Date: May 7, 2011

Title: Belinda Nicholson – The Stars Are Her Laboratory

Podcaster: Kylie Sturgess

Organization: Token Skeptic podcast (

Description: An interview with astrophysicist Belinda Nicholson, a Masters of Science student at the University of Melbourne, Australia. She’s a podcaster for the Young Australian Skeptics ( recently studied at the Gemini South Observatory in Chile, and she discusses how she aims to encourage others to share her enthusiasm, via science communication. Belinda talks to Kylie Sturgess of the Token Skeptic podcast (, on how the stars are her laboratory. Theme song for this episode is ‘365’ by Milton Mermikides.

Bio: Kylie Sturgess is a researcher of gender differences in paranormal beliefs and superstitious behaviors. Published in several skeptic and science magazines, much of her writing can be found on her blog at Podblack Cat.

Sponsor: This episode of “365 Days of Astronomy” is sponsored by — no one. We still need sponsors for many days in 2011, so please consider sponsoring a day or two. Just click on the “Donate” button on the lower left side of this webpage, or contact us at


Belinda Nicholson: It’s still a little bit of a weird concept having graduated from a BSc that I can actually call myself a scientist now? Science has been something I’ve wanted to do my entire life, and now I can finally call myself a scientist, and, my brain can’t get over the excitement!

Kylie Sturgess: I’m Kylie Sturgess of the “Token Skeptic Podcast” and you’re going to be listening to Belinda Nicholson, an astrophysicist at Melbourne University in Victoria, Australia, and a member of the “Young Australian Skeptics Podcast.” She’s currently doing a Masters of Science with the Astrophysics Group in the School of Physics at Melbourne University. My first question for Belinda Nicholson is – what led her to make the stars her laboratory?
Belinda: I suppose I’ve always loved astronomy, but when I got into science at university, I was tempted by, “Oh, wow, quantum mechanics is really cool!” And, “Oh, wow! There’s a lot of stuff happening in particle physics!” But there’s something that’s always stayed with me with astronomy. It’s that there’s something fundamentally awesome about the scales of things, the fact that there are things out there in the universe that are so different from anything that we could experience here on Earth. For example, neutron stars and the amazing physics that happens there, and there’s just lot of very fascinating physical processes that you don’t really get to study in any other field.

Kylie: Were you always interested in astronomy, even as a young person?

Belinda: Yeah. It’s always something that’s fascinated me, looking up at the stars and going, “Oh, wow, twinkling lights far away!” Always seeing pictures from the Hubble telescope. There’s something very beautiful about it, which always made me want to look at it more.

Kylie: Tell us about the research vacation scholarship that you recently embarked upon. You got to go to Chile, which is quite some distance from Australia?
Belinda: Oh, yes. That was an amazing experience, one of the most amazing experiences of my life. Yes. I got to do a research project at the Gemini South Observatory with my supervisor, Bernadette Rogers, the head of science operations there. That was a really exciting experience getting to work there alongside with a number of astronomers as part of their full time staff there. As well as the engineering crew and seeing how an observatory like that runs, with the software components that go into it, and the engineering and actual physical side of things.

I was there at a very exciting time when they were starting to install new instruments onto the telescope. Seeing all the excitement and drama that was happening then, yeah. They’ve new adaptive optics systems, which will hopefully lead to better, clearer images.

Kylie: So, what is your particular passion within astronomy? What sort of things are you hoping to learn more about?

Belinda: Oh, well I’m definitely into observational. I’m not so much a theoretical person. I like actually seeing data of things that are out there and seeing what we can learn from that. In particular, I like galaxies. Here’s something quite awesome and complex about galaxies that really fascinates me. At the same time, just down to stars. I was surprised in my time in Chile to learn exactly how little we know about stars. There’s a lot of stuff that we do know, but there’s also a lot of stuff that we don’t and it’d be really fascinating to investigate, stellar processes and stellar evolution a lot better.
Kylie: What next? Where do you hope astronomy will take you?

Belinda: Oh, goodness, everywhere! I suppose it’s still early days. I’m doing my Masters, and hopefully doing a PhD after that. I’d love to work in an observatory somewhere. Because getting a taste of what an observatory is like. It was very exciting and it really is the forefront of science that’s happening. But at the same time, I would love to work at somewhere like the Hayden Planetarium or a wonderful science institute like that. Where I hear, according to my careers advisor that they have jobs there where it’s research. But at the same time, you get to do outreach to the general public. That’s also something that I’m really passionate about. I really love science communication. That’s definitely something I want to be involved in the future.
Kylie: How receptive do you think people are to ideas in astronomy in order to encourage them to embrace science?

Belinda: Oh, very much so. Astronomy is a really easy sell. Just put up a couple of pictures from the Hubble telescope and people really do get into it. Astronomy has advantages in that you do get pretty pictures. And a lot of the time, it’s science that people could understand. I think people get really excited about it. In terms of science communication and a doorway into getting people more excited about science in general.

Kylie: That’s fantastic, though. Being able to say to yourself that I’m contributing to something that is wonderful, exciting, and it is getting other people engaged at the same time by just talking to them about my job.

Belinda: Yeah. The exciting bit about Chile was that I was actually doing something that was really useful for the observatory. I was a guinea pig for a software package as part of my data reductions. This is actual real stuff that I contributed to the running of the Gemini South Observatory. Oh, my God! The child inside me is having a field day!

Belinda is a podcaster for the Young Australian Skeptics This is Kylie Sturgess of the Token Skeptic podcast and the theme song for this episode is ’365′ by Milton Mermikides.

End of podcast:

365 Days of Astronomy
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