She's an Astronomer: Kate Land

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Dr. Kate Land is from sunny Sussex on the south coast of the UK and her research/studies have taken her to Cambridge (undergrad), Imperial (PhD), and then Oxford (postdoc). Her PhD was on the Cosmic Microwave Background radiation, and in particular exploring anomalies in the WMAP data and their implications for our cosmological models. During her postdoc, her research continued to focus on cosmological observations, such as galaxy surveys and supernovae data, and what they might tell us beyond our current understanding. While a postdoc in the Astrophysics group of Oxford University, Kate had the pleasure of sharing an office with Dr. Chris Lintott. But she assures him that this had nothing to do with her decision to leave the field and enter into a new profession! Kate now works as a quantitative researcher in finance, and enjoys living in London with her boyfriend and savoring the delights of North London pubs at the weekends.

  • How did you first hear about Galaxy Zoo?

In the pub with Chris! Another cosmologist (Anze Slosar) and myself were interested in investigating recent claims in the literature about the rotations of spiral galaxies in our local universe aligning in an unlikely way (they shouldn’t really align at all!). But we realised that we’d have to go through thousands of images of galaxies (or develop some software) to identify the handedness of the galaxies. We thought about dumping a laptop in the coffee area of our department to get people to help, and I asked Chris for advice over a pint one evening – because I knew he was very good at crowd-sourcing (having already got children from around the world to observe a quasar for him 24 hours a day!). He then told me about Galaxy Zoo, which was in its infant stage at this point. And it was a great match – our project would fit in perfectly, adding another scientific motivation to GZ while Anze and I would provide some more ‘man’ power!

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

I was pretty heavily involved in all stages of the project for its fist year from helping to test the site, monitor traffic, analyse data, interact with zooites, deal with the press, and eventually publish papers! I was part of the front line when it all kicked off in July 07 – and I mean front line! It was madness with thousands of emails a day coming in, media people ringing for interviews, and servers exploding! I loved answering peoples questions but we quickly realised that we couldn’t keep up with the emails and we launched first the FAQ page on the site, and then the forum. The media part was fun too… doing live radio interviews on the fly, and helping with pieces for New Scientist, Physics World, etc. About 9 months after Galaxy Zoo launched we submitted the first Galaxy Zoo paper. It was an awesome moment for me, and the whole project, when it got published.

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

The popularity of the site was absolutely heart-warming. I used to get quite emotional reading emails and posts on the forum from zooites who loved the project and were wild about astronomy. So much of an academic’s work can be remote, abstract, and cut off from the ‘real-world’. And it was just brilliant to work on something that touched so many people.

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

The cosmology ones! But I am biased… to be totally honest I didn’t know much about galaxies when I first got involved with GZ. I was, and remain, more interested in cosmology; the study of Universe as a whole. And as objects sitting in space, galaxies can reveal a lot about how the Universe is expanding, and any invisible forces that are influencing them.

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

As a kid I was always fascinated by big questions, like ‘where is the edge of the Universe?’, and ‘what is empty space made of?’. I couldn’t sleep sometimes for getting myself so confused and freaked out! My granddad was also a massive influence on me – he was a mathematician, and fascinated by astronomy. At 7 he bought me a calculator, at 8 a star chart, and at 9 a subscription to the Junior Astronomical Society. I also got handed down a telescope about this time and saw some of Jupiter’s moons and Saturn’s rings from my bedroom window. Very cool! Maths became my thing at school, college, and Uni. But in my second year at Uni I got back into astronomy – heavily influenced by images from the Hubble telescope which are gorgeous and awe inspiring. I found the scales, temperatures, and physics involved with the stuff going on in the Universe very exciting – and I was chuffed to be able to do the final year of my degree in Astrophysics (rather than Maths). This was the first step towards me becoming a theoretical cosmologist, and thinking about those big questions again!

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

I don’t know of anything stopping women getting involved in amateur astronomy. But I don’t think the academic career path suits women particularly well. I was always given enormous encouragement from my peers and never felt discriminated against. But I personally wasn’t keen on the post-doc circuit of moving about every few years… I wanted to plan for the future and ‘nest build’ somewhat, and in a location of my choice! I think this is more of a female thing – to agonise over the future. But it might have just been me being unadventurous!

  • Do you have any particular role models in Astronomy?

My supervisor, Prof. Joao Magueijo, was an enormous influence on me. Not only a genius, but a lot of fun to work with – very supportive, unpatronising, and encouraging with his students and very involved in the research we did together. Another inspiration is Dr. Sarah Bridle, of UCL. A very smart woman, who is refreshingly unpretentious and friendly! I’d say she is a great role model for female academics.


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 now listed on the She’s an Astronomer website in their Profiles. This is the sixth post of the series. So far we have interviewed:

  • Hanny Van Arkel (Galaxy Zoo volunteer and finder of Hanny’s Voorwerp, “Hanny”).
  • Dr. Vardha Nicola Bennert (researcher at UCSB involved in Hanny’s Voorwerp followup and the “peas” project).
  • Alice Sheppard (Galaxy Zoo volunteer and forum moderator, “Alice”).
  • Carie Cardamone (graduate student at Yale who lead the Peas paper).
  • Gemma Coughlin (Galaxy Zoo volunteer and forum moderator, “Fluffyporcupine”).

Still to come in the series – more Galaxy Zoo volunteers and researchers, including next: Aida Berges (“Lovethetropics”), high velocity star searcher extraordinaire!

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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!

11 responses to “She's an Astronomer: Kate Land”

  1. Hanny says :

    Nice to hear from you again Kate! 🙂

  2. GNB 080 says :

    So why leave astronomy (or cosmology) to be a rocket scientist (quant?) … it can’t have been about the money, can it?!?

  3. Karen Masters says :

    GNB 080 – Kate gave some reasons for her choice in the last but one question where she says “I personally wasn’t keen on the post-doc circuit of moving about every few years… I wanted to plan for the future”. I’m sure she had many other reasons which she may or may not chose to share with the GZ blog readers. A career as a research scientist unfortunately involves many sacrifices (not just financial) and it’s obviously a personal choice if you think it’s worth it. It’s one thing to think a subject is very interesting (be it cosmology, or cricket – whatever) but quite another to make a career out of it…

  4. Thomas says :

    Great to keep up with the ‘she’s an astronomer’ series.

  5. zeus2007 says :

    Awesome stuff.

  6. Alice says :

    Wonderful interview, Kate! Good for you about the maths, wish I could do that! And everything else, of course.

    I had a stage in my life when I wanted nothing more than to be moving around every couple of years – but I’m older now so I sympathise with the nest-building thing, hehe. Doctors have the same thing until they’re consultants, being posted at a different hospital with every promotion they get, but at least that’s only around their own country – though less and less so as the years go on . . . By the time I was 16 I’d lived in 4 different regions, even though my dad did manage to stick to London for most of that time.

    What’s this thing you did with getting kids to look at a quasar for you, then, Chris? I love this idea! Can I go back to being a kid again and have a go? 😀

  7. elizatbeth says :

    Wonderful story Kate. Lovely picture also.

  8. Robert Taylor says :

    When you appeared on The Sky at Night number 666 you said that you wished to understand Gravity that worked at the atomic level. The article in my website answers this, and this week I have realised that my article also describes what Dark Matter is, though I said in it that Dark Matter was not necessary.

    I hope you find it interesting

    Yours truly Bob Taylor

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