1.What is your name?
Dr Sophie Murray.
2.Where do you work and what is your role/job title?
Research Fellow in the Astrophysics Research Group, Trinity College Dublin.
I am a space weather scientist studying solar eruptions; understanding the source of these eruptions in order to better predict them, as well as studying their impact on Earth. I have a particular interest in transitioning this basic science research into operational space weather forecasting using methods used in the more established field of terrestrial weather forecasting.
3.What were the main ‘career decision’ milestones in your life so far?
I have always been fascinated with space and visiting NASA Kennedy Space Center as a child probably started my whole journey towards becoming a space scientist. Then choosing to study astrophysics for my BA, space science for my Msc, and solar physics for my PhD were the other big milestones. I learned about space weather during my final year undergraduate project and I think that experience spurred me to pursue this field in later years.
4.Who are the people who most influenced your career direction?
Growing up I loved all things space but I cant think of any specific people who particularly influenced me. As a child I thought anyone working in mission control in any sci-fi movie was pretty amazing. In my later years I guess my university supervisor instilled in me an enthusiasm for space weather!
5.Does your job allow you to have a lifestyle you are happy with?
Working as a scientist allows for a lot of flexibility which is great. If I need to work at home for a day I can, and my working hours can vary as needed. I also get to travel abroad regularly to interesting places to talk to interesting people!
6.How did you go about getting your current job?
I had been working in the UK as a scientist at the Met Office (the national meteorological service) for a number of years, and then decided to move back to Ireland. TCD is the only place in Ireland that researches solar physics and space weather so it was a natural decision for me to seek work there. Having completed my BA and PhD at TCD, I was already well acquainted with the research group, and I was lucky that there was EU funding available for me to work on a two projects there. Much of the work for scientists comes in the form of research grants from national governments, the EU, and beyond.
7.Describe a typical day?
This can vary quite widely depending on whats in my schedule. A normal day at the office would probably consist of computer work, for example computer programming and data analysis of satellite observations. That analysis work may lead towards writing a scientific paper, usually with other collaborators in the office and worldwide (which means lots of Skype meetings!). If there is an upcoming deadline I will spend time writing reports or proposals instead of coding. I might also need to prep for an upcoming conference, at which I would be convening sessions and presenting my recent work. I also undertake a lot of dissemination activities so I might also have to prepare presentation slides for a public talk.
8.What are the main tasks and responsibilities?
Research, and disseminating the results of that research in the form of papers, international collaborations, etc. I also think it is a responsibility of scientists in general to communicate their science to the wider world, so in my case that’s telling anyone who will listen all about space weather!
9.What are the main challenges?
Space weather is quite a new field of research in the grand scheme of things. We still don’t fully understand the underlying physics behind solar eruptions, which can make accurately predicting when they will occur rather tricky.
The fact we still don’t understand everything, as it’s an exciting research community still uncovering new discoveries. Space weather also combines research from lots of different fields, such as solar physics, heliophysics, atmospheric physics, and even geophysics. I get to work with scientists from multiple disciplines who would never normally work with each other!
11.What’s not so cool?
The nature of being a postdoctoral researcher means you tend to be reliant on research grants which are contracts of fixed length, so it isn’t the most stable profession. Writing research proposals can get pretty boring after a while!
12.What particular skills do you bring to your workplace?
Having worked in an operational environment I have a slightly different perspective to my research and results than some other academic scientists might. I am used to working with operational forecasters as well as end users such as government policy makers and the space and aviation industry. I bring unique communication and dissemination skills to my workplace.
13.What subjects did you take in school and how have these influenced your career path?
For the Leaving Cert I studied English, Irish, Maths, German, Physics, Chemistry, and Geography. Unfortunately Applied Maths was not offered at my school, otherwise I definitely would have taken that too. Maths was always my favourite subject. I think a combination of my aptitude for maths and physics and love of all things space influenced me to study astrophysics in university.
14.What is your education to date?
I completed a BA in Physics and Astrophysics at Trinity College Dublin, then an MSc in Space Science at University College London. I returned to TCD to undertake a PhD in Solar Physics.
15.What aspects of your education have proven most important for your job?
While all aspects of my education have been useful to learn more space science in general, I learned the advanced analytical skills needed to research independently during my PhD. Computational skills also proved to be a lot more important than I ever thought possible!
16.Have you undertaken, or do you plan to undertake any further training as part of your job?
When I completed my PhD I attended a number of advanced summer schools in solar physics, as well as some internal courses related to computational methods. I attended many courses at the Met Office College when I worked there as a scientist, particularly in meteorology and computer programming. New projects often mean needing to learn new skills so I think further training is something I will continue throughout my career.
17.What have been the most rewarding events in your career so far?
I guess when my first research paper was accepted for publication. Although it doesn’t seem all that exciting compared to some things I have done since then, it was, in my mind, the first acknowledgement that I was a proper scientist!
18.What personal qualities do you have that helps you in your career?
19.What is your dream job?
Head of an Irish space weather forecasting centre. It’s not something that exists right now but I would love if it did one day!
20.What advice would you give to someone considering this job?
Don’t give up if it’s what you really want to do. I remember some stressful times, as degrees can be seriously hard work. But that work pays off in the end, as you get to do something you love everyday.
21.What are the three most important personal characteristics required for the job?
Hard working, good communication skills, curiosity.
22.What kinds of work experience would provide a good background for this position?
It really depends on what stage of career you are at, and whether you’re interested in academia or operations! For undergraduates, summer research programmes are a really useful experience.