Monique, Astrophysicist



My research is all about the biggest things in the universe - so bigger than planets, bigger than stars, bigger than galaxies even. So, you know galaxies are these collections of hundreds of billions of stars; I’m a scale bigger than that - I study galaxy clusters, which are groups of thousands of galaxies held together. They’re pretty cool because just by studying how many of them there are in the sky we can learn about how the universe has changed over the last 13 billion years which is a bit bonkers. But it does work, and although I study those I don’t actually observe them at all - I use computers to study them. I really don’t know anything about telescopes and it’s really embarrassing - I often go along to astronomy societies and they ask me these questions about telescopes and I’m like I have no idea. I don’t know anything about them because I build models of them on a computer, so my day to day work is closer to that of a programmer than anything else. Alongside I help run the jodcast which is an astronomy podcast and so I do interviews for that. So I interview scientists, which is really fun, usually on something that I know nothing about. Then I also do bits of work with the widening participation team here at the University of Manchester, so that’s a mixture of talks and workshops in schools normally on things like Mars exploration because it’s interesting and it might be something that is actually going to be a reality in the next 10 - 20 years, which is just incredible.


So when I first came into astronomy through physics, I used to hate astronomy with a passion actually, because I thought it was all telescopes and I just don’t have the patience for it at all. But once I realised I could do this coding part of it I got really into it - it’s about answering the big questions in physics, which to me is really important and I think for humanity is very important. I’m not sure I’m passionate enough about it to stay in it for the rest of my life though, particularly because the research career path is really hard and I don’t know if I could do that. You have to have this real self-belief I think to do it as well - this conviction that what you’re doing is right, or what you’re doing is so important, and although you know I like what I do and I think it is important, I don’t think I have that depth of conviction for it if that makes sense. I mean I like parts of my PhD, but I have found it really challenging as well and I think it would be good to do something different.


I think I struggle with determination. The worst, the absolutely worst period of my PhD definitely, was when I got this result and it didn’t really fit with the existing literature - so I spent 7 months looking the same little snippet of code trying to find the problem and in the back of my mind was always, “what if this is all wrong because of this one result?” – it turned out it was actually fine - after all that I went to a conference, spoke to another researcher who had done the same thing on the same set of data and he was like “yeah I got the same result I was worried too but it’s fine”. It was awful because it’s that self-doubt, thinking maybe I shouldn’t be doing this if I can’t even do this such a simple calculation. I think that doubt, those thoughts - “I don’t think I can do this”, “I’m not sure I can do this”, “what if this is all wrong” , “I can’t even do the simple things”, “how can I do anything” - is definitely the hardest thing, and it’s something I still find really difficult now. I have depression now as well, so when those two things come together it’s awful. Those two things can make it feel like I can’t do anything now, so I will never be able to achieve anything. And then those feelings that I should be doing these things and I should be successful, because I’ve got so much behind me and so much support - why can’t I do this? Yeah, it makes it really difficult. Sometimes I think maybe I shouldn’t leave academia because maybe it’s just the place I’m in now, but to be honest I think I just need to go do something that does make me feel okay about myself.


I think the overwhelming thing to remember is that it’s okay to find things hard - that doesn’t mean you’re stupid. I think you determine your value as a person. It’s hard because no matter how much someone says that to you, you can’t believe it until you have that realisation yourself. The barriers you can face can be really different depending on where you are, but don’t let anyone stop you. Everyone should be able to do science, everyone should be able to go to university, regardless of what background they come from and despite the fact that lots of people think that’s the case, it isn’t the case, and you can’t always see the barriers that stop people from reaching their potential - but they are there. I have parents who encouraged me to go to university, they always said that I could make it, but I know so many people who don’t have that who haven’t had that and I don’t know if I could have made it without it. So if people don’t have that, then I want to help them get here, and to just tell them that it’s up to you what you can achieve.

To find out more about Monique's work, check out her website and follow her on Twitter. Also have a look at the Jodcast website for more on Astronomy.

Rhys Archer