Monthly Profiles

Michelle Lochner

March 2014 | PhD student, Dept Mathematics & Applied Mathematics, UCT

Michelle LochnerMy name is Michelle Lochner (it used to be Knights, I just got married). I am a PhD student at the Department of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics at UCT, specialising in cosmology, the study of the Universe. I'm working on developing new data analysis techniques for the next generation of astronomical telescopes. I am an SKA bursary student, the winner of the 2013 South African Famelab competition and a winner of the Science Faculty Research Associateship.


1) Briefly describe what your study involves.
I am a cosmologist. That means I spend my days trying to solve some of the biggest mysteries of the Universe: How is it evolving? What is dark energy? How do galaxies form? South Africa recently won the bid to host the lion's share of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), the world's biggest radio telescope. But new telescopes need new scientific techniques. I'm working on developing new data analysis techniques so that we'll be able to understand the data we get from the SKA.

2) What inspired you to enrol for this course?
I always loved the stars from a young age but never dreamed I could study them as a career. When I was studying Physics as an undergraduate, I heard about the Square Kilometre Array telescope and realised I could have an amazing career as an astronomer in South Africa. I enrolled in the NASSP programme at UCT for Honours, and from there moved on to a Masters and PhD programme in cosmology.

3) What would a typical week of your studies entail?
Lots of computer programming (and hunting for bugs in my programs), working on supercomputers to run advanced simulations, creating graphs, scientific writing, talking with my research group and walking on the beach.

4) Can you describe the most exciting part of your studies?
Telling other people about the things that we're learning about the Universe, which is usually unbelievable new questions (such as, why do stars, planets and gas only make up about 4% of the stuff in the Universe? What's all the other stuff?). It's easy to get bogged down in the details and it's only when I tell other people about my research, the techniques we're developing and the mysteries we're working on that I remember quite what an amazing Universe it is we're living in.

5) Where did you hear about your study program?
I heard about the NASSP course while I was doing my BSc at Rhodes and then moved on to do a research Masters and PhD with my Honours project supervisor.

6) What are some of the challenges you have experienced?
The hardest thing I've found about research is that, when in school or undergrad, you constantly receive instructions and feedback on how well you're doing. In research, much of the time you're on your own. I've often described research as a series of brick walls you have to break through. You get stuck often, but it feels great when you break through. Fortunately there are collaborators to help, but I was surprised at how hard it can be when I got stuck.

7) What are some of the highlights of your study program i.e. your achievements?
I won the first ever South African Famelab competition in 2013 and was a top ten finalist in the international Famelab competition. I received a Science Faculty Research Associateship and my studies have also been fully funded by an NRF/SKA scholarship since my undergraduate. One of my biggest personal highlights was finally publishing a paper in an international peer-reviewed journal. I've also given presentations at international conferences and at several European universities, including Oxford, Cambridge and UCL in London.

8) What are some of the skills you have acquired during your studies?
Determination and time management would be the most important! But I've learnt so many other useful skills such as programming and computer skills, mathematical and statistical techniques, presenting and networking skills and how to work effectively with a group of people.

9) What advice would you give girls who are considering a career in science, technology, engineering or mathematic (STEM)?
If you find you are passionate about science or engineering, don't let anything stop you. In my experience, there are many great opportunities for young women in the STEM fields especially in South Africa. Don't be afraid that you won't be able to find a job in your field of interest, even if it seems obscure, rather follow your dream and you'll be sure to succeed.