Name: Dr Hiranya Peiris
Age range: 36-40
Research institution: Department of Physics and Astronomy, University College London
Research career length: 8 years
Research Council: Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC)
Location: London, England
Brief summary of research: Gaining a fundamental understanding of the origins and evolution of the universe
BA Natural Sciences (specialising in physics) at Cambridge University
PhD in Astrophysics at Princeton University
Hubble Fellowship at the University of Chicago
STFC Halliday Fellowship at Cambridge University
Lecturer at University College London
Reader at University College London
Hiranya Peiris is a modern academic, working in an area of research with ancient tradition. From the earliest times, humans have attempted to make sense of our place in a vast universe. Today, Hiranya and her colleagues work with the most advanced technologies, to reveal more and more of the mysteries of the cosmos that have intrigued humanity for so long.
The purpose of my work is to gain a fundamental understanding of the origin and evolution of the universe, which is why I see my work as more of a calling than a job. I think people choose to become researchers for a number of different reasons, but in my case, this ‘calling’ made my path fairly straightforward. It strikes me that research can offer people from unusual backgrounds like mine, an opportunity to succeed and thrive - my family were immigrants to the UK from Sri Lanka, when I was 16. This doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily easy, but if you are hardworking, capable and passionate, you can be successful.
My research involves a lot of mathematics and high performance computing, including data analysis and statistics. Some of this work requires me to work in small groups with two or three other researchers, but I also contribute to large global projects such as the Planck Satellite Collaboration, with several hundred people in many countries. Since cosmology is very international, I travel extensively, with up to 20 overseas trips every year - discussing research findings, giving talks, and running workshops and seminars. But I also enjoy sharing my knowledge and enthusiasm with my undergraduate students at the university.
I find my work so stimulating that I will always be grateful for the influence of my parents, who encouraged my interest in science from a very early age, and to my excellent maths teacher in sixth form college, who both nurtured my interest in research and encouraged me to apply to Cambridge. Without this teacher, my early interest in astronomy would probably have remained a hobby. Instead, on completing my Undergraduate degree, I undertook a PhD in Astrophysics at Princeton University in the USA, followed by Fellowships at the University of Chicago and back at Cambridge, before embarking on my current role of university Lecturer .
I value academic research, partly because it is impossible to predict where the next breakthrough is going to come from. It is extremely important for our society, and for humanity as a whole, to keep asking the big questions without regard to whether it is going to make someone money or wondering how it can be applied.