Case study

Senior research fellow — Dr Amy Bonsor

Amy explores how planets form around stars. Working at the University of Cambridge in the Institute of Astronomy, she conducts cutting edge research while training students in research techniques

How did you get to your current position?

After returning from maternity leave, I wanted to think about the next plans for my research. Having worked as post-docs in research teams led by others, I now felt it was time to put together my own ideas.

I applied for a Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowship, which is an independent fellowship aimed at those with caring responsibilities who require flexible working patterns. I was very lucky that I was able to persuade the committee that my work was sufficiently interesting to receive funding.

The Royal Society are incredibly supportive - not only have they supported me to work part-time and take maternity leave for a second time, but they've provided training, support and funding opportunities for me to build my group.

What first interested you in astronomy?

I was very lucky to have an inspirational teacher at school who taught us an optional cosmology course after school during my A-levels. This really sparked my interest in physics.

What was your first degree? How is it relevant to your job?

My first degree was in physics and I definitely use lots of material covered by the degree every day. For a subject such as astronomy, where sometimes we actually know relatively little about newly discovered objects, it's amazing how far some very basic physics can bring our understanding. For example, a lot of my work involves trying to understand how planetary systems around other stars evolve. Kepler's laws and Newtonian gravity can explain what's going on.

Maths is crucial too. In fact, sometimes I feel that a mathematical understanding is the most important asset for an astronomer. Maths provides the backbone to most of my work, whether I'm investigating the dynamics of a planetary system or using Bayesian statistics to understand the wealth of data available from current telescopes.

What are your main work activities?

Right now my job is divided into two halves. In one half, I lead projects on new science - I come up with the ideas, bring in the grant money and supervise students to do the work. In the other half, I carry out technical work myself - I run computer simulations, look at data and write scientific papers.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

I love trying to understand new things. The best thing about being an astronomer is following your own interests and developing your own scientific program. The main aim is to make scientific progress but I find that, while results are important, I enjoy the journey towards solving a problem just as much as the buzz of working something out.

Since becoming an independent researcher, I've also found that it's really inspiring to work with students. I enjoy helping them reach their full potential.

What are the most challenging parts?

Being an astronomer is competitive, and you're surrounded by high achievers. It can be tough to deal with different personalities all competing for research funding and time on telescopes.

What do you want to do next in your career?

I'm at the start of my career as an independent researcher, hoping to continue to build up my research group over the next few years. I have two new PhD students starting this autumn.

Most importantly, I hope to keep answering interesting science questions and follow where the science leads us.

Any words of advice for someone who wants to get into this job?

The most important asset of a researcher is their motivation and interest in the subject matter. This doesn't meant that you have to jump out of bed everyday ready to solve the next problem, but it's worth spending the time to find out what really interests you.

The world of science is huge and researchers in the future will need to be able to work across traditional discipline boundaries. Take the time to delve into this world, studying as much physics and maths as you can along the way, asking questions about why things happen the way they do.

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