Project MSc Astrophysics, Complete!

I haven’t written anything here since the end of May! I think that speaks volumes about how busy my year has been since then with getting this degree wrapped up. I am now very happy and proud to say that I have completed the LJMU MSc in Astrophysics and will be graduating with a distinction. After spending 8 years as a part-time student, this ultimate validation is unbelievably sweet. So what’s next? Some time out from formal study/academia to a) give my brain a much-needed break from the pressures of student life, b) pick up some skills I haven’t had time for alongside the degree and c) work full time for the first time in a decade. I would like to do a PhD of course, just not right now.

I should tell you however that the LJMU MSc has left me feeling like I am ready to take on a PhD, so that’s a real credit to the course. At the end of my BSc, I felt like I would feel lost at sea being thrown into independent research, but now I feel like I could handle it. A lot of this is because of an increase in confidence but also through having more experience doing research, particularly thanks to the final project.

I will probably write a scicomm style piece about my research project in the not too distant future, but I hope you’ll forgive me for not being ready to pick that work back up just yet. I like to submit/complete a piece of work and then have some closure on it for a while… I’m sure I will love the process of submitting work for publication and constant tweaks etc…
For now, I just wanted to let my readers know that I did, in fact, finish and to tell you a bit about the process at LJMU for this final part of the course.

As discussed previously, part-time students spend 2 summers on their projects in between academic years. How you spread the workload is completely up to the student with some guidance from a supervisor. I did a lot of my data gathering in year 1 and the analysis in year 2. In the second year, I had regular contact with my supervisor (Phil James) via email and weekly Skype calls. The amount of contact does seem to vary with the supervisor so this may not be typical. Once I’d completed my analysis and data processing, I wrote the report/thesis/dissertation (whatever you want to call it), which in my case was under 10000 words. The guidance is that reports will be around 10000 words but this is not a strict word count and LJMU seem to be pretty relaxed on this and also things like which referencing style or format you use. I opted to just type mine in Word but I know others that used LaTeX. I followed a typical layout of a physics paper and used Mendeley to deal with Harvard style referencing for me. I was lucky to have a project that didn’t require any coding (one of those skills I will pick up now I have time), so I didn’t need to produce anything complicated. During the writing process, I sent drafts to my supervisor for a bit of feedback and advice, then I felt ready to submit my final work 2 weeks before the deadline.
After the final work is submitted, everyone has a final viva which makes up 30% of the project marks. This was a video call with my supervisor and one other academic where I quickly summarised my work and answered questions about it. It was less demanding than a PhD viva but tougher than the usual LJMU post-exam vivas. This viva lasted about 40 minutes and was essentially to prove my work was my own and that I understood background physics related to it.

After all this, I expected a long wait for results but they were released 2 or 3 weeks after the deadline so it was a nice early surprise. I have finished with a distinction overall and now cannot wait for my graduation ceremony in Liverpool next month! The day after graduation we will have a day of students presenting their work in short talks at the ARI (optional). I’ve never been to Liverpool before, so it’s going to be really nice to finally see my university and meet the people I’ve been learning from face to face.

I realise that this post is too late to sway any newcomers to the course this year, but I really can’t recommend this course enough. If you’re looking for a part-time/distance learning Masters in Astro, this is perfect. The staff have been great to work with and learn from, the course is well presented and I believe the prospects are really good for anyone wanting to follow it with a PhD.
If you are a newbie on the course, do check out the Discord group (you can find links on Canvas discussions), it has saved my sanity on many occasions.

If you want to know about my asymmetrical extinction findings, watch this space!

The Final Countdown

Yes yes, it is the final countdown to finishing this degree! I can’t pretend I can’t wait for my holiday in Santorini after it’s all done followed by the graduation ceremony in Liverpool. But there is the small matter of my research project to handle first.

When I last posted I was getting towards the end of the Cosmology module, which is now done and dusted and I feel pretty damn good about that. I found that I was buoyed by revision and the past papers didn’t look anywhere near as scary as the weekly tutorials had, so I started to think I guess I must have learned some of this cosmology stuff after all. There weren’t many past papers to go at but I answered every single question (bar one that nobody else seemed to know what to do with either) on those past papers multiple times. I felt ready. I didn’t freak out too much in the lead up to this exam because I felt in control, which may be the first time I have ever felt that way about an exam. The paper had questions similar to ones I had practiced so I was happy with it and finished with some time to spare. There was just one question that threw me a bit, my nemesis calculus reared its head, but I got most of the way through answering it before my self doubt kicked in and I moved on. Overall I felt happy with 70-80% of the paper. My post exam viva followed and this time it was mostly up to me which questions we discussed, I mentioned the one I didn’t complete and we talked that through so I know I wasn’t far off getting full marks on it – take that calculus!

