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Ground control to Dr Nicholson: University of Southern Queensland Alumni on a search of astronomical proportions

University of Southern Queensland Alumni Dr Belinda Nicholson is on a mission to find an Earth-like planet

Dr Belinda Nicholson has made a career out of being patient.

“In my line of work you rely on the knowledge that the longer you observe, the more you’ll find,” she said.

Dr Nicholson has been in the UK since the end of 2019 as a Postdoctoral Research Assistant at the University of Oxford and a Fulford Junior Research Fellow at Somerville College.

“I still pinch myself when these opportunities present themselves to me,” she said.

“To hold a position at Oxford and have the opportunity to meet with astronomy contemporaries in a location like Cambridge – I can’t believe I’m lucky enough to call it all work.”

Belinda’s ‘work’ is truly astronomical.

Following an undergraduate and a Masters degree from the University of Melbourne, Belinda undertook a PhD on the magnetic activity and winds of young, cool stars at the University of Southern Queensland, beginning in 2014.

The lifestyle and professional opportunities saw Belinda complete her PhD in Toowoomba in 2018, and then stay on as a lecturer before being awarded a role as a Postdoctoral Research Assistance at the University of Oxford’s Department of Physics at the end of 2019.

“I never expected it to happen and it’s still surreal to be honest – Oxford is such an incredible place,” she said.

“It’s so full of passionate people and the astronomy department is incredible.”

In her role at Oxford, Belinda assists across a number of projects, including the Terra Hunting Experiment.

“The project is the most intensive search ever attempted to find Earth-like planets around the nearest Sun-like stars, so it’s a big deal,” she said.

“We’re working together to overcome the many challenges of finding an Earth analogue planet. We’re chasing a very small signal and so much gets in the way of that signal.

“We’re building an instrument that will help us to precisely measure the light from stars, and developing better methods to understand stellar signals – and that’s the part I’m most interested in. The instrument is being built now. It’s exciting an exciting time to be part of the project.

“I’ve always had a fascination in instrumentation and that’s part of what I loved about doing my PhD at the University of Southern Queensland. MINERVA-Australis was being built at the University’s Mt Kent observatory when I was there, and I enjoyed being part of that.”

Belinda is also involved in projects focused on looking for transiting exoplanets and collaborating on the HARPS-North (High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Search in the North) instrument Science Team.

“In another decade I hope we’ve already detected an Earth-like planet, or we are about to publish, and have overcome some major obstacles in the field,” she said.

“All of the technological and scientific milestones that we’re going to hit along the way means we’ll understand so much more about stars and that’s so important globally.”

Belinda remains an Adjunct Research Fellow at the University of Southern Queensland, but while at Oxford, she’s also working as a Fulford Junior Research Fellow at Somerville College.

“Much of the life of Oxford University happens through the colleges, so I was incredibly lucky to be awarded this Junior Research Fellowship at Somerville,” she said.

“It was one of the first women’s colleges in at Oxford and the history is mind-blowing. It’s also afforded me the chance to mix and meet with people outside of my own astronomy research bubble, too.

“I’m speaking to Medievalists, linguists, philosophers and medics, and classicists returning from field trips translating ancient inscriptions in stone – it’s a lifestyle and experience I never thought I would get.

“I know that everything is just a moment in time – fleeting, a temporary experience – so I’m soaking it all up while I can.”