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Phd and Honours
While the AAO's primary role is the provision of world-class facilities for optical/infrared astronomy, the broad range of experience of AAO astronomers allows many opportunities for exciting and varied student research projects. These can be at either PhD or Honours/Masters level.
As the AAO is not a degree-awarding body, these projects will be carried out under the co-supervision of an AAO astronomer and a University supervisor. Therefore in order to embark on one of these projects you are required to be accepted into a higher degree program at a university.
Usually the joint nature of the project will require students to spend some fraction of their time at the AAO's headquarters in North Ryde, a suburb 25 km north-west of the centre of Sydney, where they will have access to the office and computing facilities of the AAO. For students based outside Sydney temporary accommodation can be arranged.
The first step in considering a graduate level research project at the AAO is to look through the information on potential supervisors and projects on these pages. Selecting a PhD, Masters or Honours supervisor and project will be one of the most critical decisions you will make in starting a research project - both student and advisor will be looking for someone they can work closely with, and who is well matched to the project. Talking to several prospective supervisors about a number of projects will greatly help you decide. So the next step after reading about the projects currently on offer will be to contact and discuss matters with both your AAO and University supervisors before coming to a decision.
AAO Honours/Masters Scholarships
The Australian Astronomical Observatory offers a $5000 scholarship for Honours or Masters students enrolled at any Australian university, for a research project substantially co-supervised with an AAO staff-member. You can apply using this application form in Word format or this application form in pdf format. The deadline for applications is 15 March. Any questions about the AAO Honours/Masters Scholarships or the application process can be directed to the Head of Research and Outreach at the AAO, Andrew Hopkins.
In addition, we also support jointly-funded Honours scholarships with Monash University (for details contact Dr Michael Brown) and jointly-funded Masters scholarships with Macquarie University (apply using the standard forms above, specifying Macquarie as host institution).
AAO PhD Scholarships
The Australian Astronomical Observatory manages a scheme of top-up scholarships for students at Australian universities who are substantially co-supervised by an AAO staff member. These grants will be $5000 per annum for 3 years, with a possible further 6-month extension. More details (including application forms) are available on the AAO PhD Scholarship Scheme webpage. The deadline for PhD scholarship scheme applications is 15 March.
ASTRONOMERS & THE AAO
Staff at the AAO are actively involved in astronomical research and in the development of new instruments to carry out these research projects. Much of this research concentrates on the Anglo-Australian Telescope (AAT) or the UK Schmidt Telescope (UKST), though AAO astronomers also make frequent use of other national and international facilities, such as the Gemini Telescopes in Hawaii and Chile that Australia is a partner in. The AAO has a world-wide reputation in both optical and infrared imaging and spectroscopy. A particular strength of AAT and UKST research is large-scale surveys to identify hundreds of thousands of a certain class of objects; in particular, old stars, galaxies and quasars.
The AAO is engaged in several major ongoing surveys: the WiggleZ project is using the AAOmega instrument on AAT to determine the evolutionary properties of the mysterious Dark Energy, but measuring the clustering of several hundred thousand distant galaxies; GAMA (Galaxy And Mass Assembly) is studying galaxy structures by building a database of a quarter of a million galaxies; the Anglo-Australian Planet Search is surveying almost 300 nearby stars to search for extra-solar planets; and the RAVE survey is using the UK Schmidt Telescope to map the kinematics and chemical abundances of stars in our Galaxy. Two major surveys (now completed) that have had enormous scientific impact were the Two Degree Field Galaxy Redshift Survey, and the Two Degree Field QSO Redshift Survey. The first of these obtained redshifts (distances) for more than 220,000 galaxies out to a redshift of 0.3. The second survey measured redshifts for over 22,000 quasars, at redshifts up to 3. The 6dF Galaxy Survey has completed a mammoth survey of over 120000 nearby galaxies over the whole Southern sky. In addition to planets, old stars, galaxies and quasars, AAO astronomers have a wide range of other interests. These include brown dwarfs, supernovae, star formation, starburst and active galaxies, gravitational lensing and cosmology.