During the cosmology module I really felt like I wasn’t keeping up (I didn’t submit most of the weekly assignments), but revision consolidated it all. I am also again eternally grateful to my fellow students who I have connected with via Discord, we helped and supported each other through the revision and it paid off.

Now that all my taught modules are done, I just have my research project to finish this summer. I’ve just had a Skype call with my supervisor and even after 8 months of not working on the project, it felt like we could pick up right where we left off. I’ve got a plan of action for the next 2 weeks and then we’ll chat again, hopefully about adding some spectral analysis to my work. If you don’t remember or are new to this blog, my project title is The Impact of Extinction on Optical Emission-line Tracers of Star Formation.

I have a sample of 18 inclined spiral galaxies from the Hα Galaxy Survey (https://uhra.herts.ac.uk/bitstream/handle/2299/419/102684.pdf;sequence=1) composed of R band and Ha (Hydrogen-alpha) images. In many of these inclined spiral galaxies there appears to be asymmetry in the dust lanes of the spiral arms, so I am investigating the difference in Ha brightness (a tracer of star formation) between the two halves of these galaxies. So far I have completed photometry of all these top/bottom composite galaxies. Over the next few weeks I will repeat my photometry but over the original whole galaxy images. This will help me to quantify the potential under/overestimate in star formation rate for these galaxies. I’ve also started to get a bit further with learning some Python, which for now I just want to use to plot my lightcurves so that they look more professional than Excel graphs. 

Cosmology week 10 – Nearly done!

This will be my last mid-taught-module update. We’re in week 10 of the semester and my Cosmology exam is just over 4 weeks away (cue panic stations!).

Last time I wrote about this module, I didn’t know anything about the essay component of the examinable material. I can now tell you that it’s a 3000 word essay (word limit includes captions/tables etc, so it really isn’t much) with the title; The constituents of the Universe and the growth of structure. I haven’t started it yet, it’s due right after the Easter “break” so you all know how my bank holiday is going to go, right? I have downloaded a handful of review papers, which is almost like making a start.
As for course content, we have covered a hell of a lot since my last update. Basically everything needed to be able to write about that essay title. The module has remained maths heavy and workload heavy, with tutorials and assignment set every week.

So how’s my experience of it going? Well I’m going to be honest with you… it’s tough. I’ve found that I just can’t keep up with the assignments every week. I tried to hurry through them at first, but just ended up feeling very silly when it came to the tutorials. I have since taken to working on them more slowly, missing submission deadline and watching tutorial recordings where I can press pause and follow along slowly. This course has fascinating and enjoyable things to learn, but if you’re not a natural mathematician you may need to slow things down and work at your own pace. I am good at feeling guilty about everything, so of course I feel a bit bad for not showing up to tutorials in real time, maybe my lecturer assumes I have just checked out… But I do know that I’m not alone in needing to work this way. I’m also finding that because my lecturer is clearly a gifted mathematician (and I am not), it’s a bit like we speak different languages at times. This is also why I need to be able to press pause often and look at other lectures/resources to help myself learn. Alan Guth’s lecture series from MIT (available on YouTube) is excellent. I’ve also been reading Liddle’s An Introduction to Modern Cosmology, a basic undergraduate level book that just helps with the bigger picture when you get bogged down in calculus. I also bought Collier’s A Most Incomprehensible Thing, a book with wonderfully gentle instruction in the maths required for relativity. These things are needed as a bit of a confidence boost for me.

The good news for me, is that the past exam papers don’t look anywhere near as scary as the weekly assignments! I do have a heavy workload of revision to get on with, but I feel OK about being able to pass this time.

In general, I am getting very tired now. I’ve been studying part time (alongside working) for over 7 years. I’m looking forward to finishing this Masters and feeling like a normal person for a while. I’m looking forward to being able to go out and do things! I’m looking forward to being able to play videogames more than 2 evenings a week (I currently allow myself Sunday and Tuesday evening for FFXIV) and I am looking forward to having time to make the garden nice, keep the house clean and tidy… just simple things that I haven’t been able to prioritise for almost a decade. I am also looking forward to being able to earn a full time wage. I’d still love to get a PhD, but for now I need a rest.

Next up… Post-exam and a summer of working on my research project 🙂

MSc Astrophysics – Cosmology, the (almost) final frontier

So here I am in my final taught module of the course with just months to go before it’s all done. I have been studying part time for 7 years, wowzer!

My last update spoke about all the insecurities that exams and pushing for academic achievement can throw our way, and I am pleased that it reached some people who needed it. This month I am feeling more positive and able to own my achievement thus far. I passed that module that was my nemesis, Astronomical Techniques! I am very pleased and so so glad I don’t have to face it again. I even bought some frames to put up my Bachelor’s certificate and graduation photos… it took me a year.

