She’s out of this world! Meet Astronomer Dr Mireia Montes Quiles

By Lisa Nivison-Smith

After being fascinated by space from a young age, Dr Mireia Montes Quiles is now a researcher at the School of Physics, trying to expand our knowledge of the universe by researching one of its largest components – galaxy clusters. Beyond this, she is breaking common misconceptions about her field, showing that astronomers do not simply stare out of telescopes all day or predict horoscopes. Most importantly, Mireia is inspiring a new generation of female astronomers as our only astronomer in the UNSW Maths and Science Women Champion Program.

1. What is your official title?

I am a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the Astronomy group in the School of Physics at UNSW Sydney.

2. What does your current research focus on?

I am currently focused on understanding clusters of galaxies – the largest structures in the Universe bound by gravity. These clusters are collections of galaxies held together by gravity. We know that large structures form when smaller structures come together and we can see signs of this process if we study the outer parts of galaxies and, like in my case, clusters of galaxies. I study the diffuse light known as intracluster light that can be observed in these outer parts. I use this light as a “report” on what happened in the past to that cluster.

Characterizing this light is quite difficult because it is quite faint and requires a lot of telescope time (this is why we haven’t observed that many clusters). The faint light also means the reduction of the data from all this telescope time has to be very accurate. So I am currently trying to develop methods to reduce data from big telescopes so we can understand better how clusters of galaxies have formed.

Dr Montes’ research focuses on understanding how clusters of galaxies form

3. Why did you become an astronomer?

Whilst I have always been fascinated about space and the universe since I was young, I didn’t necessarily what to “grow up” to be astronomer as I also had a lot of other interests such as history and music. This actually made it very difficult for me to decide what to study at university as I didn’t know which interest I should follow. Eventually I discovered that to study astronomy I needed to study Physics and so, not very convinced, I enrolled in a Bachelor of Physics. After three long semesters at university, I had my first Astronomy class and I absolutely loved it! After that I had no choice but to pursue a career in astronomy.

4. What’s the biggest misconception about your field of research?

One of my favourite misconceptions is from stock photos where ‘astronomers’ are wearing lab coats and also that we spend all our time at a telescope. Whilst some astronomers work in instrumentation and might need lab coats and we do need to go to the telescope to observe from time to time, most of my day is spend in front of a computer in a shirt and jeans. I don’t even own a lab coat! The other common (and most annoying!) misconception is when people confuses astronomy and astrology. Astronomy is a science and Astrology is not!

5. When you are not doing research, what else do you like to do?

I love to dance! I started learning how to bellydance when I was doing my PhD and then afterwards, when I moved to the US to start a post-doc position, I continued to learn, embracing a dance style called American Tribal Style (R). I really love the through dance I have met super strong, beautiful and inspiring women and that is something I really treasure.

Astronomers hard at work (note – not actual astronomers)

6. Why did you join the UNSW Women in Maths and Science Champions Program?

Previously, I have not been involved in many public science events and I was actually a bit afraid of it. So I joined the program as a way to develop more skills to engage with the public. I am so surprised by how rewarding the program is. I have meet some amazing and inspiring colleagues and I love engaging with the community about my research. I particularly like being able to now inspire girls to pursue careers in STEM. Although I have been lucky to have always seen women in Astronomy at all levels, I recently had the “I am the only woman in the room” experience and I can see how important is for young women to see that people like them are successful in STEM careers. If I can make a girl feel that she can do whatever she wants, then I am happy.


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Genetics and Jazz: The Two Sides to Emily Vohralik

By Kristina Fidanovski

Emily Vohralik

Emily, like many scientists, leads a double life. She doesn’t begin with that though. When she sits down for this interview, she has an easy smile and ready words to set me at ease (I’ve never interviewed anyone before), and at first she tells me about molecular genetics and cell biology. The Jazzercise comes later.

By day, Emily works on getting her PhD. Where that will take her, she’s not too sure yet. But for now, she looks at how genes can affect your metabolism through your immune system. Specifically, she’s looking at the genes inside a type of immune cell – the eosinophil – which lives inside fat and . There’s been a lot of hype around beige and brown fat recently, mostly because it’s a type of fat that burns energy. Some people have it, some people don’t. And that’s pretty exciting to think about in terms of how these cells could be activated and used as an obesity treatment. Emily says that the hype isn’t necessarily wrong or misinformed, it’s just early: we’re not there yet. Her work is on the fundamental end, she’s working on establishing the basic facts about eosinophils, their genes and how they interact with fat cells.

An Average Day in the Life of Emily: Molecular Geneticist
The Dreaded Commute Check emails and get the day started.
Morning Lab Time! Working with bacteria to grow some DNA and then extract it.

Outreach Activity: A fun 20 minutes of pretending not to be cold for a Women in STEAM photoshoot (a collaboration between women in science and art to capture the image of all types of scientists for a photo exhibit).

Lunch Important networking time… that is, lunch with a couple of the lab buddies.
Afternoon More lab time, this time to prepare the DNA for sequencing and send it off.

Some computer time analysing data, catching up on the latest in the field, or putting off working on those presentation slides you really need to do.

Evening Freedom: for musical and athletic pursuits!
Emily in the tissue culture hood preparing to feed her cells.

But how did Emily come to be labouring away on a PhD anyway? She says that in high school she was just picking all the subjects she enjoyed. And those subjects happened to be chemistry, physics and biology (with some maths and English thrown in), even though her teachers were saying “Isn’t that too much science?” Emily didn’t think so. At university she did some general science and got really interested in molecular cell biology. She got more and more engrossed as each year passed until her third year conversations with PhD students hooked her into doing an honours project. It was in the same group she’s currently working in. When her honours year was coming to a close she says, “I felt like I had only just scratched the surface of my project.” So it felt natural to her to keep going and really dig into the fascinating world of ‘immunometabolism’.

Emily showing an experiment to an honours student, Annalise: labelling eosinophils with fluorescent tags and then analysing them with flow cytometry.

It seems to be going well for her. She’s a recipient of the prestigious Scientia Scholarship, though she’s too modest to mention it. And she already has an international conference under her belt. Last year she presented a poster at an ‘Immunometabolism’ conference in Aspen, Colorado. She says it was really cool to finally meet the people whose names you see on papers. She also likes how easy it is to share ideas when you’ve all been brought together like that. This year she’ll be travelling again for an ‘Eosinophil’ conference in Portland, Oregon. She’s looking forward to it, not just because the travel part is fun, but also because she feels that meeting other researchers expands your thinking in ways that no other experience can.

Finally, I get around to asking her who she is when the lab coat comes off. The answer is “Jazzercise! The original dance fitness.” I learn that it was started 50 years ago and involves dancing to songs for exercise, with strength training at the end to make sure you really feel it in the morning. Emily likes exploring that totally different side of herself and she’s even been an instructor since last July. It’s certainly an unexpected and totally brilliant answer. I’m fascinated. It’s almost an afterthought when I also learn that she plays clarinet in the Kuringai Youth Orchestra. She is a hidden wealth of talents.

In the end I ask her about the UNSW Women in Maths and Science Champions Program. “It was always something that I wanted to try,” she says – interacting, connecting with young girls who might one day come to love science. She thinks that it’s sad a lot of young girls might not even consider science. “We’ve all been there, if we can be inspiring to them that’s pretty cool.” She feels that being a scientist is about more than just the science that happens in the lab, “We have to be communicators too.”

Follow Emily on twitter @EVohralik

Follow Kristina on twitter @Kris_Fidanovski