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Anna Scaife

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Following her participation at a recent Girls Night Out’ outreach event organised at Jodrell Bank and supported by the SKA, we talked to British radio astronomer Dr. Anna Scaife about her work.

Anna is head of the Jodrell Bank Interferometry Centre of Excellence at the University of Manchester and Director of Business Engagement & Innovation for the School of Physics & Astronomy. She holds a European Research Council Fellowship, which supports her group’s work investigating the origin and evolution of large-scale cosmic magnetic fields. In addition, she runs a number of projects in technical radio astronomy research and development as part of the SKA. Earlier this year she became the UK Chair of the nascent UK-Africa Data Science Network, a training network set-up to support human capital and economic development in Southern Africa.

Tell us more about your background. How did you get into astronomy?

By accident. I spent most of my childhood wanting to be an archaeologist, but somehow I ended up as a radio astronomer. I was never particularly excited by more traditional optical astronomy. Stargazing always seemed like a somewhat cold and uncomfortable way to spend the evening! [laugh] However, the first time I had the opportunity to work with a radio telescope, I was hooked. The idea that the sky is full of structures that are invisible to our eyes, but that can be mapped using radio waves is amazing to me. I find the radio Universe to be far more exciting than the visible Universe!

You’re working on cosmic magnetic fields, which is one of the key science objectives of the SKA. Why is it important to study them?

“The argument in the past has frequently been a process of elimination: one observed certain phenomena, and one investigated what part of the phenomena could be explained; then the unexplained part was taken to show the effects of the magnetic field. It is clear in this case that, the larger one’s ignorance, the stronger the magnetic field.”

Lodewijk Woltjer, 1966

Magnetic fields are one of the most elusive components of the Universe. We can’t detect them directly, so we have to look at the effect that they have on other things in order to study them. But just because we can’t see magnetic fields doesn’t mean they aren’t important. We now know that magnetic fields are present in almost every place in the Universe: large-scale fields intersperse the gas in our own Milky Way, and contribute significantly to the turbulent motion of gas between galaxies; magnetic fields affect the evolution of all astrophysical systems – from the vast cosmic web that binds together intergalactic matter over cosmological distances, down to the smallest scales, where they are essential for the onset of star formation.

In spite of how important magnetic fields are, we know embarrassingly little about them. Without understanding magnetic fields, how can you understand the Universe? There is a great quote from Lodewijk Woltjer that symbolises this in my eyes.

In 2014, you were selected by the World Economic Forum (WEF) as one of thirty scientists under the age of 40 for your contribution to advancing the frontiers of science, engineering or technology in areas of high societal impact. That is very impressive. Tell us more!

It was pretty exciting. The WEF supports an international community of Young Scientists, who are selected annually. I found it fascinating to meet these other scientists from across a broad range of disciplines, but perhaps even more so to have the opportunity to participate in debates with leaders in other areas – politics, business and philanthropic. By throwing all of these people together, the WEF gives you a great perspective on your own role in the world. You come away with a renewed sense of purpose and a head full of ideas. I have certainly learned more from the WEF than they have from me, I think!

On top of being an astronomer, you also work on the data aspects of the SKA. We often say the SKA is a Big Data project. But what potential applications are there beyond astronomy?

These days the lives of most people in the developed world are driven by data – even if they don’t realise it. We are constantly receiving and emitting data through a variety of mechanisms, be they social, commercial, medical, financial or otherwise. The art of creating actionable outcomes from these data has so violently changed the way we live our lives that it’s now known as the Big Data revolution. And this is a revolution that has only just begun – the volume, velocity and variety of the data now available to us are almost so overwhelming that the mechanisms of dealing with it need to constantly evolve.

The SKA is a project that drives that evolution. There are very few projects in science generally, not just in astrophysics, that have data sizes like the SKA. This means that, to even make it work, we need to change the way we analyse, transport and store those data. And nearly every innovation that we make for the SKA can be translated to data elsewhere. The data innovations from the SKA are likely to change the way that data is used across a wide range of applications, but most people will probably never know about it – in the same way that nearly a billion people use Wi-Fi every day without realising that it was also born out of radio astronomy.

In your opinion, what’s so special about the SKA project?

The collaborative aspect of the SKA project is very special. Radio astronomy has always hovered on the boundary between science and engineering, but the SKA exemplifies the interdisciplinary nature of that relationship.

You are involved in so many different things. How do you manage your time effectively, and how do you spend your time off, if any!?

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Anna (2nd from left) during a panel of experts on Big Data at the international EuroScience Open Forum (ESOF) 2016 conference in Manchester.

[Laugh] There’s a lot of variety in the work my job requires. It can be difficult to manage my time well and I’m not sure that I’m always successful…I often have to jump directly between very different aspects of being an academic: teaching, research, technical development, specialist engagement (public, political, industrial) and of course all the management aspects that accompany those things, including pastoral student support, grant applications, people management, budget responsibility, collaboration management – the list goes on! The most important thing I’ve learned about how to manage my time effectively is when to say no.

I find it quite difficult to switch off outside work, so I’ve developed hobbies that help me clear my mind. Given the choice, my favourite thing to do is to go trail running in the peak district. It’s so close to Manchester and the scenery is stunning. I don’t get out there as often as I’d like, but when I do there’s a noticeably positive effect on my stress levels!

You recently gave a talk about the SKA at ‘Girls Night Out’, with the aim to attract more young girls into science & engineering. Why is it important to encourage young people, and especially girls, into Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (known as ‘STEM’) fields?

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Anna giving a talk at the recent Girls Night Out outreach event at the Jodrell Bank Discovery Centre.

This is a complex question, but one simple answer is economics. The UK has a significant, and growing, skills gap in STEM. We need more people trained in science and engineering to remain competitive. Historically, girls have been discouraged from selecting careers that follow STEM paths, which restricts our resource pool unnecessarily. We need to correct that imbalance, but changing attitudes takes time and dedicated effort. Careers in science and engineering are just as rewarding for women as for men and that’s the message we need to get across.

 

 

 

See Anna in the SKA trailer promoting the project:

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