My final module is Cosmology, taught by Ivan Baldry. This is an option module, so you could choose to study it or not. This is quite a heavy module with a tutorial and associated assignment every week. There are fantastic lecture notes provided and a couple of lectures to watch per week. We spent the first week or so deriving the Friedmann equations and since then have been looking at their solutions for various cosmological models. It’s quite a mathematical module and I am definitely finding it challenging, but also very satisfying when I manage to follow the maths. The Open University module The Relativistic Universe (S383) is a great preparation for this and I am revisiting those OU textbooks regularly.

At the start of this module we got to use some practical tools that are freely available. The VizieR web portal where you can access and download astronomical survey data and the software TopCat which we used to map galaxy distributions in 2-D and 3-D, as well as the produce some nice, quick plots from the survey data. We were using data from surveys including 2MASS (the 2 Micron All Sky Survey) to show the isotropy and homogeneity of the universe. I really enjoyed this task, it was quite quick and easy to pick up and work with, but yielded some nice results. I can imagine myself using this a lot in the future.

The assessment for this module is divided into an exam and an essay. I don’t know much about the essay yet, but I do know it isn’t very long. We are due to start work on this in week 8 of the module (we’re in week 5 now), so I will have more on that in my next update.

Overall I am enjoying cosmology, the content is of course fascinating and so much more my cup of tea. It’s not an easy one, the assignments really push me and I have been stuck numerous times but that’s fine when you have friends to figure things out with.

Finally for now, I would like to shamelessly promote this group I’m a part of, the UK Women in Astronomy Network. You can link up with us on:
Facebook  https://www.facebook.com/UKWIAN/
Twitter (@UKWIAN)

We’re hoping to connect and promote recognition of women astronomers, be they students, amateurs or professionals. I’d really appreciate your support!

 

Links to VizieR, 2MASS and TopCat:
https://old.ipac.caltech.edu/2mass/
http://vizier.u-strasbg.fr/viz-bin/VizieR
http://www.star.bris.ac.uk/~mbt/topcat/

Exams and Mental Health

I began writing this update on the 11th of January, 12 days ago. I put it away and didn’t post it because talking about our mental health is challenging. However, this is exactly why I have to publish this post…

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I have begun writing this on the eve of the Astronomical Techniques final exam. I won’t publish until afterwards when I can also write a bit about that experience and the module as a whole, but right now I need to let you in to another aspect of academia.
You have likely seen stories in the news about how mental health suffers in academia, you have likely felt the anxiety leading up to an exam or test, and you may know someone who suffers because they are always pushing themselves to be the very best they can be.

I believe strongly in being open about mental health. We can talk about having migraines or IBS or whatever physical ailments we might encounter in life, so let’s talk about the emotional and mental ailments too, they deserve no less attention.

I wrote in my last post that this module has not been my favourite, and I haven’t been performing well in it. 10 days ago when I started my revision, I realised I hadn’t paid enough attention to lectures this semester, was disengaged from my course and felt like I was set up to fail. It is at this critical point in a student’s year where she/he openly doubts themselves. This is often met with well wishing friends and family cheering us on, telling us we always do great, we’ve got this! But sometimes friends, we haven’t got this. Sometimes we are genuinely performing sub-par and need to knuckle down or fail. This is where I was 10 days ago.

I have been on an emotional rollercoaster since then, with a majority of downs and very few ups. I became totally overwhelmed, feeling like there was no single aspect of my life where I was in control. If you are a lucky person who has never suffered ill mental health, this might sound illogical to get into this state over such a short period of time, but it happens. The important point I am coming to, is how I got to today with much of the weight of the world lifted from my shoulders.

I reached out.

I asked for help, multiple times where necessary. This can be a hard thing to do, but it is what we must do when we are faced with a downward spiral (or maybe falling into an active supermassive black hole).
I asked for help at home, small things that mattered. I asked for help at work, suddenly an insurmountable task was cleared. I asked for help from my lecturer. I asked for help (and hopefully was able to give some small amount in return) from fellow students.
This latter is perhaps my real inspiration for writing this. I only recently discovered there is a Discord group for the LJMU Astrophysics MSc, which is an active hub of discussion with fellow students. This has been my saviour for this module, I am sure. We’ve worked through problems together, helped each other out when we’re stuck and provided reassurance to each other when we’re on the right track. This is so so so so vital for the mental health of a student, and it’s something we’re at risk of neglecting in distance learning situations.

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Fast forward to today.

I sat the Astronomical Techniques exam and you know what? I think I should have safely passed it. I won’t score well, it won’t help me graduate with the result I’d really love, but it also shouldn’t stop me from doing that. I have also had my post exam viva, another source of anxiety but I was ready to own up to the fact that I didn’t engage very well with the module this time. The viva was fine, and now this module is behind me.
I don’t want to discourage people based on my experience here, the module has taught me important lessons and given me a vital understanding of the tech that goes into producing lovely data.

