She's an Astronomer: Gemma Coughlin

Zooites at the recent Greenwich Meeting. Gemma is the furthest on the right (white t-shirt).

Zooites at the recent Greenwich Meeting. Gemma is the furthest on the right (in the white t-shirt). Also pictured (from left to right) Hanny (profiled earlier this series), Edd, 'Blackprojects', Thomas J, Bill Keel, Waveney (Richard Procter), and Jules (who will be profiled later in the series).

Gemma Coughlin (better known as “fluffyporcupine“) has been one of the Galaxy Zoo forum moderators since last December when Chris asked her to help out with the ever growing forum. Gemma is a postgraduate student at Cambridge University, studying for a PhD in Engineering.  Her work aims to improve computer simulations of objects with complex geometries (for example simulations of cars moving through air) by trying to figure out a way to automate how the space is divided up into a mesh to put into the computer. This can have a significant effect on the result of the simulation, and is tricky and time consuming to do by hand.

Gemma is originally from Swansea in Wales, and did her undergraduate at Swansea University in Mechanical Engineering. Apart from stargazing, her main hobby is karate (she is a 1st Dan and has been Women’s captain at Cambridge). She also enjoys watching motorsort (mainly Formula 1) and Rugby (Cymru am byth!). Contrary to a popular theme on the forum (cats), she is very much a dog person and likes taking her dog for a walk on the beach when she goes home to Wales.

  • How did you first hear about Galaxy Zoo?

I saw an article on the BBC news website, but the servers had already melted by the time I tried to sign up, so I registered a day or so after the  start.

  • What has been your main involvement in the Galaxy Zoo project?

I guess my main involvement has been as a chatter box on the forum! I classified a fairly large number of images on Zoo1, not quite so many on Zoo2 though. Other than that I have been a keen lens hunter (blog entry about lenses) and have helped with the peas. I am in the acknowledgments (along with the other members of the peas corps) for the Peas paper – I was the first person to point out that all the peas had a large OIII spike and that most seemed to be starforming galaxies or AGN.

  • What do you like most about being involved in Galaxy Zoo?

The community without a doubt. I have learned so much from the forum – especially when one of those interesting/awkward images comes up to classify. Everyone is so patient and helpful (even if we disagree) and very free with a wealth of knowledge (and the beer at meet ups). Never thought I would meet so many kind and interesting people on the internet let alone for so many of them to become friends!

  • What do you think is the most interesting astronomical question Galaxy Zoo will help to solve?

I think it will help greatly with Bill Keel’s study of dust in overlapping galaxies considering the number of times we’ve multiplied his sample size (from 20 to 1900 at last count)! I’d also like to add that I think the irregulars project (get involved here) is interesting as its entirely Zooites that are investigating them and they too are analysing a much larger sample size (N>9000) than previous studies (which has about 150, thanks for the numbers Alice!).

  • How/when did you first get interested in Astronomy?

My dad showed me Saturn through a scope as a kid – that got me hooked. He still laughs at my reaction – the wow i can SEE the rings! (Editor’s note – Saturn really is impressive through a small telescope. Check out Sky and Telescope’s Guide to Saturn for some pictures, and if you’ve never seen it I really recommend you try!)

  • What (if any) do you think are the main barriers to women’s involvement in Astronomy?

I guess it’s the same as with engineering, I don’t think maths and science are presented in an interesting way for girls at school and they are perceived as hard, rigid, dusty disciplines. I guess they are hard, but that makes it all the more special when you achieve something. I know it’s not for everyone, but if people could see more clearly at a young age how many cool things you can do with maths and science and the sense of achievement you get from problem solving, that they aren’t dry subjects that you learn by rote and that there are still many interesting things to discover, I’m sure a lot more people would be interested, be they women or men.

A friend and I  spent GCSE maths turning the more boring GCSE maths questions in to problems about racing cars and our favorite F1 drivers! My interest in engineering really started because I got drawn into (fast) cars and was fascinated by how they work and the engineering that goes into them to do what they do! For example, did you know that an F1 car can generate enough downforce to equal its weight, so it could theoretically drive on the ceiling in a tunnel!

