Stars light the path to Uni
17 January 2013
Benjamin Pope is preparing to start a PhD at the University of Sydney in 2013 after an amazing 2012 that saw him work with a Nobel Laureate, observe the work of world leaders in astrophysics and travel to an observatory in Hawaii.
Having completed his undergraduate degree at the University of Sydney, Ben spent 2012 finalising his honours thesis, for which he received a University medal, and spent part of the year on exchange to the University of California, Berkeley.
"My exchange at Berkeley solidified my intention to pursue astronomy as a career," says Ben. "I had the opportunity to work for the Infrared Spatial Interferometer group, headed by Nobel Laureate Charles H Townes: it was a rare privilege to gain laboratory experience in laser applications under the technology's inventor."
At high school Ben was more interested in classics and languages, and his interest in stargazing wasn't piqued until discovering he was shortsighted. However, once he wore glasses for the first time and saw the breathtaking night sky, his perception changed forever. Ben's high-school science teacher then combined his interests in science and history, convincing him to enrol in Science and Arts at the University of Sydney.
"The example of those who've taught me has cemented the importance of nurturing the individual interests of students and helping them find the right field to kindle their excitement", says Ben, even though he didn't start out with a career in astrophysics in mind.
Initially concerned that he wasn't up for the challenge after a long and frustrating series of astronomy observations, Ben realised that he'd learned more from his setbacks than his successes. With this fresh perspective he went on to major in Physics, and when the opportunity for exchange presented itself, chose Berkeley for its reputation in this field. Focusing his honours thesis on helping telescopes see specific things better, further away, Ben says his experience at the Mt Wilson Observatory in southern California gave him a "humbling feeling of fellowship with the researchers of the past."
"I was so thrilled to be working in a field that's discovering in nature what was previously only found in science fiction," he says of the experience.
As he prepares for his PhD, Ben believes we're in the midst of a revolution in astronomy. "For the first time in history astronomy can deliver hard data on the questions of how many planets there are in the galaxy," says Ben, "what they are like, how they develop - and most excitingly - whether any of them are habitable or may harbour life. This project is arguably one of the most exciting in modern science and I am very keen to play my part in this endeavour".
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