How this Irish researcher is reaching for the stars

1 Jun 2022

Image: Dr Jessica Erkal

Star formation researcher Dr Jessica Erkal shares her experience of the IRC-ESO Studentship Programme and the importance of space research.

For anyone with a passion for space exploration, astronomy and the mysteries of the universe, getting to work with an organisation like the European Southern Observatory (ESO) could be a dream come true.

That was the case for 27-year-old researcher Dr Jessica Erkal, who recently completed a PhD focused on star formation and protostellar jets at University College Dublin (UCD).

During her PhD, she was awarded a one-year studentship to work at the ESO headquarters in Garching, Germany.

The studentship programme is offered by the Irish Research Council (IRC) to Ireland-based students enrolled in a post-doctoral programme in astronomy or the related fields of observational, theoretical or fundamental astrophysics.

According to Erkal, the application and selection process for the IRC-ESO Studentship Programme involved proposing a project to work on at the ESO, finding a member of ESO staff to supervise the project and then an interview with the selection committee.

‘I think a pretty common misconception is that we’re just doing science for the sake of science’

Erkal told that she was always fascinated by images of space but didn’t realise that a career in this field was actually possible until her Leaving Certificate.

“During a school trip to the Higher Options [careers fair] in the RDS, I ended up talking to an astrophysics student from UCC who told me all about the different modules he was studying and I was hooked.”

From there, the Waterford native went on to study physics and astrophysics in Trinity College Dublin, followed by a master’s degree in space science and technology in UCD.

In her work as a star formation researcher, Erkal aims to answer some of the biggest questions in the universe, such as ‘how did we get here’ and ‘how did the solar system form’.

“Star formation is a really vibrant and diverse research area. There are people who study large-scale star formation in huge clouds of gas and dust, known as molecular clouds. Other researchers in the field study objects on much smaller scales, like the protoplanetary discs, to try to understand how planets form,” she said.

“My own research focuses on protostellar jets, which are large columns of high-velocity material moving away from the star. They’re also often observed in pairs, emerging from opposite sides of the star-disc plane, but the two sides of the jet sometimes show asymmetries in their shape and/or velocity which can complicate our measurements. These jets weren’t initially anticipated by star formation models, but now we know they play a crucial role in star formation.”

Erkal said star formation research involves a lot of data analysis and number-crunching, but the work is often collaborative with researchers across the world working together on huge datasets and projects.

Working at the ESO

Erkal described the ESO as an “incredibly lively research environment” and there were different talks by students and staff across a variety of disciplines almost every day of the week.

“During my time at ESO, I used the X-Shooter instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope in Chile to study more than 100 stars in different star-forming regions to try to understand how young stars evolve over time,” she said.

“This project provided context to some of my earlier work and the studentship really solidified my desire to pursue a career in research. It’s a really nice opportunity for PhD students who would like to advance their research in their fields.”

During her studentship, Erkal also had the chance to help organise workshops and give a number of talks herself. This helped her improve her skills across the board.

“On a personal level, everyone at ESO was incredibly kind and welcoming and I definitely found some lifelong friends in the wonderful students at ESO.”

The importance of space research

One of the most common misconceptions when it comes to space research is that it doesn’t provide much use to those living on Earth.

“I think a pretty common misconception is that we’re just doing science for the sake of science, but space research has contributed to a lot of new technology with real-world applications,” Erkal said.

“The use of navigation systems using GPS is possible thanks to satellites orbiting the Earth. Advances in medical technology, like the development of MRIs and CAT scanners for example, have also been possible as a result of techniques used to improve astronomical observations.”

This field can also help to promote collaborations between nations and individual scientists. “The best example of this is the International Space Station, where astronauts from different countries work together to perform scientific experiments in space,” she added.

“In the future too, in what might seem like something from a sci-fi movie, if another large asteroid heads towards Earth or some other huge event happens that endangers humanity, space research may be our best bet at survival.

“There is research into how to deflect or mitigate the effects of such an asteroid and work is also being carried out to understand if it would be possible to set up a human colony elsewhere, for example on Mars. This is of course an extreme example, but space could soon become a very valuable source of natural materials we use on Earth.”

In terms of her own work, Erkal is now applying for post-doc positions and hoping to stay in star formation research.

“Since the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has been launched recently and the preparations for science observations are going well, ideally I’d like to get my hands on some of that data! With JWST we will be able to observe closer to the jet base, close to the star, which may allow us to pin down the exact jet launching mechanism.”

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Jenny Darmody is the editor of Silicon Republic