‘As an astronomer, we always have to justify our research’

4 Dec 2019

Dr Emma Whelan, Maynooth University. Image: Maynooth University

Dr Emma Whelan of Maynooth University is searching for life on distant exoplanets, but don’t ask her if she’s an astrologer.

After completing her undergraduate degree in physics and astrophysics at Trinity College Dublin, Dr Emma Whelan went on to complete a PhD at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS). She stayed at DIAS afterwards, working as a scientific administrator as part of the European Research Network as well as carrying out her own research.

After stints in Grenoble in France and Tübingen in Germany, Whelan returned to Ireland in 2015 to take up a position at Maynooth University.

‘Given I work in pure research, the true value lies in the potential for discovery and the stimulation of further innovation’

Can you tell us about the research you’re currently working on?

I’m an astrophysicist and I work on star formation. Both star formation and planet formation are very closely connected because we now know that the planets begin to form as stars.

So, therefore, the ways in which stars form can affect how planets form. My research focuses on one part of star formation – jets. As stars are forming, you get these huge outflows launched from the disk of the star and they get squeezed – or collimated – into jets, due to the magnetic fields that are present.

I have two PhD students on my team at the moment, Andrew and Aisling. They’re both working on projects related to jets and how the jets might affect the discs in which the planets are forming.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

As an astronomer, we always have to justify our research. People often ask: “What good is your research?” But astronomy is blue-sky research. It’s one of the first peer research areas and I believe it is a fundamental area of science and has a significant impact on our society.

I tend to break down why astronomy is important into two main areas. First is the impact it’s had on our world view, and second is the innovations that have happened due to astronomers developing tools and techniques that have had a huge impact on society.

People believed that the Earth was the centre of the solar system and the centre of the universe. Then people like Galileo and Copernicus came along and changed that view. That was such a fundamental change in society and they suffered a lot for their science.

Many important inventions have also come about due to research in astronomy and it has had a huge impact in areas such as healthcare and telecommunications.

Perhaps the best example is charge-coupled devices (CCDs), which we use to record images. They were developed in the 1970s for astronomy, but they are now in our mobile phones and allow us to take pictures and post them to Instagram and Twitter. Software developed for astronomy also has huge uses for the medical and telecommunications field.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a researcher in your field?

Consistent funding is a challenge in my field of research. Under current funding models, you need to show a commercial viability to your chosen research – how it may create jobs, its industrial applications etc.

Given I work in pure research, the true value lies in the potential for discovery and the stimulation of further innovation, which can be incredibly far reaching but more difficult to define.

Are there any common misconceptions about this area of research?

One of the most common misconceptions is people confusing astronomy with astrology. A lot of people think that I am an astrologer and think it’s strange that I can make a career that way, so I have to correct them.

Another misconception is that my area of research does not have immediate or applicable value. Some people just can’t understand why we would study this area. It can be hard when you see large projects such as the James Webb Space Telescope – a collaboration between NASA and ESA – cost billions of dollars.

You can understand why people might feel that the money invested could be used in other areas, but the only way you can address that perception is through public outreach. I really see that as a huge part of my job – to help the public understand why it’s important to do this kind of research, and how it can have a significant impact on society.

What are some of the areas of research you’d like to see tackled in the years ahead?

My area of interest is exoplanets and looking for signs of life on planets outside our own solar system. This is an area which is being explored through projects like the James Webb Space Telescope and the European Southern Observatory (ESO).

ESO is a consortium of countries who build the best telescopes in the world and it is currently building a huge telescope that it has named the Extremely Large Telescope (ELT), which will be located in Chile. One of the goals of the ELT is to look for life on exoplanets and understand exoplanets better. This is my area of interest in the coming years so it’s so exciting for me that these projects are progressing.

Ireland joined the ESO last year, so now Irish astronomers and Irish companies can be involved in the innovation and technology for building this telescope. Joining ESO was a really important step for future Irish scientists.

Are you a researcher with an interesting project to share? Let us know by emailing editorial@siliconrepublic.com with the subject line ‘Science Uncovered’.