What is important here, is that as distance students we must strive even more to reach out and to help one another. It is far too easy to feel isolated and alone and like you are failing, when you have nothing but your own (maybe/probably unreasonable) expectations to weigh yourself against. Let’s talk about our challenges, let’s talk about what’s going on in our brains and let’s be there for each other, then we can say we got this!

Astronomical Techniques – Half Way

Confession time. For the first time on this course, I am not having a lot of fun.

I am studying the second compulsory module, Astronomical Techniques (previously called Observational Astrophysics). This covers all of the technical detail of how detectors, CCDs, Spectrographs etc work, and knowing something about how our telescopes actually work is very important knowledge to have. I’m just not a very technical person, never have been.
During my Bachelors I bemoaned the times I had to study electronics and circuits and all that stuff… “I don’t care what these things are made of, I care what stars are made of” I cried. Well here I am again.

I must be clear, the content is not presented badly! It’s simply not my cup of astronomical tea.

Lots of people studying astrophysics come from a more techy background than me, so you may work in computing or engineering or some other field where you love to know how electronic things work. If that’s you, you will no doubt love this module.

It’s not all doom and gloom for this “I want to study space all the time” would-be astrophysicist though.
I am interested in data reduction and data analysis, which is also touched upon in this module. This week we have gone into detail on spectroscopic data reduction, which I have found interesting, and it isn’t something I have covered in so much detail before.
We also cover research skills in this module, and have a case study to write. This part comes towards the end of the module, and it’s my light at the end of the tech tunnel!

A couple of weeks ago we had a midterm test, which is worth 10% of the overall grade. This is very similar to the first part of a typical exam paper, short-ish questions. We were given some past exam papers for practice and then completed this test just like a normal LJMU at home exam. It was 1 hour long, and overall not too bad! I don’t know what my score is though.

There are tutorials every couple of weeks, with related assignments. I haven’t found the time/motivation to complete all these in time for their tutorials, but I have watched all the tutorials and worked through the assignments in my own time. These aren’t graded so there is that flexibility there.

I’m not far from the research skills part of the module, and then after that I am looking forward to getting into revision mode and getting the exam done. The next module for me is Cosmology, which I am sure I will enjoy much more.

 

Happy New Academic Year!

It’s finally that time when some of the people who I have spoken with over the last year about the Astrophysics MSc are now starting the course. If that’s you, I wish you all the best and I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

I should start with a bit of a wrap up of my Summer work. I’ve completed the task of taking photometry from all of my galaxies, after creating top/bottom half composite images. I’ve worked through 18 galaxies, so that’s 36 images. I’ve used the Starlink software to do this, which took some steep learning in the beginning. The software has done the job perfectly well, but it is mostly unsupported now and nobody seems to use it, so finding tips and support wasn’t easy. My supervisor put me in touch with a past student in the end, who had worked on the same project. Yet another reason I MUST LEARN PYTHON. The work has been interesting and quite enjoyable once I got my head around the method. In quite a lot of the galaxies I looked at, there is a definite difference in brightness (in Halpha) between the top and bottom halves of the spirals. I’ve plotted comparison lightcurves to show this, and plotted versions with the inner regions of the galaxy removed so that I am only looking at what’s going on in the spiral arms. Some galaxies have very similar lightcurves in top and bottom halves, but that’s fine too.  The job for next Summer is to try to look at some spectra for those galaxies and use the Balmer decrement to look for further evidence that star formation is not necessarily uniform. Then of course I need to write this all up into my thesis and try to draw some useful conclusions. This year I have really just crunched data and tried not to think too much about what’s going on, I’d rather gather all my measurements before I start to consider reasons for any trends.
For most of the Summer I felt like I wasn’t putting in enough time, but apparently I’m making good headway so I’ll take that. For anyone who’s wondering, I put 71.5 hours into the project over Summer. I started by trying to target myself to 7 hours a week, but wasn’t meeting that and therefore feeling bad about it. I eventually switched it up to 1 galaxy per session and this soon became 2 per session towards the end. Changing how I set my goals made me more motivated, but it is hard to keep yourself motivated when there’s no structure.

Now it’s September so it’s Semester 3 for me, and I have just started Astronomical Techniques (previously called observational astrophysics). This is the second core module that everyone has to take. I don’t have much to say about it yet, having just watched 1 lecture and completed the associated reading. It seems pretty standard LJMU though, lecture videos, directed reading, tutorials and assignments every couple of weeks. The assessment is split into exam, mid term test and case study.
This module is the technical, practical side of the course. Modules within it include Optics and Telescopes, Detectors and CCDs, Photometry and Spectroscopy, Adaptive Optics and Interferometry and Research Skills.
I am looking forward to the rest of this module, and then using what I learn to write a kick-ass thesis next year!