Meet Emily Rickman, an astrophysicist hunting for planets!

What is your scientific background?

I completed a Masters in Physics and Astrophysics at the University of Sheffield where I spent my third year studying at the Australian National University.

During my time in Australia I carried out some research looking for planets using a technique called ‘transiting’, where a planet orbits in front of a star and you can observe the difference in the amount of light we receive from the star. I was able to observe at a world-class site, operate a particle accelerator, be taught by a Nobel prize laureate in cosmology, as well as meet directors from NASA who were visiting Canberra’s deep space communication complex.

Between my third and fourth year I was awarded funding to carry out a summer research project in quantum physics investigating a technique with lasers that is being researched to help improve energy efficiency in electronics.

During the final year of my Masters I investigated binary star systems (two stars orbiting one another) by determining the resolution limit using observations taken in Hawaii.

I now work at the University of Geneva finding planets using a technique called ‘direct imaging’ – quite literally taking a picture of a planet next to a star. This involves a lot of traveling to the Atacama Desert in Chile to observe with one of the world’s large telescopes.

Why did you choose to become a scientist?

I never wanted to do anything else! I always had an interest in physics, maths and engineering growing up. During my time at school my interest in physics, in particular astronomy, grew exponentially. I found it so awe-inspiring to look up at the night sky and think – this is it, this is the universe that we live in – and that just made me want to understand it.

The path to where I am now truly started in my second year of university where I took a course in extra-solar planets and astrobiology. At that point, I was captivated into learning about planets outside of our solar system and the potential for life on other worlds. I find it so exciting to be a part of discovering something new in this universe.

What is a typical day like for you?

I think that one of the best things about being a scientist is that there is no such thing as a typical day! If I’m in the office I will be sat in front of my computer debugging code or writing papers. But I spend a lot of time traveling around the world – mostly to Chile to observe in the Atacama desert – which can be tiring as you are continuously working nights for up to a couple of weeks in a row, but also amazing as it is home to some of the darkest skies in the world. I also regularly travel to the USA and other European cities for meetings and conferences to share my discoveries and meet with people from all over the world.

What (or who) motivated you in difficult times?

I have met so many inspirational female scientists throughout my time as a scientist who I look up to. If I ever feel that I don’t belong in science or if I just have a scientific problem that I am stuck on I always turn to the women around me for support and a cup of coffee and a slice of cake. It can be challenging at times but that’s a part of what makes it so exciting.

What is the funniest or most memorable thing that has happened to you while working in science?

It has to be the first time I truly ever saw the Milky Way. When I moved to Australia it was the first time I had been to the southern hemisphere, so being able to look towards the centre of the Milky Way. There is also a lot less light pollution in Australia than in Europe and I remember when I visited Mount Stromlo Observatory in Canberra for the first time, just looking up and being speechless at the number of stars in the sky.

Do you come from an academic family?

No, I am actually the first person in my family to go to university. I would strongly encourage anyone from any background to pursue their dreams in science. Do not be discouraged – there are plenty of support networks at university and the experiences that you have will be incredible.

In your opinion, which changes, if any, are needed in the scientific system to be more attractive to women in science and possible future scientists?

There are many changes that I feel that could be made but some of the main ones involve embracing the importance of a diverse workplace; removing as many biases against women and minorities as possible as well as outwardly promoting inspirational women in science to both young girls and boys to show that it is possible!