From the Chalkboard to the Diving Board

Stacie Powell is currently a Ph.D. student in astrophysics at Institute of Astronomy at the University of Cambridge, England. She also took a break this past summer to compete in the 10-meter diving platform competition for Great Britain at the 2012 Olympic Games in London. Stacie took some time from her busy schedule to discuss her academic and career path thus far.



I have always had a very questioning mind and liked to learn how the physical processes and objects we see around us can be explained so simply by mathematics. The biggest question in life -- "How did we get here?" -- has always intrigued me. I find astronomy very rewarding as it provides small clues, which are beginning to be pieced together and help us answer this question and, ultimately, to understand the Universe we live in.



While I was studying for my undergraduate degree at the University of Southampton, England, I was one of the top students in my year. Consequently, I was able to complete my Master's research thesis abroad at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass., in the United States.



I loved my research on the biggest gravitationally-bound objects in the Universe -- galaxy clusters -- and enjoyed learning how the Universe was pushing our understanding to the limit in all areas from early times to the present day. My advisor was inspirational and it was great to be part of such a friendly community where everyone was trying to piece together their own part of the puzzle. We were all trying to understand the higher-energy Universe as a whole.



I enjoy working on my PhD at the University of Cambridge, England, because I love being at the forefront of research and the challenge of understanding things that no one has been able to interpret before. This could be trying to understand new observations of a complicated type of star, which I am now doing in my PhD thesis. Or, it could be looking at new cutting-edge methods to analyze objects, which was what my Master's thesis was about using the Chandra X-ray Observatory.





There is such a wide range of topics in astronomy, which means everyday I learn something new, either through my own work, a talk given at my current institution or reading the scientific papers published every day. The astronomy community is multinational, spanning the whole world, which is great as it means I also get to work with lots of different people and hear lots of different ideas on the Universe.



The advice I would give to anyone who might be interested in pursuing a similar career is this: always work hard and never give up. Sometimes in research you have to explore a few dead ends before you find the right answer, so never get disheartened if things don't work out the way you thought they would. In fact, sometimes you learn more when your results don't turn out the way you expect or theory dictates, as you have to invent a new theory to explain the discrepancy.



- Stacie Powell