From statistical analysis of the cosmic dawn to pipe dreams of being an astronaut, Tom talks about choosing a career in academia over industry. Tom reflects on the advice he would give his younger self, and how his classmates remember him.
After Radley you had a gap year, what were you plans and what did you want to achieve?
When I left school, I didn’t really feel like I understood enough about the nature of my everyday surroundings. I was also slightly confused how most people around me seemed certain about what they wanted to do next. For me I was (and sort of still am) torn between pursuing physics and music. My teachers and parents persuaded me that physics would be a better long-term option.
For my gap year I wanted to travel but also to avoid the well-trodden paths of typical gap years, so I went to China for five months to study Mandarin and stay with a host family. My teachers may remember me being terrible at languages, but it was something I wanted to conquer. I can small talk in Mandarin, so I’m pretty pleased with that.
The rest of the year I worked at Henley regatta and then the Oktoberfest before starting uni. I’m not sure I had a list of things to achieve but looking back I certainly made the most of that year.
You studied Astrophysics at university, what sparked your interest, did anyone inspire you?
The easiest answer to this is to look up on a clear night. I spent some of my childhood living in rural Australia where the stars are the brightest thing for miles. If you haven’t seen the milky-way strip with the naked eye, you need to. My Dad would often bring me books about space which furthered my interest.
I was into classic rock during my time at Radley; Brian May springs to mind as someone who has managed to have success in both physics and music, so there’s hope for me yet! I remember doing an extended project on dark matter at school, that was one of the first times I could talk to a teacher genuinely, freely, about some of my thoughts about the universe’s structure and them having to take it seriously!
Why did you choose Oxford University? Did you consider other universities?
For my undergraduate I did set my heart on Oxford. I think places like Radley can focus on the ranking of institutions a little too much. With hindsight, the bulk of the material is the same at any Russell Group university and actually the Oxford course was a little dated and perhaps overly intense. Only 5/8 of the physics students from my college completed the master’s course – that’s a scary percentage and is a testament to the volume of, and how hard the degree material is.
I had to spend the first year of my PhD doing multiple catch up courses on coding which are more commonplace at other institutions. I did have a great time overall and having the piece of paper that says Oxford goes along way when starting the job hunt on LinkedIn.
Imperial was my 2nd choice, and I went there for my PhD. The most successful researcher I know at the moment did his undergraduate at Warwick. What really matters is what you do at the place, rather than the place itself.
Your PhD thesis, ‘Towards improved statistical analysis of the cosmic dawn and epoch of reionization’ can you explain, in layman’s terms, what that means?
The cosmic dawn = the first light in the universe, i.e. the first ever formation of stars and galaxies.
Epoch = time period; Reionization = when the inter-galactic medium (left over gas in between galaxies after they first form) gets ionised.
The work I’ve been doing is in preparation for a telescope called the Square Kilometre Array (SKA). This telescope will observe directly this gas left over from the aforementioned first galaxy formation. It should witness the gas burn away during the cosmic dawn until the reionization of inter galactic hydrogen is complete – a bit like the how the sun melts through a fog on a crisp morning, but with radio waves, and 12-13 billion years ago! Once this gas is gone (ionised), optical telescopes (like the Hubble and James Webb Space Telescopes) can observe the galaxies directly in the way you are likely familiar with.
My work is based on model selection statistics (to quantify how well theories will fit the data from the telescope). I am also working on ways to improve the rigour of currently used statistical analysis methods (but I can’t explain that one quickly, sorry!).
Why did you decide to do a PhD, and what are the pros and cons of doing one?
There are a few reasons for this. As an undergraduate, material is thrown in your face at a very fast pace. About 500 years of research is condensed into 3 and a half years. The world of research is significantly slower than this and therefore a very different environment.
Getting to know the working environment and style of academics has been very intriguing and insightful. The world of academia is filled with all sorts of interesting characters! Getting the freedom to explore things that are interesting and may be useful is a great privilege.
It can be quite lonely at times, the further you get the less and less people there are who you can ask for help. Eventually you become the expert which is a strange transition because you still sort of don’t feel like you know what you are doing.
I remember Googling buzzwords relating to my project shortly after I started. All I could find on the content was that my supervisor was going to look for a PhD student to look into the topic… that PhD student was me! It was a strange realisation that I couldn’t just google the answers anymore. It feels strange to say that by the end of the PhD I was (and hopefully still am!) the world leading knowledge on Bayesian model selection in the Epoch of Reionisation. I get imposter syndrome about this a lot. The pros significantly outweigh the cons, it will not be easy but if you get the chance do one!
I understand you helped out with Imperial College’s outreach department, what was your role?
I took an inflatable planetarium around London schools to introduce students to what the night sky looks like outside of London; give them a better grip on the solar system they live in; and to show off some pretty pictures from astronomy. It was good fun!
You’re a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society – What benefits does this bring?
