Professor Annette Ferguson

Personal Chair in Observational Astrophysics in the School of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Edinburgh

Can you tell us about your journey to your current role?
I am originally from Scotland and grew up in Dumbarton, which is just west of Glasgow. Both my grandfathers worked in the ship-building industry and my dad earned a trade in toolmaking. By the early 1980s, Dumbarton did not offer much for working-class families like mine and so when my dad was offered a job with an aircraft company in Canada, my parents jumped at the chance for a new beginning.
There was no history of higher education in my family but I had always done well in school, and I had always loved a challenge, so I felt that University was worth considering. I liked problem-solving and trying to understand how things worked so was drawn to study either the physical sciences or engineering. Thanks largely to scholarships and bursaries, I was able to attend the University of Toronto and I graduated with a BSc degree with Distinction in Physics and Astronomy. From there, I proceeded to do a PhD in Astrophysics at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, USA and then went on to hold postdoctoral research fellowships at the University of Cambridge, the University of Groningen and the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics in Munich.
I returned to Scotland in 2005 to assume a Lectureship in the Institute for Astronomy at the University of Edinburgh. I was promoted to Readership in 2007 and Professorship in 2013.

Can you tell us about a typical day of work for you?
A wonderful thing about my job is that my days are usually very varied and I rarely have the same routine two days in a row. During the academic term, I might deliver a 1-2 hour lecture on several days of the week and then spend time meeting individually with undergraduate students who are working with me on short research projects. I also manage a research group with PhD students and postdoctoral researchers and aim to meet with them every few days to discuss progress and future directions. Some of my time gets spent on administration duties for the School of Physics and Astronomy – I handle requests for degree transfers and admissions – and I assume external duties, such as the peer review of proposals for funding and telescope agencies.

How much research are you involved with?
I consider the best aspect of my job to be the opportunity I get for personal research and I try to fit this in whenever possible. I am frequently writing proposals to use telescopes to acquire new observations that will help me to address a problem and I might spend several months on the analysis and interpretation of the data once it arrives. Much of my research is done with Masters/PhD students and postdoctoral researchers (typically 3-5 at any given time) , and it is usually carried out within the scope of international collaborations. I go through periods of being in daily contact with colleagues in places such as Australia, Hawaii and Japan as we work together to analyse new results.

Can you tell us about the data sets, analysis techniques and equipment you use?
My research is focused on understanding how galaxies like our Milky Way initially came to be and the physical processes that have affected their appearance over billions of years of cosmic time. Galaxies are composed of stars, gas and lots of dark matter, which is a mysterious substance that we still know very little about. Some people think that dark matter is the most exciting aspect of galaxies but for me it is the stars that are most fascinating! When we study the old-aged stars in a galaxy, we are learning about how that galaxy was when those stars formed over ten billion years ago. Much like fossils we study on the Earth, old-aged stars preserve an archaeological record of how conditions in galaxies were in the past. My research uses the ensemble properties of these stars to reconstruct the histories of galaxies, through analysing their positions, motions, ages and their heavy element contents.
These kinds of analyses are best conducted on nearby galaxies, such as our own Milky Way and the neighbouring Andomeda and Triangulum galaxies, since the proximity of these systems means it is possible to get precision data for many hundreds of millions of old-aged stars. The data that I use comes from facilities such as the Subaru Telescope, which is based on Mauna Kea in Hawaii, and the Hubble Space Telescope, which has been on orbit around the Earth for almost 2 decades. Another dataset I use, and one that is rapidly transforming our understanding of our own Milky Way, is provided by the Gaia satellite which was launched by the European Space Agency in 2013.

Wow, that is so exciting. What are you most passionate about in your work?
One of the main questions I am exploring at the moment is to what extent large galaxies like the Milky Way and Andromeda have formed from the coming together of many smaller bits. Theory predicts that when a small galaxy wanders too close to a large one, the strong gravity of the large system should rip it apart and subsume all of its stars – you might think of this as a kind of galaxy cannibalism! Through analysing millions of stars in the Milky Way galaxy, we can indeed see evidence that some of its stars have been acquired from smaller systems. I am on the hunt to find further support for this picture from studies of other nearby galaxies.

Concerning the future – what do you look forward to?
The future is very bright for my research field. In the course of the next decade, a number of game-changing datasets will come from new telescopes and satellites and I plan to use these to help transform our understanding of how galaxies form and evolve over time. These datasets will allow us to detect stars and galaxies that we have never seen before. To handle all this new data, we also need to develop and apply techniques to extract quantitative information from massive datasets. This presents a really exciting challenge and offers the potential to collaborate with researchers in other disciplines, where promising methods may already have been developed for completely different problems.

What does Edinburgh offer your work?
Edinburgh is a wonderful city to live in and the University of Edinburgh’s strong reputation enables it to attract many talented students and researchers, some of whom I have the privilege to work with. At the Institute for Astronomy, my research really benefits from interactions with the Wide-Field Astronomy Unit, which is a small group of specialised researchers who process, curate and archive many of the massive datasets that I work with.

Do you find your work supportive of women?
I find it increasingly supportive of women but there are still many challenges. Research in the last few years has uncovered many long-standing biases concerning how women are treated in my research field. For example, we now know that gender bias is pervasive in such things as telescope time allocation, hiring and promotion practices and even the perception of lecturing quality. Thanks to having the data which unequivocally demonstrates the existence of these biases, we are in a much stronger position to address and try to eliminate them.
I would absolutely recommend my line of work to other women. An academic career offers not only the exciting opportunity to engage in forefront research but also a good deal of flexibility in terms of working hours and patterns. At the moment, only about 10% of Physics professors are female but the numbers are higher for undergraduate and postgraduate students so in time I expect the representation of women at the senior levels will be greatly improved.

Do you have any tips for women and girls who would like to be you?
Everyone is likely to follow a different path but I think aspiring to build a successful career in academia generally always requires loads of passion for your subject area, a willingness to work hard and a strong belief that you have the abilities and determination to succeed. Having excellent mentors and supporters has been hugely important to me. Things don’t always go well but if you are surrounded by people who nurture and encourage you then you are much more likely to overcome the self-doubt and keep going.

What are you most proud of?
I am proud of the fact that I have ended up with a job that really interests and challenges me, and that pays sufficiently well for me to lead a good life! This is especially true considering that people with my kind of background don’t often end up working in academia. I am very privileged in many respects but my path to this point has not always been easy; I hope that I can use my experiences to encourage and support more people from working-class backgrounds to enter into professions like mine.

What do you do when the working day is over?
I strongly believe in a healthy work-life balance and make sure that my time spent outside of work is lived to the fullest! I have a close circle of friends and family and many interests such as art, theatre and live music.

Image of Professor Annette Ferguson
Picture by Lesley Martin, interview by Poppy Gerrard-Abbott

Game-changing datasets are emerging in my research field, made possible by new telescopes and satellites that are observing stars and galaxies that we have never seen before

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