Name: Dr Chris North
Research institution: School of Physics and Astronomy, Cardiff University
Research career length: 4 years
Research Council: Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), UK Space Agency
Location: Cardiff, Wales
Brief summary of research: Calibration of Herschel-SPIRE instrument UK Herschel Outreach Officer
A-levels: Physics, Mathematics, Further Mathematics and Computing
MSci in Natural Sciences at the Fitzwilliam College,
University of Cambridge (Physics and Astronomy)DPhil at Wadham College, University of Oxford, working on the Clover experiment
Postdoctoral Research Assistant at Cardiff University
UK Herschel Outreach Officer
Astronomical researcher and subsequently, presenter on BBC Sky at Night
“Scientific research is just a way of solving problems or answering questions.”
My research involves simulating and analysing data from the SPIRE instruments, on the Herschel Space Observatory, the largest astronomical telescope ever put into space. By testing that the instruments are working correctly, I contribute to the work of the international team. Since this includes more than a dozen different organisations, we spend a fair amount of time in videoconferences. Almost everything I do involves working with other people, which I see as a crucial feature in the success of most scientific experiments.
I have been interested in space and astronomy since I was young, and was actively encouraged by my parents and teachers, so my career path seemed like a natural progression, and always felt like the right thing to do. Having said that, when I was at school I was also heavily involved in technical theatre work, and spent a number of summers at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe running a venue, which nearly took me in a very different direction.
Having opted to study Natural Sciences at the University of Cambridge, I studied a wide range of subjects and considered specialising in earth sciences and geology. In the end, the draw of exotic field trips wasn’t enough, and I decided to stick with physics and astronomy. After graduating, I chose to do a DPhil (which is the same thing as a PhD ) working on the development of a telescope called Clover, during which time I started to develop an interest in outreach activity - communicating astronomy to the public. I became involved with The Sky at Night, working behind the scenes as an astronomical researcher, and later as one of the team of presenters on the programme.
In my current role as postdoctoral Research Assistant at Cardiff University, I am able to combine research with communication and broadcast work - including some on-screen appearances. Working with Sir Patrick Moore and the Sky at Night team has been immensely enjoyable.
My other outreach activities include developing museum exhibits and talking about our Herschel results to schools and amateur astronomical societies. I also coordinate press releases, which means I work with the media offices of UK institutions, the European Space Agency and NASA.
As a PhD student, I was able to travel to the Canary Islands and Hawaii to use telescopes. Visiting Hawaii was wonderful, and the experience of being on the top of the highest point in the Pacific was very memorable. I still get to travel, though less than I used to, but did attend the launch of the Planck and Herschel satellites, which were carried on an Ariane 5 rocket from Europe's spaceport in French Guiana, in South America.
Looking to the future, I am split between scientific research and my interests in public outreach. Ideally, I’d be looking for both - something that government and research funders increasingly value.
While my research tends to focus on the measurement side of astronomy, the knowledge that my efforts are helping some of the amazing discoveries is very satisfying.