To infinity and beyond

30 Apr 2014

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Dr Tara Murphy’s childhood love of space propelled her to a career that is helping to unlock the secrets of the universe. Leading a global collaboration of 80 scientists, she is helping to capture previously unthinkable surveys of the universe, while at the same time passionately helping the next generation of scientists get started on a career in research.
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When Dr Tara Murphy was seven years old her mother took her to a local bookshop to buy a book with the money her grandparents had given her for her birthday. Bypassing standard seven year old fare, young Tara spotted an astronomy encyclopaedia high up on the top shelf and insisted it was the book for her. From that moment she was hooked. “I read that book hundreds of times,” she confesses.

Arriving in Australia from the UK at the age of 9, her love of science and space continued throughout school, prompting her to embark upon a broad science degree at the University of Sydney. Just one year into the degree she realised her true love was physics and as her studies progressed, the thrill of using real research-grade telescopes to view the universe sealed her career trajectory. 

Looking back, Murphy credits her Australian education with giving her access to unique opportunities that set her post-graduate career on the fast track. “When I went overseas to do my PhD at the Royal Observatory Edinburgh, it was really apparent how much more practical experience Australian students had had by being involved in real observing and capturing real data with telescopes. These international level telescopes are enormous, multi-million dollar instruments and we’re very lucky that we have the chance to be involved and apply those new skills.”

“I also realised how fortunate I was with the extraordinary mentoring I’d received,” she continues. “It’s a very friendly and supportive environment in Australia and I had a senior professor who was engaged in my career from the beginning. Many students from other big name universities have no such equivalent.”

In her current role as senior lecturer in the School of Physics at the University of Sydney, Murphy is working with many of the senior academics who supported her as an undergraduate. Her interdisciplinary research reflects her own belief in the increasingly inter-connected nature of science and information technology, and her desire to see greater integration of analysis and computing skills. “These skills are essential in modern society,” she says. “Even from a non-scientific view point, you need data analysis skills to organise your digital photos or do your online banking."

In the world of astrophysics, recent technological developments are set to have enormously far-reaching implications.  The Variables and Slow Transients (VAST) project, led by Murphy, comprises 80 scientists from across the globe and uses the new Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) radio telescope, currently being commissioned by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory in Western Australia to perform an unprecedented survey of the transient sky. “This is an extraordinary development,” Murphy explains. “Earlier technology limited us to a static view of the universe because it took 10 years to survey the southern sky alone; but now with ASKAP we’ll be able to survey most of the sky every few nights to see what’s changing. That means we’ll be able to see some events like star explosions and black holes forming that effect big change on a short time scale which, from an astronomical point of view, means we’ll have the potential to understand things that up to this point have been fairly mysterious. We’ll be much better positioned to understand how the universe works and how it was formed.”

In characteristic fashion, Murphy is also quick to point out the potential benefits the technology will bring to day-to-day life. “From a technological point of view there are lots of applications for everyday society because VAST will use one of the most advanced super computers in the world; we can’t store all this data – it’s simply too much so we need to transfer an enormous amount of data out of the West Australian desert where the telescope is, in near real time. This has huge applications for science, engineering and industry.”

“Many areas of science are absolutely flooded with data; there are terabytes of data in research fields like genetics and we’re in a time that is completely different from any other era of science,” Murphy explains.

“Australia is at the cutting edge of data driven science and now we’re in a position to be able to pose questions that weren’t possible before.”  

In a career already bursting with highlights, Murphy is most proud of her contribution to the education of the next generation of scientists in Australia and globally.  “I love teaching, especially first year students,” she says. “To have been able to develop a new undergraduate course for teaching IT to science students and have it turn out so well that other countries are asking about it is incredible.”

When she’s not looking to the heavens, Murphy’s feet are firmly on the ground, despite winning a national teaching award and being a finalist for the Australian Museum’s 2013 Eureka Prize for Emerging Leader in Science. She is a passionate advocate for getting young people involved with science and forging connections that will help them turn their natural curiosity into a career path. “There are loads of kids who are very curious, love science, love thinking about how the world works but aren’t clear on how science could be a career,” she explains.

“When I was growing up I didn’t know anyone who worked in science, I didn’t have any connections but when I participated in science camps in Canberra it completely opened up my whole world. That’s why I run the National Computer Science School to help those kids who perhaps are out in rural areas and are the only kid in their school that loves computers. When you bring them to the University of Sydney for ten days and they’re with a group of like-minded kids it can be life changing.”

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Australian women breaking new ground in science.