The AAO is also home to one of the world's most innovative and vibrant astronomical instrumentation groups - in recent years the AAO has been involved in the construction of instruments for both the AAT and UKST (SAMI, IRIS2, AAOmega, 6dF) and other telescopes (OzPoz for the FLAMES instrument on the ESO VLT; Echidna/FMOS for Subaru; as well as work for Gemini and DAzLE for VLT). Research projects involving development of new and innovative instrumentation, followed by an observational component, often produce some of the most sought-after astronomy graduates.
What do we do?
We are often asked "What do we do?" Contrary to popular opinion, a typical astronomer will only use telescopes a few weeks a year. Getting time to use a telescope is highly competitive. At the last estimate, there are 13,000 astronomers world-wide although only about a third of these aggressively pursue access to telescopes. AAO astronomers do not restrict themselves to the AAT or UKST. We apply for time on radio and sub-millimetre telescopes, larger optical/infrared telescopes like Gemini and the VLT, and space-borne observatories like the Hubble Space Telescope, Chandra X-ray observatory and so on.
Who are we?
The research interests of staff at the AAO are extensive. You can find a list of the AAO astronomers and PhD students on the AAO Science page. Additional descriptions of the research interests of several AAO staff can be found on their personal web pages, linked from the AAO Science page, and some recent science highlights from the AAO can be found in the AAO Annual Report, as well as the AAO's Newsletter and Press Release pages.
PhD projects are programs which target significant new bodies of research over a 3-4 year timescale. As an astronomy PhD student you will be involved in developing (with your supervisors) a program of research designed to attack some set of key questions. You will have to write observing proposals, take data, analyse it and prepare it for publication, as well as writing up your results in thesis form. The AAO can offer co-supervision of students in PhD projects together with a University-based supervisor at your home institution.
The following are a few potential projects for PhD students. Astronomy is a subject in which developments move rapidly - so the hot topics by the time a project starts could have changed. All projects are worked out by discussion between you and your prospective supervisor, so treat this list as a source of ideas and a starting point. Members of staff may have other projects waiting in the wings. Students who are interested in subject areas not covered below are encouraged to contact relevant AAO astronomers directly. Students who are interested in projects in astronomical instrumentation should contact Andrew Sheinis, the AAO's Head of Instrumentation.
The Rise of the Jellyfish: Galaxies caught in the act of environmentally driven transformation
Supervisor: Matt Owers
Major cluster mergers as drivers of galaxy transformation and evolution
Supervisor: Matt Owers
Galaxy And Mass Assembly: The projected phase space distribution of group members by spectral type
Supervisor: Matt Owers
The angular momentum of massive galaxies
Supervisor: Sarah Brough
Our current model of the formation of galaxies suggests that they grow gradually over time through mergers with other galaxies. The most massive galaxies observed today have therefore gone through many such mergers. The initial galaxies are thought to start off as rotating systems and with each merger the galaxy loses more and more rotation until they are barely rotating at all. However, small studies of some of the most massive galaxies, Brightest Cluster Galaxies (BCGs), find that some are still rotating, in stark contradiction to our current picture.
Until recently, there were only small numbers of observations of these massive galaxies. The ground-breaking multi-object integral-field SAMI galaxy survey now means that there are observations of hundreds of these galaxies. This project will therefore use SAMI observations to resolve this conundrum and understand why some massive galaxies are still
rotating. Integral field observations are the future of astronomy so this project will be an important grounding in a crucial new technique.
The unbound stars of massive galaxies
Supervisor: Sarah Brough
One of the pressing, unanswered questions in astronomy is why the most massive galaxies in the Universe are not observed to have grown in mass as much as theoretical models suggest that they should have. A possible solution is that galaxies merging with the most massive galaxies may actually be destroyed into clouds of unbound stars in the process. This would also explain the origin of diffuse, stellar haloes observed around some of the most massive galaxies: Brightest Cluster Galaxies (BCGs). BCGs are massive elliptical galaxies found at the centres of groups and
clusters of galaxies.
This project would utilise data from the multi-wavelength imaging and spectroscopic Galaxy And Mass Assembly (GAMA) survey to select the BCGs and undertake initial surface brightness analyses before obtaining new deeper imaging from world-class international telescopes to measure the mass of diffuse light and its origin for the first time. This project will provide key skills in data mining, image analysis and obtaining astronomical observations.
