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Dr Aurora Sicilia-Aguilar

Part of Women in STEM

Job Title: Reader, School of Science and Engineering, University of Dundee.
Subject Area: Astrophysics.

Introduce yourself - who are you and what is your job?

I am Aurora, and I come originally from Andalusia in southern Spain. I am a Reader at the University of Dundee, which means I do teaching and research. For my research, I investigate how stars and planets form, using data from different types of telescopes, including ground-based ones but also space telescopes such as the Herschel or the Gaia space missions. With those I can look at baby stars and their surroundings, see how they form inside giant gas and dust clouds in our galaxy, and explore how their surroundings may change the type of planetary systems that will appear around them.

My favourite type of observations are "spectra", which are not images of stars, but the rainbows that you can produce with the star light and a type of instrument that we can mount on telescopes, called "spectroscope" (you can also make a spectrum by putting a CD under a lamp, move it around and you'll see the light from the lamp splitting into all the colours of the rainbow!). These rainbows of starlight can tell us a lot of things, such as what stars are made of, and how they move in space. Thanks to this information, we can determine things such as the way stars form and whether they have planets orbiting around them.

What do you research, why and how does this help people?

By investigating how stars and planets form, we can understand the origin of our own Solar System, as well as how likely it is to find other systems that may be similar to ours and may even host life. It also helps us to appreciate how unique our planet is, as far as we have seen, and to find out what makes it so special for us. We ourselves are only a very tiny part of the universe, and Astrophysics helps us understanding the universe that surrounds us.

It is not easy to measure how stars and planets form, because unlike in other fields in Physics, you can't really bring a star to your lab to analyze it. Moreover, stars and planets take millions of years to form, so you can't just wait in front of a star for a few million years with your telescope to see what it is doing. Therefore, you need to look at a lot of different stars, with many different telescopes. Finding stars and planets that are in different stages of their formation, you can reconstruct the "movie" that lead to the formation of our Solar System. Different telescopes detect different types of light around the stars and planets. Hot objects emit different light compared to cold objects, and the various elements that form matter also emit differently. Using many telescopes, you can obtain an image of the young stars and planets that is not just a pretty picture, but it will tell you a lot about its temperature, its composition, and how it is moving in space.

Tell us about your career journey so far

I was very interested in stars and also in rainbows since I was in nursery. First, I found stars quite scary (all so much open space up there that you can see at night, and you are just sitting on a tiny speck!) but also very interesting. I also liked rainbows and halos (these are rainbows produced by ice crystals) very much. When I learnt that it is by looking at their rainbows that we can tell what stars are made of, I found this really fascinating, and I wanted to be an astrophysicist since I was 11.

I studied Physics at the Autonomous University of Madrid, in Spain, and then I went to do a PhD to the US with a grant from the Smithsonian Institution at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. There I also had a possibility to use a lot of telescopes, including the Spitzer Space Telescope, and also to observe myself in places like Mount Hopkins in Arizona and Hawaii. Then I moved to Germany, to work at the Max-Planck-Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, and then back to Spain as a lecturer in Madrid.

But because I also have a husband who is a researcher as well, and three trilingual children, we ended up moving to the UK 7 years ago as it was easier for both of us to find a job in the same area. In the UK, I first worked at the University of St Andrews, and since 2017, I have been working at the University of Dundee. Since then, I have been working with the data we obtain from many telescopes, including those that orbit the Earth (Hubble) or those that travel to other places in the Solar System (Spitzer and Herschel), and also telescopes in different places around our world (including the US, Chile, Spain, France, and Russia.

What subjects/qualifications are useful in your role?

I always liked maths, physics (which comes down to understanding all what surrounds us) and programming with computers (I never liked playing computer games too much, but making them, or telling a computer how to do something, or how to calculate something, that was a different matter I always loved - I started programming in BASIC as a child). I first obtained a degree in Physics, specialized in Theoretical Physics, and then I did a PhD in Astrophysics. I also had to learn a lot more to be able to work with different types of telescope data and programming languages. At the end, the main useful thing is to always be willing to explore and learn new things, and to find out what makes them be the way they are.

Dr Aurora Sicilia-Aguilar
Dr Aurora Sicilia-Aguilar Reader, School of Science and Engineering, University of Dundee
Through the Eyes of Telescopes Activities
Through the Eyes of Telescopes Activities

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