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Núria MIRET ROIG, PhD in Astrophysics, MERAC prize

Why astronomy?

Go to the countryside, far from the light pollution of cities, and look up at the night sky. It’s gorgeous. This night portrait fascinates me so much that I want to learn as much as I can about it. I started getting interested in astronomy as a teenager. I joined an amateur observatory, the Observatori del Garraf, near my hometown, where I participated in my first research as amateur astronomer. I was also very interested in science and Physics, so I pursued the Physics Bachelor and the Astrophysics Master at the University of Barcelona. Towards the end of my studies, I had the chance to join a research group at the department of Astrophysics at the University of Barcelona, the Gaia team, where I published my first article as a professional astronomer.

How is it to do a PhD abroad?

For me it was a great experience both for the professional and personal aspects. Going abroad gave me the opportunity to meet with other researchers with different ways of working and thinking. In my opinion, it is great to learn all this at an early stage of a scientific career, when we’re still defining the way in which we want to work. Additionally, it gave me the chance to start new collaborations on top of the ones I already had from my Master. At the same time, it has also been a good experience to meet with a different culture, tasting new food, learning a new language, and get to know new people.

If you’re thinking to pursue a PhD abroad, my advice would be first choose a supervisor with whom you see yourself working (yes, in my opinion this is as much important as the research topic). And second but not least, make sure you go to a place in which you would like to live besides working. If you're into sun and beach and you're going to live in Antarctica for several years, even if you're working on your favourite subject, you may have a hard time.

You have been awarded with the MERAC Prize from the European Astronomical Society and the Science and Technology Thesis Prize from the University of Bordeaux. What do you think the jury valued and what did these recognitions represent to you?

I was awarded these prizes for the discovery of the largest population of free-floating planets. These are objects of sizes similar to the planets and exoplanets that we know (<13 Jupiter masses) which are orphans of planetary system, instead they roam among the rest of stars in our Galaxy. They are extremely faint and hard to detect. The success of our work is due to the huge dataset that we gathered and analysed. We processed more than 80 000 astronomical images taken with the largest telescopes on Earth over the past 20 years. Thanks to this excellent data and modern statistical tools we could not only detect the planets in our images but also measure their tiny motions, similar to the diameter of 1 EUR coin on top of the Eiffel tour as seen from New York! I think the jury appreciated the originality and robustness of our study as well as the many open doors that this new sample opens for future studies.

I am very honoured and thankful to have received these recognitions. It’s very rewarding to get your work valued, specially when you have put so much effort on it. Additionally, I think that thanks to these prizes many more people will get interested into our study which is very exciting.

How hard is it to balance your time during the PhD?

In my opinion, this is an important topic that we are slowly becoming more aware of, but it still needs to be discussed a lot more in research institutes and universities. An important thing I learned during the PhD is to know my own limits. To learn to listen to my body and know when it tells me "you've done enough for today, now it's time to rest". The PhD is a very vocational and, at the same time, competitive job and this makes it sometimes difficult to know when to stop. Obviously there are times, for example, when important deadlines approach, that it is worth making an extra effort to obtain the desired result. However, since I've learned to balance my time, I feel more excited about my work and I'm also much more efficient. For me, the key has been learning to organise and prioritise!

Advice for students who want to do a PhD.

Do it. If you really feel motivated for it, don’t think twice and give a try. For sure there will be hard times, days when you think “who asked me to ever do a PhD?”. But then, there are also other fantastic days when you realise you found an exciting result in your data and you now know a bit more about something that fascinates you. Then, you may even feel like the luckiest person on Earth.

I would like to make a special last call for minorities. Even if you have few or any role model, any person in which you see yourself becoming, give it a try. You might even get surprised about your possibilities and become this model for someone else in the next generation.


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