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Alkistis Pourtsidou

Team SKA scientists work in prestigious research institutions around the globe, carrying out studies using SKA precursor and pathfinders telescopes and contributing their expertise to the SKA’s Science Working Groups.

Dr. Alkistis Pourtsidou, based at Queen Mary University in London, is a core member of the Cosmology Science Working Group, one of 13 groups which are developing the science case of the SKA.

In 2019, Alkistis was awarded a Future Leaders Fellowship, a UKRI-funded scheme supporting the best researchers and innovators to develop their careers. We sat down with her to find out more about her career in cosmology, her involvement in the SKA, and how she plans to use the fellowship.

What was the path that led you to choosing radio astronomy as a career – were you interested in science from a young age?

I think I decided to become a physicist at about 16 years old, but I don’t remember exactly why! I was very fortunate to grow up in a family that valued knowledge – any kind of knowledge – and my interests were very varied. At a young age I was mostly into the classical subjects, especially literature. I was always curious about how nature works, but I was finding the maths and physics taught in school really dry and boring. However I somehow decided I wanted to study physics and really started enjoying it in my final year at University.

Initially I wanted to be a particle physicist, but during my MSc I discovered cosmology and was instantly hooked. After changing sub-fields during and after my PhD – from cosmic strings to dark energy and modified gravity – I am now spending most of my time on radio and optical survey cosmology, and I absolutely love it!

“Science today is definitely a global endeavour, and mobility is a way to gain different skills and perspectives, develop new collaborations, and open your mind to different cultures and ways of working”

You’ve studied in several countries – is that quite typical? How has it benefitted your career?

It is quite typical for people of my generation, and even more so for the younger generations. Science today is definitely a global endeavour, and mobility is a way to gain different skills and perspectives, develop new collaborations, and open your mind to different cultures and ways of working. I have benefited immensely from it, for all the reasons above. To be completely honest, like many others I never had the privilege of picking and choosing where my next job (postdoc) would be, so I really doubt I would be where I am now if I was not prepared to move around.

I should also say that mobility often comes with great personal costs and it is far from ideal for people with family responsibilities or other constraints. While that was not the case for me, I know many brilliant people – especially women – who have left research because they could not move, and this is something we need to address. In a nutshell, I think mobility is great but it should not be what makes or breaks someone’s career.

Science has taken Alkistis all over the world – seen here surfing in Cape Town (© 2019 Alkistis Pourtsidou. All rights reserved)

Tell us about how you came to be involved with the SKA and what you’re working on within the project at the moment.

I started working on radio cosmology around 2011 but I became really involved with the SKA a few years later while contributing to the SKA Science Book in 2015. After that I continued being involved and I am now a core member of the Cosmology Science Working Group and co-lead the “Cosmology with SKA-low” focus group. At the moment I am working with the first intensity mapping data from MeerKAT, which is one of the South African SKA precursors, and I am also developing simulations and data analysis pipelines for MeerKAT and SKA-mid. A recent exciting development has been the updated SKA cosmology forecasts we presented.

Congratulations on your UK Future Leaders Fellowship! How will it benefit your work – how will you use it?

Thank you very much, I am absolutely delighted about it! Having experienced first hand the challenges of juggling research, positions of responsibility in large collaborations, teaching and admin as young faculty, the freedom, length of time, and resources offered by the UKRI Future Leaders Fellowship is fantastic. On top of that, the support of my host institution, Queen Mary University of London, has been phenomenal and I feel very fortunate to be a Future Leaders Fellow here. 

I will use the Fellowship to hopefully make my research dreams come true! I am excited about cosmology with the SKA, and I also want to exploit synergies between the SKA and optical galaxy surveys I am heavily involved in, like ESA’s Euclid satellite mission.

My research proposal is all about using both radio and optical surveys for cosmology and finding optimal ways to combine them. It focuses on working with pathfinder data, developing numerical simulations, and preparing for analysing the wealth of high quality data expected from these surveys in the next few years. The most exciting thing about the Fellowship’s support is that I will be able to form a team of researchers working closely together on this science. I can’t wait!

“Being part of this global effort is great, not least because I get to interact and work with some of the most talented people in the field”

What most excites you about being part of Team SKA?

The SKA is a cutting-edge experiment and international project, bringing together hundreds of brilliant scientists and engineers, innovation in radio technologies, and unprecedented big data challenges. Being part of this global effort is great, not least because I get to interact and work with some of the most talented people in the field.

I particularly enjoy the strong links with South Africa, where MeerKAT/SKA-mid is based – I visit Cape Town about twice a year to collaborate with the MeerKAT and SKA cosmology teams there and discuss various projects in collaboration with Queen Mary University of London.

What advice would you give to budding scientists out there, who may want to follow in your footsteps?

I don’t know if there is an advice that could work for everyone, but I can certainly tell them that choosing to be a scientist comes with a rare and invaluable privilege: the pure joy of figuring things out – so keep that curiosity alive and kicking!

Alkistis delivering a talk on “Cosmology with the world’s leading dark energy experiments” at the South African Astronomical Observatory in Cape Town (© 2019 Alkistis Pourtsidou. All rights reserved)

 

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