Graduate profile

Matthew Francis

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Matt Francis

  • Studied: Arts and Science majoring in physics
  • Now works as: R&D Scientist, IPS Radio & Space Services, Bureau of Meteorology

Matt Francis admits he never planned to end up as an R&D Scientist at IPS Radio & Space Services in the Bureau of Meteorology. But his studies prepared him well for the work. "The research and modelling and problem-solving skills are the important thing, more so than the actual knowledge. The knowledge was all learnt on the job, it is the skills that are important." Matt was always interested in science and technology. But he also loved English and Drama and in his first year at university while undertaking a science degree, he discovered philosophy.

He ended up with a degree in arts and an honours degree in science, majoring in physics. He wasn't thinking about career options, but about what interested him.

As a result, he is an advocate of a generalist degrees. "There are a lot more niche degrees these days, but I think doing a general degree and then finding out in second, third year where you want to specialise is a better option."

And his arts-based skills also come in handy. "The communication side of things is always useful, I do a bit of media work here."

Matt went on to do a PhD at Sydney University in computational cosmology "using supercomputers for simulations to learn about the formation of galaxies and the large structures in the universe."

For the last couple of years he has worked on space weather, at the Bureau of Meteorology. The emphasis is on solar flares that cause the storms resulting in the spectacular southern aurora and northern lights. But they can also affect high frequency radio signals, affect the earth's magnetic field, disrupt GPS signals and even knock out power grids, like they did in Quebec, Canada, in 1989 affecting 6 million people.

"There are a lot of potentially very catastrophic things that don't happen very often. We have systems in place to alert people for 1 in 100 year events."

Solar flares have an 11 year cycle, and in late 2012 and early 2013 reached their maximum. Headlines warned the looming solar storms could "threaten life as we know it". Matt said that this episode was "very, very mild". But people are far more dependent on technologies like GPS and mobile phones than they were 11 years ago. "There is an increasing concern in the community about whether or not it is being taken seriously enough, but it is still pretty low risk," Matt says.