Dr Beth Biller

Astronomer, University of Edinburgh

What sparked your interest in astronomy?
As a child, I was very interested in it. When I was in high school, the first planets orbiting stars other than our sun were discovered and that hugely inspired me. I did a degree in astrophysics, which uses and creates a lot of data – I’m an observational astronomer so always working with data – but during our studies, we focus more on the theoretical aspects – lots of maths and derivations. Working with data and coding is something that we mostly learn by doing.

Amazing – and what universities did you go to?
So for my undergraduate degree, I went to a type of school that doesn’t really exist in the UK, a small liberal arts college called Swarthmore College. Then I did my masters and my PhD at the University of Arizona! I finished my PhD in 2007.

And did you did you enjoy studying there?
I did, especially Arizona – it’s a great place to be as an astronomer because you’re close to a lot of telescopes… it’s one of the few places where you can drive to and from the telescope directly from your house.

The dream! Can you tell us about a typical day at work for you now?
I’m divided between teaching and research. Most of my research time is spent at the computer trying to analyse data and writing up results.

What data sets are you working with at the moment?
It’s a data set from the Very Large Telescope, specifically an instrument known as SPHERE – an extreme adaptive optics coronagraphic imager. That’s a lot of words to say that it’s an instrument built to reach extremely high contrast and resolution, so that you can image planets next to stars. At the moment, we have a data set looking at four planets that are orbiting a star that is a bit more massive than our sun. My data is looking at these planets for five or six hours a night. We are trying to measure the planets’ rotation and brightness over that period. We expect the brightness of the planets to change because they have patchy clouds over them – some parts of the planets are brighter than others.

We’re always impressed by astronomers’ work!
You work so hard to get the data sets and then you’re so excited to have them. This one especially has been knotty.

Ha! Why knotty?
It’s a very difficult analysis because we’re using a lot of methods to try to remove the various noise sources that prevent us from imaging these planets – and there’s a lot of noise! It takes a lot of data processing to see the planets at all. Then we’re trying to measure very accurately the brightness of planets as a function of time, despite all the noise sources. It’s just really challenging!

What’s your favourite analysis or technique or instrument that you’re using at the moment?
I’m very interested in variability monitoring in general and using this as a probe of atmospheres. I’ve worked on this previously using data with the Hubble Space Telescope (HST). I’m currently working on the SPHERE dataset mentioned above, where we look at four companions to a star but there’s some objects that have very similar properties though are not orbiting stars. So this other object, the one that I observed with the HST, is a free-floating planetary mass object, with a similar mass and temperature of planets orbiting stars, but not around any star. This made analysis much easier because you have much less noise than if you are looking at a companion object, so you’re not fighting to image it.

What’s even more exciting is in two years, the James Webb Space Telescope will launch. This is going to be fantastic for the science because it will combine the coronagraphic capabilities that we have with SPHERE, for instance, to get really high contrast images with incredible stability from being in space.

Is there anything you wish you could do more of in your work?
The thing I like to do but I get less time to do is work with data, code-up analysis pipelines and dig in. I’m a Reader, so I spend more time teaching and managing. I supervise three graduate students and a postdoc. I do enjoy supervision; I’m getting used to giving advice and someone else doing the work. My students are incredibly strong and independent.

So is there anyone you look up to in your work?
I would definitely highlight Jocelyn Bell-Burnell, the discoverer of pulsars. She was a graduate student who found sources that were incredibly regular pulsators. She was studying radio sources and found sources that would emit radio pulses incredibly regularly, with pulsation periods of milliseconds to a few seconds.

What she had discovered were neutron stars. These are the remnants of high-mass stars that have gone Supernova. After ejecting most of their mass in the supernova explosion, the leftover mass starts immediately collapsing under its own weight. Nothing can hold it up except for the fact that eventually protons and electrons are squished so close together that they form neutrons. You can only pack neutrons so closely according to Quantum Mechanics and this provides pressure which eventually halts the collapse of the star.

You end up with this tiny star. It’s about 10 kilometres in size and packed entirely of neutrons with a mass greater than one and a half times the mass of the Sun and rotating 30 times per second. They have radiation in their poles and if it points to the right direction, it’s basically like a lighthouse every time it rotates, so she figured out what they were – sadly, her PhD supervisor got the Nobel Prize for it and she didn’t.

She’s gone on to have an amazing career and is a huge advocate for women in science. She won the Breakthrough Prize recently and put the money into supporting women students.

Do you find your work supportive of women?
Yes and no. Astronomy is an interesting field because there have always been women – back to Caroline Herschel in the eighteenth century and Maria Mitchell in the nineteenth. In terms of understanding stars, stellar spectra and stellar composition, there has always been a core of women.
Like all the other STEM fields, it’s been hard. There is not so much overt discrimination, although there certainly was 50 years ago. There are small things, specifically unconscious bias. One example I would give is recommendation letters. There is a tendency to use different language. Male applicants are ‘brilliant’, ‘independent’, ‘assertive’. Female applicants are ‘diligent’ and ‘get along well with others’. This hurts women because in terms of hiring, employers will go for the brilliant and independent one.
There was a study where four actors were hired – older female, younger female, older male and young male. Each delivered the same university lecture and the audience rated the speakers. They rated the male speakers much higher than the female speakers, even though they were literally giving the same lecture.

So what tips would you have for women and girls who’d like to be in your position?
Seek out mentors and role models. Be persistent. An important mind-set is that we learn by doing and that often we don’t get it right the first time. We have this really damaging idea of ‘genius’ in the STEM fields – this idea that many people who go into STEM fields are inherently brilliant and good at maths. Most people I know who are successful in the sciences are not necessarily naturally brilliant and don’t get everything right. They have moments where things don’t quite work out and they have to start again from the beginning. If you fail at something, take it as a learning experience and you are more likely to succeed the next time.

For example, I had a lot of fear about maths in school. I’d never done poorly at it but it was never my strongest subject. A lot of that was cultural conditioning – I had the idea that there was a certain type of person who was ‘good at math’ and I wasn’t that. However, astrophysics is based on maths – and in the course of getting an astrophysics degree, I got a lot of practice in maths! Now, I don’t have maths fear – maths is just a tool I use every day.

What has been the best opportunity in your career?
I really treasure the opportunity I have had to work with amazing astronomical data sets, to travel and observe with world-class telescopes.

And what are you proud of?
Having done scientific work for quite a while, I like that I can look back and I think, “Oh wow, I wrote this paper this year and contributed to scientific understanding as a whole.”

Are you a believer in in five-year plans?
I always think: what do I need to do to stay at the forefront of my field, but I haven’t explicitly devised a five-year plan. I do spend a lot of time thinking about my strategy on a multi-year basis, though.

To finish, what’s your dream? If you could just do anything with data and in your work, what would that be?
Detecting and characterising a planet like the Earth, finding a place out there that’s habitable.

Image of Dr Beth Biller
Picture by Lesley Martin, interview Poppy Gerrard-Abbott

I really treasure the opportunity I have had to work with amazing astronomical data sets, to travel and observe with world-class telescopes

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