quite hard, and fairly long hours, but nothing ridiculous (I rarely work weekends, for example). The important thing is that almost every bit of work I do is because I have chosen to – most of the time I am working because it is the most enjoyable thing I could be doing at that moment! There is also a lot of travel involved – going to telescopes all over the world, presenting at international conferences, meeting with collaborators, giving talks and so on. So although that can take a fair bit of time, it is always fascinating and I try to make sure that every time I go somewhere new, I take a bit of a holiday there as well as working (Hawaii and Japan are two of my favourites).

How did you get to where you are today? (i.e. qualifications and career route)

I have essentially come through a physics background. So A-Level Physics and Maths together with English Literature for variety and then onto a Physics degree at Warwick University. After that degree, I wanted to keep doing physics, but I didn’t want to specialise too much as then you loose some bits and I found it all exciting. Fortunately Astronomy makes use of all the other bits of physics, so I went on to do a PhD in Astronomy at Glasgow University. When I had finished there (and become Dr Newsam!) I wanted to continue in research and I got a post at Southampton University for about four years. Finally, I moved to Liverpool John Moores University to help set up the National Schools’ Observatory and I’ve been here ever since – now a Professor and mixing together research, teaching and outreach.

What advice would you give to someone thinking of following your path?

There are two things I have always found useful to bear in mind. Firstly, I do this because it is very rewarding and great fun, so if you also find science and the universe exciting, then this is the job for you. Secondly, it is OK to change your mind. The good thing about science (and, in my opinion, especially physics) is that the more you do, the more skills you get – communication and team-working skills, numerical and computer skills and, most importantly, very powerful problem solving skills. And anyone who can work out how to solve problems, get computers to do all the tedious bits of the solution, and then share the results with other people, can do just about anything. The more science you do, the more careers open up in front of you, so at any time, you can make a change and try something new.

How well is your job compensated? What is the starting salary for someone in your field, and how much can this be expected to rise?

Starting salaries are OK at about £23K and typically increase by about £1,000 every year. As you progress though, things can accelerate – as a newly appointed professor, for example, I earn about £60K.

Out of ‘office hours’, what lights your fire?

My main outside interest is probably theatre, particularly the small-scale, experimental side of things. As well as going to see as much as I can, I also do a bit of backstage work, especially lighting design. I’ve also recently got involved in street theatre and work with a group who go to the Edinburgh Festival each year, dress up as Victorian Butlers and offer free Butlerial services to anyone who needs us. I’m also very interested in the fringes of the music world – indeed, I’m currently working with a composer to turn astronomical observations into sound and music; a nice combination of work and play.

For a real break though, I tend to go for long, brisk walks in the hills and coast around my house, preferably in the wind and rain.

Have there been any embarrassing moments?

Yes, lots. The most public embarrassment was breathing in a fly and completely loosing my voice half-way through a live broadcast of a lecture, but probably the worst case (at least that I can mention in public) came when I first went observing in Hawaii. I was sent outside to check the weather and came back in to report a big band of moonlit cloud almost directly overhead. After a while scanning weather-satellite images and phoning around other telescopes on the mountain, we could find nothing when one of my colleagues realised that moonlit cloud is rather unlikely when the moon isn’t up. In fact, it wasn’t cloud at all, but the Milky Way (looking astonishingly bright and clear at that altitude, but still…).