Yes, I got elected as a PhD student although it is sort of a rite of passage for PhD students in London. I gave a talk there in 2018 which was my first exposure to being asked scary questions from professors who I’d heard of but never met. I’ve remained a member because it gives me a quiet place to go in central London and they put on interesting talks every few months. They also give you a pocket calendar with lots of astronomy facts and tips like how and when to find meteor showers.
Currently you are a Shui Mu Natural Science Fellow at Tsinghua University, Beijing, what are you researching?
I’m doing similar things to my PhD at the moment. The extra things I’m starting to learn are along the lines of applying machine learning & AI neural network techniques to data compression. I’m also due to work on increasing the statistical rigour of early universe analyses by synergising multiple telescopes (i.e. using not just SKA which my PhD was based on).
Why did you choose academia over industry?
From work experience I knew I didn’t want a regular 9-5. I like leaving when the work is done and having the flexibility to work when I want/around my other interests. My experience of doing internships was met with ‘You do too much and make people look bad’ or ‘can’t you just sit quietly and read BBC sport or something, so it looks like you’re working until we need you’. I’m not opposed to the idea of industry and my view of it has certainly been biased by a few bad/ negative characters. I like doing interesting things, working in a team, and feeling like what I’m doing is useful somewhere to someone. For now, academia still satisfies me however that criteria is not specific to either industry or academia.
Does your research have a commercial use?
My PhD thesis was predominantly model selection statistics – i.e. quantifying how well a model fits a data set regardless of context. These types of techniques are used daily by banks who want to predict the behaviour of currencies; companies who want to predict markets; advertisers who want to see which products are popular; epidemiologist who want to assess the trends of viruses. For applications on the statistical side, the list is endless.
On the astrophysics side any spinoff technologies will be from a data storage, transmission and compression viewpoint.
For me specifically, I have the skill to be able to code and simulate a model of anything physical. Most everyday models used in business are simpler than galaxy formation. After getting my PhD I get lots of LinkedIn messages. I’m very lucky to have these options.
In which direction would you like your career to go next?
This is a good question. I’m not sure I can see myself being a long-term academic. But if you’d asked this when I left school, I would never have guessed I would be a research fellow of a prestigious university right now. I’m going to stick to the answer I wrote in the leavers’ book when I left school – ‘musician?’
But then again when I was younger, I was certain I’d be a pirate or an astronaut. Pirates are less appealing to me these days but if I can succeed in mastering Mandarin, and my new supervisor is pleased with me enough to write a reference at the end of this contract, then I’m eligible to apply for astronaut training. Although that is a pipedream, even going for an interview to be an astronaut would be a good story! More realistically I may end up in a data job, probably related to recording studio equipment or sound samples. I think my last job will be a teacher.
If you hadn’t chosen academia after university what other options were out there for you?
I’d be trying to be a musician or working in music related tech. I currently help friends who organise music festivals with their tech on the side (e.g. I coded them a website). I’m also interested in sound design both from a physical perspective and an auditory perspective, I’m yet to try my hand at building a synth but I can code effects like delays, choruses, flangers, compressors and reverbs. There are various companies that use code to replicate the gear in recording studios for mass production as a more affordable option. This sort of work is an appealing middle ground to me. I also enjoy teaching but there are other things I would like to explore first.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Don’t shy away from things others think are difficult. If you are patient enough and persevere with working at it, you always get there. At least at school level (and a bit a university) you hope that this comes together before the exam/audition. But after school/undergraduate when exams stop, you get to keep at it if you want. For example, maths hasn’t really changed since I left school. There is plenty of maths that I learnt how to do at school and university that I didn’t really appreciate and internalise until I was trying to improve on or poke holes in during my PhD.
With China in mind, I’ve started reading some Confucius. To become an expert/genius in something Confucius says you need: Imitation (can you replicate those who you admire), experience (can you use the skills you’ve learned by imitating on your feet and in an applied setting) and internalisation (do you think it? Can you relate it to your surroundings and create your own work or add onto what you were trying to imitate?). I’m not sure how accurate my general interpretations are (in brackets) but I think, at least for me, this is wise advice for looking into doing anything, new or old.
My last and maybe most important piece of advice would be to talk more openly about mental health.
Lastly, what are your lasting memories of Radley, and how would your classmates remember you?
I definitely miss the music school, the expertise and the facilities there are world class. Rowing kept me out of trouble (mostly!) and C social’s cheesy crumpets have a special place in my heart.
I enjoyed trying new things, so I did hop around the minor sports quite a lot, I liked fives. I still occasionally listen to some of my favourite tunes from singing in the choir.
I think my classmates would remember me as being busy, but mainly being happy to help and trying not to miss out on anything! Funnily enough this got me thinking, and as I am still in touch with my year C social via a WhatsApp group, I posted this question to them and got very different responses to my thoughts…… all were very warm and jovial although I definitely can’t put some of them here! ‘The Jazz man’ and ‘Really didn’t think you were that good at science’ are the highlights.