The art of understanding baby stars

Research Lives: Dr Emma Whelan, associate professor, Maynooth University School of Experimental Physics

What is your general area of research?

I look at how stars are formed. That process begins with a clump of material that starts to collapse into a sphere and as it rotates it ejects matter and forms a disc of dust around it.

These jets or outflows from forming stars are important for the planets that form and orbit around it, like the way Earth goes around the sun. The stars that are very active at producing these jets seem to create conditions that are good for forming planets relatively quickly.

How do you examine that process?


We use telescopes and analyse the images they capture. We can see little gaps in the discs around forming stars, this is where planets could be forming. And we can take images of the jets, then work out from spectra how quickly the material in them is moving.

Where are you looking at these clusters of baby stars?

I focus on formations that are a few hundred parsecs away, that’s about 900 light years from us. The stars I look at are about a million years old. All of these things are relatively near and new in astronomical terms. It’s easier to capture high-resolution images of these ones that are closer to us.

You are on a sabbatical at the moment, tell us how that works.

A sabbatical is a chance to take a step back from teaching and admin roles in the university and focus more on research. That’s really important both for the university and for your own career. A lot of people take the opportunity to do that focus and reflection abroad, but we have a young child so I chose to go back to the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies where I did my PhD. It’s handy because I can still easily check in with my own PhD students now at Maynooth.

What are you getting done in your sabbatical?

It is going by very fast. When it first got approved, as a joke a colleague sent me an image of someone running free through the hills, but it’s not like that in practice. I have been focusing on how to get funding for my research into the future. That often means looking at ways to apply the research, and writing proposals to get time on telescopes.

What would you like people to know about becoming a researcher in astronomy and astrophysics?

If you enjoy maths and physics then an undergraduate degree in astrophysics is wonderful, I think. I did that in Trinity College Dublin. It gives you access to a range of skills and ways to solve problems. Then if you want to go into academic research after that, you have to realise it can be a tough road.

I was the first person in my family to go to university, and I am seeing how much hard work and sacrifice goes into being an academic researcher. It’s the kind of job where you are thinking about it around the clock. I do enjoy it, though, and my husband is also an astrophysicist and an academic, so we understand each other’s work environments.

Do you ever get a chance to completely unplug from the research?

Before our daughter came along I enjoyed a lot of art – drawing and painting and knitting – and reading things that aren’t related to work. Now we have fun that is built more around her, cycling to and from school and getting to spend time together.

Claire O'Connell

Claire O'Connell

Claire O'Connell is a contributor to The Irish Times who writes about health, science and innovation