Outer kinematics and chemistry of nearby galaxies
Supervisor: Caroline Foster
The outskirts of galaxies retain signs of galaxy assembly that can last for billions of years and are otherwise invisible in the galaxy centres. Recent literature have shown that several galaxies exhibit interesting and dramatic kinematic transitions beyond the usually probed inner regions. This transition to a kinematically distinct halo (KDH) is predicted theoretically although it has only recently been confirmed observationally. How common this feature is, its possible association with stellar population transitions or as a function of Hubble types remain to be explored using a sizeable samples.
Using world-class optical telescopes in Hawaii and Chile, the "SLUGGS" (near infrared) and "Dragons" (visible) projects are obtaining large scale reconstructed kinematic and chemical abundance maps for a sizeable sample of nearby galaxies. These two surveys are highly complementary, covering different spectral wavelengths and galaxy types, thereby enabling a deeper understanding of systematics.
This project offers the possibility of early involvement in the new Dragons survey, the use of data from world-class observatories and of a recently developed data reduction technique (Norris et al. 2008; Proctor et al. 2009) to push the galactocentric boundary. The selected student will acquire invaluable spectral and kinematical analysis skills that are easily portable to popular IFU studies. The Dragons survey is an international collaboration between scientists in Australia, Canada, Chile, USA and The Netherlands, hereby offering a connection to further worldwide opportunities.
Honours or Masters projects are smaller in scale than PhD projects, and aim to provide senior undergraduate students with a research project they can undertake at a level of ~50% of their time over the course of their enrolment. Honours or Masters students will be expected to write a thesis for their University describing this work, and are often also able to write up results for publication in a refereed scientific journal.
Some potential Honours/Masters projects are listed below. The nature of research is that some of these projects could be extended and grow into PhD projects. Similarly members of staff may have other projects waiting in the wings. Astronomy is a subject in which developments move rapidly - so the hot topics by the time such a project starts could have changed. All projects are worked out by discussion between you and your prospective supervisor, so treat this list as a source of ideas and a starting point. If you're interested in subject areas not covered below, you are encouraged to contact relevant AAO astronomers directly. Students who are interested in projects in astronomical instrumentation should contact the AAO's Head of Instrumentation, Andrew Sheinis, or the Head of Instrument Science, Jon Lawrence. Lee Spitler and Richard McDermid (AAO/Macquarie Lecturers) can also be contacted for information on Masters Projects through Macquarie University. PhD students who undertake brief (3 month) research projects in their first year, prior to starting their main thesis project can be co-supervised by AAO astronomers in such projects, and some of the projects below may be suitable for this.
Project: The best way to measure environment
Supervisor: Sarah Brough
Galaxies are found in a wide range of environments, from hamlets where they are a very long way from their neighbours to cities where they live cheek-by-jowl with thousands of other galaxies. Unfortunately there are many different ways of measuring that environment, each of which gives a slightly different picture of what effect that environment has. The aim of this project is to use data from the very large new Galaxy And Mass Assembly (GAMA) survey to determine the environment measure that optimally characterises a galaxy's true environment. This project will provide invaluable skills in the mathematical analysis of large sets of data.
Project: Unveiling the large scale kinematics of nearby galaxies in the Dragons survey
Supervisor: Caroline Foster
The projected shape of galaxies on the sky has been used to categorise and interpret the formation of galaxies since the dawn of extragalactic astronomy. Despite several decades of efforts, the classification of galaxies is still being debated, particularly with the advent of new technology able to observe the velocity dimension efficiently. This essentially allows for galaxies to be observed in 3D. For technical reasons, this kinematic classification is usually limited to the very inner parts of galaxies and could change further out. It is thus important to study the 3D outskirts of galaxies to obtain a reliable classification.
As part of the "Here be dragons" survey, we have obtained VLT/VIMOS spectra of 5 nearby galaxies out to large galactocentric radii. These data are mostly reduced and in hand. Given the success of this pilot project, we are applying for a larger survey (30 targets) on Gemini. With the current data, we hope to test the scale at which the kinematic classification holds and probe the kinematic transition beyond the usually probed effective radius. Indeed, these kinematically distinct halos (KDH, see Foster et al. 2013) have been observed in several early-type galaxies. A KDH is predicted for merger remnants, and given the fact that most galaxies are the product of multiple mergers, such a feature should be present in the majority of early-type galaxies. With this sample of varied morphological types (spirals to ellipticals), we hope to determine how widely spread KDHs are across the Hubble sequence.
