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Dr Stephen Potter

 Name: Dr Stephen Potter


Age range:43

Research institution: South African Astronomical Observatory, Cape Town, South Africa

Research career length: 18 years

Research Council: Previously funded by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) under its former name Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC)

Location: Cape Town, South Africa

Salary: £35-39k

Brief summary of research: Astronomy and Astrophysics

School qualifications:
3 CSEs
7 ‘O’ levels
2 A levels, Wyedean Comprehensive (same school as J.K. Rowling)

Qualifications post-school:
BSc in Physics with Planetary and Space Physics, University College Wales, Aberystwyth
MSc in Astrophysics, Queen Mary College, London
PhD in Astronomy, University College London

Career path:
Postdoctoral research at South African Astronomical Observatory, Cape Town
Head of Astronomy at South African Astronomical Observatory, Cape Town

Educated in the UK, Stephen Potter now heads the astronomy division of the South African astronomical observatory and a team of leading researchers, despite having failed his fair share of exams and experienced unsuccessful job interviews. He believes persistence, drive and having a bit of an obsession, are what counts.

The universe is teaming with ‘natural laboratories’ in which the laws of physics are tested and pushed to their limits. These laboratories cannot be reproduced on Earth, but through astronomy we are able to ask some of the deepest questions that humans can ask, like what is the nature of the cosmos and how do we fit into it?

I’ve had an obsession with anything to do with space, science fiction and computing since very early childhood. I learnt more about computing at home than any school course, which gave me a head start at university, where it felt natural for me to use computers as one of my research tools. I discovered that in the UK, at that time, banks would offer loans to pay you to attend university to study whatever you liked. This got me though my BSc and Master’s degree, after which I was awarded a studentship to do a PhD , which means they paid me to study - I couldn’t have done it otherwise.

My first successful job application was for a postdoc in Cape Town, and I have been here ever since. I am now on the executive board, as a result of getting older, being experienced and taking on responsibilities, rather than any definitive decisions. I’m fortunate too, in that South African astronomy is enjoying a period of support and interest from the government.

“The most successful researchers I know are generally more sociable and part of collaborations and teams.”

I never excelled academically and was generally a mediocre student. However, I always knew that I wanted to be an astronomer and have managed to stay on this career path through persistence rather than any unusual choice or events. I've failed exams and have had my fair share of interviews, but exams can be re-taken and jobs can be re-applied for.

As Head of Astronomy, I am on the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) executive and therefore involved in the overall management of the observatory. I manage the astronomer postdocs and PhD students. I also carry out some astronomy research, making use of the SAAO telescopes for one week in around every 12, to perform observational measurements and collate data. The rest of my research time is then based in an office at the headquarters in Cape Town where I analyse the observations and write and publish my findings. I also work on developing new software and instruments.

Now that I have more management responsibilities, I long for the days when I was able to concentrate solely on my research. In the future, I hope to be able to focus more on managing research projects than general management.


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