  • Do you have any particular role models in Astronomy?

I guess it has to be the Zookeepers! Not only for the way that came up with a way of answering the questions they were interested in, but for coping with the monster they have created in the Zoo! Can’t be an easy job keeping 200,000 people on your good side.


This post is part of the ongoing She’s an Astronomer series on the Galaxy Zoo Blog is support of the IYA2009 cornerstone project of the same name (She’s an Astronomer). We are listed on the She’s an Astronomer website in their Profiles.

This is the fifth post of the series. So far we have interviewed

  • May 1st 2009: Hanny Van Arkel (Galaxy Zoo volunteer and finder of Hanny’s Voorwerp).
  • June 1st 2009: Dr. Vardha Nicola Bennert (researcher at UCSB involved in Hanny’s Voorwerp followup and the “peas” project).
  • July 1st 2009: Alice Sheppard (Galaxy Zoo volunteer and forum moderator).
  • July 27th 2009: Carie Cardamone (graduate student at Yale who lead the Peas paper).

Still to come in the series – more Galaxy Zoo volunteers and researchers, including our next interview which will be with original team member, Dr. Kate Land.

About karenlmasters

Astronomer at Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation, University of Portsmouth. Project Scientist for Galaxy Zoo. Spokesperson for the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. Vice President of the Society for Popular Astronomy. Busy having fun with astronomy!

16 responses to “She's an Astronomer: Gemma Coughlin”

  1. Alice says :

    Wooohoooo, great interview Fluffy! And she’s been too modest to mention her moderator work too. It’s interviews like this that encourage me not to despair at my own mathematics. Loved that about the F1 cars, hehehe! 🙂

  2. Hanny says :

    Nice one Fluffy. 🙂

  3. Jo says :

    That was a lovely interview Fluffy. The work you are doing sounds fascinating. Good Luck with it.

  4. jules says :

    Nice interview Fluffy! 🙂
    Good luck with that of which we do not speak!!

  5. ElisabethB says :

    Go Fluffy ! 🙂

  6. Thomas says :

    You go girl!! 🙂

    Great blog post, Gemma. Interesting to find out about your engineering studies.

  7. elizatbeth says :

    Wonderful interview Fluffy

  8. geebers says :

    Fascinating, but too short an interview. %^)

    I can’t get the image of several F1’s racing through a tunnel on all sides of it, crossing through the median at the top – out of my head!

    It’s oddly comforting…

    %^D %^D %^D

  9. Mark says :

    Fluffy, who are we going to get to prove the F1 racing car theory? 😉 I think they need to add this to the sport. Now that would be extreme racing.

  10. Alice says :

    What’s the F1 racing car theory? I know absolutely nothing about cars so I don’t care if asking makes me look stupid 😛 😀

  11. fluffyporcupine says :

    Alice, its about the cars theoretically being able to race on the ceiling of a tunnel. Mark, I agree- even more glamour for Monaco!! I’ll drive if they cant find anyone else! 😀

    Thanks for all teh lovely comments guys 🙂

  12. Karen Masters says :

    The F1 car on the ceiling seems like the sort of thing Myth Busters would do. Anyone seen them do it? I don’t watch the show often… I tried to look it up on YouTube, and while there’s a neat CGI version which you could use to illustrate the idea, I didn’t immediately find any footage of it being done for real. I suppose it would be pretty dangerous! Do F1 cars work upside down? Does anything in the engine depend on the direction of the gravity?

  13. weezerd says :

    So! The Batmobile could be genuine after all!

    Well done Fluffy, you’ll have to talk to my granddaughter about making post-GCSE Maths interesting. (Oh, and my grandson about karate!)
    But most of all, keep talking to us about wonders you find in the Zoo!

  14. Half65 says :

    Great Fluffy.
    My first contact in the GalaxyZoo Forum and a very gentle, patience and smart moderator.
    Ciao

  15. Joseph K. H. Cheng says :

    What a way to go Fluffy ! I wish you all the best.

    JKHC.

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  1. Galaxy Zoo Blog » She’s an Astronomer: Pamela L. Gay - December 3, 2009

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