This project offers the possibility of early involvement in the new Dragons survey, the use of data from world-class observatories and of a recently developed data reduction technique (Norris et al. 2008; Proctor et al. 2009) to push the galactocentric boundary. The selected student will acquire invaluable spectral and kinematical analysis skills that are easily portable to popular IFU studies. The Dragons survey is an international collaboration between scientists in Australia, Canada, Chile, USA and The Netherlands, offering a connection to further worldwide opportunities.
Project: 2D spectroscopic analysis of local dwarf star-forming galaxies
Supervisor: Angel Lopez-Sanchez and Heath Jones (Macquarie)
The new observational technique of 2D spectroscopy using Integrated Field Units (IFU) is providing amazing new results about the kinematics and the chemical composition of galaxies. In particular, Blue Compact Dwarf Galaxies (BCDGs) are excellent targets to perform such studies, because their modest sizes allow that all the galaxy can be observed in just some few pointings. During the last year we have collected some 2D spectroscopy data of a sample of BCDGs using the new WiFeS instrument available at the 2.3m ANU telescope at Siding Spring Observatory, and the preliminary results are quite promising. We are offering the opportunity of study one or two of the BCDGs for which we already have good-quality data. In particular, this project will give to the Honours student an introduction to 2D spectroscopy techniques (we expect to continue the observations using both WiFeS @ 2.3m ANU and SPIRAL @ 3.9m AAT) and to gain some expertise in the reduction and analysis of this kind of data. The aims of this project is to perform an analysis of the physical (mass, star-formation rate, extinction, electron temperature and density, excitation), chemical (ionic and total abundances of helium, oxygen, nitrogen, sulphur, neon, argon...) and kinematical properties of the ionized gas within these galaxies, which may be compared with the properties of the neutral gas from our own ATCA observations. Finally, the student will also learn to write up the results not only for his/her Honours Thesis but for a subsequent publication. As an example of this project, please consult the 2D spectroscopical analysis of the brightest star-forming region of the local BCDG IC10, López-Sánchez et al. (2011) and this research image.
Project: The nature of the extraordinary supernova SNLS-06D4eu
Supervisor: Chris Lidman
With the advent of wide field patrol surveys, such as the Palomar Transit Factory and SkyMapper, we are entering an exciting era of discovering new types of transient phenomena. Hints of what might be discovered in the not too distant future are emerging from the analysis of data from much smaller surveys, such as the Supernova Legacy Survey or SNLS for short. SNLS-06D4eu is one such discovery. It is one of the most luminous and most distant supernova ever discovered. It is not clear what drives the explosion. One possibility is that it is a pulsating pair-instability supernova. Theory suggests that the progenitor of a pulsating pair-instability supernova undergoes two massive mass loss events. The supernova occurs when the mass ejected from the second event catches up to the first one. If SNLS-06D4eu is such a supernova, then there might be evidence of the first mass loss event in data that was taken up to three years before the supernova was discovered. The goal of this project is to analyse data taken before (and after) the SNLS-06D4eu was discovered and to search for evidence of additionally variability in this source.
Project: The Composition of Stars in Clusters - Tracing the Chemical History of the Galaxy
Supervisors: John Lattanzio, Simon Campbell (Monash), Gayandhi de Silva (AAO), Brad Gibson (U Central Lancashire, UK, visiting Monash in 2012)
Most stars are born in clusters. The oldest and most populous are the globular clusters which orbit our Galaxy. Within the galaxy itself are younger, less populous "open clusters". Recent studies have shown that the stars in globular clusters show chemical element abundance patterns that are unique to the clusters. We do not know why they are not seen in the Galaxy, but only within the globular clusters. Is it possible for similar patterns to appear in open clusters? Preliminary observations suggest that they do not, and that the stars within a given open cluster all have the same abundances. But how does the composition of the open clusters as a population compare to the patterns seen in the globular clusters? Are the open clusters showing a similar chemical enrichment history or a different history? It is proposed to collect data from the literature on the abundances in various open clusters and to compare these to the patterns seen in globular clusters. Do the open clusters show the sort of enrichment history that is seen in the Galaxy overall? Or do they share some of the patterns seen in globular clusters? The project will involve understanding stellar nucleosynthesis as well as the chemical evolution of the Galaxy, and work with a computer codes that calculate these properties. This project will involve travel to the Australian Astronomical Observatory (in Sydney) to visit and work with Dr de Silva.
