Sarah Brough is an Associate Professor and ARC Future Fellow in astrophysics at UNSW.
She is an observational astronomer and member of two large galaxy surveys (GAMA and SAMI).
Her research focuses on how galaxies change with time, and how that change depends on the environment they are found in. She is particularly interested in changes of the most massive galaxies in the universe.
My research expertise is in galaxy evolution - looking at how galaxies change over time. We think the universe formed in a big bang nearly 14 billion years, and now we're here in the Milky Way galaxy. But how did we get the Milky Way or the other galaxies we see around us? What is it about galaxies that has caused change over time?
I did a four-year undergraduate physics degree in the UK, and when I finished that I ran away screaming, “That was too hard! I don't want to do that again!”. But a lot of my friends went into particle physics, did a PhD, and there seemed to be interesting perks about research. As the months went on, I didn’t have a job and was missing science and the identity of myself as a scientist. I had only done one module in astrophysics, but I'd been reading all the expanding universe stuff that was coming out in the popular literature. It just fired in my brain, and I thought, “I’m going to do a PhD in astrophysics!”
I got a bunch of offers but went back to have an interview at Liverpool John Moores University. Two things occurred: one of the interviewers didn't have his shoes on, he was just wearing his socks, which is unusual. But I like different. Then the other person was saying, "If you came and worked with me, we would study the most massive galaxies in the universe." I walked away from that going, "I like you guys. This is interesting. I think I want to do this".
One of my proudest moment was when I got my ARC Future Fellowship. I was in the park with my son when I heard that I’d got it; I received a text message from my director at the time. So, I'm in a kids' park, crying, because I got this fellowship! It's because so few people get it and it's really a vote of confidence by your peers, as you are being graded by the people you know. Another one is getting papers accepted: it’s a long journey, you jump through the hoops. Then it's done, it's out there, and people can see what you've achieved. Also, my first PhD student as sole supervisor got her PhD. As sole supervisor, that’s a really special moment.
I started my career with two consecutive two-year contracts. And although I didn’t have to move location, each time you move person and topic it takes a while to get up to speed. In the second post-doc, I got involved in a big survey which took a while to start being published. I hadn't really published anything personally either and I ended up at that crunch zone, where it looks like you’re not producing. Getting that next job was atrocious. It probably took me two and half job rounds.
Additionally, I was British, in Australia on a temporary visa, and would have had to leave at the end of my contract. Finally, I got offered a research job at the Anglo-Australian Observatory, as it was. And the reason I got that job was a lot to do with the fact that the big survey I had been working on had been using an AAO telescope, so I spent a lot of time using the telescope, using the instruments, getting that expertise, getting to know those people.
I'm very proud now to be involved in three galaxy surveys. The first one is a dark energy survey, which is about measuring the shape of the universe.
The next is the Galaxy and Mass Assembly (GAMA) survey. This is an ongoing survey on big galaxy evolution that is hugely valuable.
The third one is called SAMI (Sydney AAO Multiple IFU). This is looking more closely at 3,000 of those 300,000 GAMA galaxies. It looks at spatially resolved features, so we can find out more detail about the galaxies. That plays on the direction that my own research has been heading in since about 2009. Instead of just having a distance or an image, you've got spectroscopy. You can look at how the galaxy is moving around, or what kind of stars are making up the galaxy.
I'm always asking the questions, how much does a galaxy's properties depend on its current mass and its environment? How many galaxies are around us? Mass is always the most important, and then environment comes second. Do you have a big enough sample? Do you have enough accuracy to be able to measure that? I think I have contributed to our picture of the most massive galaxies; I think we now understand galaxies better because of my research, but we don't know all the answers yet.
In terms of professional legacy, I have contributed through these big galaxy surveys becoming publicly available. That data means that I can do my thing, but also hundreds of other people can do their thing. And the same with the telescope we are in the process of joining: Australia will have the opportunity to use that data through the leadership and effort that I'm putting in now.
Advice to Younger Women
I'd really like it if I had attended and paid attention in my lectures as a student. I wish I had known then to go and talk to the lecturers as I know now that I learn by talking to people and by trying things out myself. So, understanding that's how I learn, and that these opportunities are there. Don't panic though because you will find your path.
For younger women starting in a research career, make contact: look up people on the internet; send them an email. They might not respond, but they probably will. They can give you advice, support and encouragement. If you're already in a university, talk to your professors. You can get undergraduate research projects, sometimes for credit. By sticking your head above the parapet, many things are possible. And remember to always enjoy life at the same time. Don't work too hard as otherwise you will get resentful, tired and burnt out, and that doesn't help anybody.