As I start to make my preparations for moving my life and studies to the other side of the world, I want to take a moment to explain how I got to where I am.
My journey in physics started in earnest back in high school, when in 2008 I became involved in my school’s astronomical observatory. At the time, the observatory was underused, and some of the teachers wanted to get it students involved again. I was a fresh year 8 who had just moved to the school as part of their Ignite program for gifted and talented students which included a program of grade acceleration through years 7 and 9. I had always been interested in science, and the program gave an opportunity to do something a little different and unique. We met weekly on Thursday nights, assisted by my parents to make the extra trip down to school. At first, we were trained in using the telescopes and pointing them at basic objects in the sky, provided the clouds were behaving. However, as the years went on, we covered more theory and started some photography.
In year 12, I was in the first cohort to go through the so-called New SACE, an updated curriculum which included a new compulsory subject called the Research Project. It was designed to better prepare students for university study, although many students saw (and still see) it as a waste of time and energy. Determined to do something unique, the observatory coordinator and I came up with the idea to use the telescopes at the school to observe an exoplanet; a planet in orbit around a distant star. Clearly it would be too much to discover a new exoplanet, but the expected times of transit events (when the planet passes in front of its star blocking out some of its light) were readily available. Over three cold nights in April, I collected data well past midnight with the telescope trained at a faint and distant star. On the first night, the data-set was incomplete. On the second, the data was complete, but showed no depreciation. But on the third night, I saw a very distinct 2% drop in the intensity of the star, in line with expectation and good enough for a high school project. I wrote up my results and received a merit for the course, but the real result was an igniting of my interest in scientific research.
Later in year 12, I was nominated to go to Brisbane for the youth ANZAAS (Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science) summit at the University of Queensland. On reflection, I see this as another pivotal moment in my career trajectory. We spent a whole week touring research labs and attending seminars at UQ, QUT, Bond University and others. I saw what it was like to have a career in academia, and that there were people out there who were doing research for a living. Reaching into my astronomy background, I started researching degrees in Physics, and settled upon a Bachelor of Science (Advanced) at the University of Adelaide. I applied, did well enough in year 12, and was accepted in January 2012.
The first year at the University of Adelaide is rather general, focusing on broad topics in Physics, Mathematics and Chemistry. I was fairly timid in meeting new people, and as many people do, my social circles still centred around high school friendships. But it was in my second year that I really started to forge my place at University. I started to meet and get to know more people who were studying my degree. We would meet at lunchtimes and conversations would range over any number of topics.
One of these conversations between Jason Oliver, Tuong Cao and myself was the realisation that there were no decent science clubs on campus. We resolved ourselves to do something about it. Cao and I chatted to the clubs officials and mapped out a pathway to creating a new science-based club. We presented our ideas to Jason, and started a Facebook group to gauge support. The response we received was overwhelming, and as exams approached we organised our first AGM. We had booked out the clubs space and prepared a few snacks, but we had so many people attend that we quickly ran out of seating space and almost standing space too. We adopted a constitution and elected new members (including a kind-of dodgy amendment to create a first-year representative which parachuted Brittany Howell onto the committee). I was elected president in a very obscure contest with Jason, where effectively we each argued the other’s candidacy and then voted by a show of hands. The agreement was that we would each serve for once semester anyway, and he was elected Vice-President unopposed.
There were many other developments in my second year too. The subjects started to specialise into disciplines, which meant more physics and maths. In particular was a specialised Bachelor of Science (Advanced) only course called Principles and Practices of Research II. Here, we sat down with academics and learnt specifically about their areas of research, and then wrote a short essay based on what we discovered. One of the tutorials was led by Paul Jackson, who works with the ATLAS collaboration at the LHC in CERN, who explained to us the then-recent discovery of the Higgs Boson, which I found fascinating, and began to expose me to the incredible and obscure world that is theoretical physics.
In the second semester of second year, I departed Australia and headed for the University of Exeter in England for a semester-long study abroad program. This was my first long-term experience away from home. I lived in a terraced share-house with students from France, Germany, England and Northern Ireland, made friends with New Zealanders and was taught by New Zealanders and Indians. One of the more interesting courses was an electronics course in which everybody but me dropped out in the first week, and I went on to one of the highest scores in the course’s history. Whilst there, I travelled extensively through Europe, both before and after, and to a lesser extent the southern parts of England. My personal highlight was a fortnight long cycling tour from Lake Geneva to the Mediterranean sea over many of the highest passes in the French Alps.
Back home, my third year of University was where it really started to get intense. Semester one in Physics has five exams over a two week period, so my study days got progressively longer and my relaxation time progressively shorter. I still devoted much of my time to AUScA, organising pub crawls, barbecues, quiz nights and the like, and was re-elected President for a second year. On top of all of that, I entered into a relationship with Brittany, who was progressing well through her second year and provided me with a great support through the most difficult times. In my second semester, I started a semester long placement with Tony Williams, who would go on to become my Honours supervisor, looking at astrophysical observations of self-interacting dark matter. My efforts were thoroughly rewarded at the end of the year; I won a multitude of prizes (Angus Hurst, Fred Jacka (with Cao), David Murray (with Matt Bowie) and the Bragg Silver Medal), although winning one tends to lead to more.