Project: Spectroscopy and the Composition of Stars in Globular Clusters
Supervisors: John Lattanzio, Simon Campbell (Monash), Gayandhi de Silva (AAO)
Globular clusters are the oldest and most populous stellar aggregates in existence. Recent studies have shown that the stars in globular clusters show abundance patterns that are unique to the clusters. We do not know why they are not seen in the Galaxy, but only within the globular clusters. They may even be the remnants of collisions between dwarf Galaxies and our Milky Way. A fuller understanding requires us to determine the abundances of many stars in many clusters and to compare with theoretical models so we can see what stars produced the existing patterns. Project: We will source original data form the world's largest telescopes and then analyse this to determine the abundances of key species in globular cluster stars: perhaps Li, C, N, O, Mg, Al, Fe as well as the heavy elements made by neutron capture, such as Sr, Y, Zr, Ba, La. Stellar models that can produce these species will be compared with the abundances we measure. This project will involve travel to the Australian Astronomical Observatory (in Sydney) to visit and work with Dr de Silva. There is also the opportunity to visit and observe with the 4m Anglo-Australian Telescope in Coonabarabran, NSW.
Will I get paid?
Most PhD studentships are funded through scholarships from individual Universities or through grants from the Australian Research Coucil (ARC) to University supervisors. The Australian Astronomical Observatory manages a scheme of top-up scholarships for students at Australian universities who are substantially co-supervised by an AAO staff member. These grants will be $5000 per annum for 3 years. More details (including an application form) are available on our AAO PhD Scholarship Scheme webpage. For visiting undergraduate students, the AAO offers stipends through our AAO Student Fellowships and the Australian Gemini Undergraduate Summer Studentships. There are also Honours and Masters scholarships available. Access to the AAO's computer facilities, and office space at the AAO's Epping offices are provided to PhD/Honours students jointly supervised by AAO staff.
Will I get better access to AAT time?
Observing time on the AAT is awarded purely on the basis of scientific merit in a process of peer review of proposals - so in short, no. Having said that, AAO staff are extremely successful in competing for and winning time on both the AAT and other telescopes, so you will receive the best possible assistance in preparing winning proposals.
There are no hard and fast rules for establishing a joint supervision project. Every case is unique. Your University, however, will have guidelines for when you must select a project, and for the approval of projects (and supervisors) by the University.
The process for establishing a joint supervision project will usually go something like this
- Talk to your prospective AAO supervisor (in fact you should talk to several).
- Talk to your prospective University supervisor, or the supervisor of the PhD or Honours program at your University.
- Establish with the supervisor of the PhD or Honours program at your University that they are prepared to allow joint supervision.
- There will now be a phase where all three of you work out how the project will work, what hoops the University will require you all to go through, and when.
In general the earlier you start making contact with supervisors before your research project would be due to actually start, the better. For example, getting the ball rolling and talking to prospective supervisors in the July-November period before an Honours project starts in February (though not essential) would be a good idea (though exact timing seems to vary from University to University, with students in some departments choosing projects as late as the first week of the academic year).
PhD programs are generally organized somewhat earlier, with the Australian Postgraduate Award deadline of October 31 being a hard limit forcing students to at least choose what University they are going to do their degree at, which may also involve getting a feel for the kind of research they'd like to do. Once you are accepted for a PhD programme, if you are co-supervised by someone at the AAO you can then apply for one of the AAO top-up scholarships (worth $5000 per year for 3 years). The deadline for these is 15 March.
Please feel free to contact us here at the AAO to discuss your interests, concerns or problems. You can either contact a prospective supervisor directly, or make contact through Andrew Hopkins, the AAO's Head of Research and Outreach.