How this Irish researcher aims for the stars

Star formation researcher Dr. Jessica Erkal shares her experience with the IRC-ESO scholarship program and the importance of space research.

For anyone passionate about space exploration, astronomy and the mysteries of the universe, working with an organization like the European Southern Observatory (ESO) could be a dream come true.

Such was the case for 27-year-old researcher Dr Jessica Erkal, who recently completed a PhD focusing on star formation and protostellar jets at University College Dublin (UCD).

During her doctorate, she obtained a one-year scholarship to work at the ESO headquarters in Garching, Germany.

The scholarship is offered by the Irish Research Council (IRC) to an Ireland-based student enrolled in a post-doctoral program in astronomy or related fields of observational, theoretical or fundamental astrophysics.

According to Erkal, the application and selection process for the IRC-ESO Fellowship Program involved applicants proposing a project to work on during their time at ESO, finding an ESO staff member to oversee the project, then an interview with the selection committee.

“I think a pretty common misconception is that we’re just doing science for science’s sake”

Erkal told that she had always been fascinated by images of space but didn’t realize a career in space was actually possible until her graduation certificate. studies.

“While on a school trip to Higher Options in the RDS, I ended up talking to a UCC astrophysics student who told me all about the different modules he was studying and I was hooked. “

From there, the Waterford native continued his studies in physics and astrophysics at Trinity College Dublin, followed by a master’s degree in space science and technology at UCD.

In her work as a star formation researcher, Erkal aims to answer some of the biggest questions in the universe, such as “how did we get here” and “how did the solar system form”. .

“Star formation is a very dynamic and diverse field of research. There are people who study large-scale star formation in huge clouds of gas and dust, called molecular clouds. Other researchers in the field are studying objects on much smaller scales, like protoplanetary disks, to try to understand how planets form,” she said.

“My own research focuses on protostellar jets, which are large, high-speed columns of material traveling away from the star. They are also often seen in pairs, emerging from opposite sides of the star-disk plane, but the two sides of the jet sometimes exhibit asymmetries in their shape and/or velocity that can complicate our measurements. These jets were not initially predicted by star formation models, but we now know that they play a crucial role in star formation.

Erkal said star formation research involves a lot of data analysis and calculations, but the work is often collaborative with researchers around the world working together on huge data sets and projects.

Working at ESO

Erkal said ESO is an “incredibly lively research environment” and there were different presentations by students and staff in various disciplines almost every day of the week.

“While at ESO, I used the X-Shooter instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope in Chile, to study over 100 stars in different star-forming regions to try to understand how young stars evolve over time,” she said.

“This project has provided context for some of my previous work and the scholarship has really reinforced my desire to pursue a career in research. This is a great opportunity for doctoral students who wish to advance their research in their field.

During his studies, Erkal also had the chance to help organize workshops and give a number of lectures. It helped her improve her two skills in all areas.

“On a personal level, everyone at ESO was incredibly kind and welcoming and I have definitely found lifelong friends among the wonderful students at ESO.”

The importance of space research

One of the most common misconceptions about space research is that it’s not very useful to those who live on Earth.

“I think a fairly common misconception is that we’re just doing science for science’s sake, but space research has contributed to many new technologies with real-world applications. The use of navigation systems using GPS is possible thanks to satellites orbiting the Earth,” she said.

“Advances in medical technology, such as the development of MRIs and CAT scanners for example, have also been possible thanks to the techniques used to improve astronomical observations.

Erkal said it also helps promote collaborations between nations and individual scientists. “The best example of this is the International Space Station (ISS), where astronauts from different countries work together to perform scientific experiments in space,” she said.

“In the future too, in what might sound like something out of a sci-fi movie, if another large asteroid is heading towards Earth or some other huge event occurs that endangers humanity, space research might be our best bet for survival.

“There is research on how to deflect or mitigate the effects of such an asteroid and work is also being carried out to understand if it would be possible to install a human colony elsewhere, for example on Mars. This is of course an extreme example, but space could soon become a very valuable source of the natural materials we use on Earth.

As for his own work, Erkal is applying for post-doctoral positions and hopes to stay in star formation research.

“Given that the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) was recently launched and preparations for scientific observations are going well, ideally I would like to get my hands on some of this data! With JWST, we will be able to observe closer to the base of the jet, near the star, which may allow us to determine the exact mechanism of the launch of the jet.

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