Swinburne Astronomy Online – Interview With Four Alumni

Last week I published an interview with Sarah Maddison of Swinburne Astronomy Online (SAO). This week I am happy to publish interviews with four alumni of SAO. If you have ever thought about getting a postgraduate degree in astronomy I am sure you will find these interviews fascinating and inspirational. Each of the people interviewed has a unique and interesting story. The interviews are listed below in alphabetical order by last name.

Emil LencEmil Lenc is a former engineer who is now a postdoctoral fellow at CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization) Astronomy and Space Science. (CSIRO is Australia's national science agency.)

What was your educational and professional background prior to attending Swinburne Astronomy Online (SAO)?

I had a Bachelor degree in Electrical and Electronic Engineering and a Master degree in Engineering (by research).

What was your astronomy background prior to attending SAO?
I'd have to admit to being a bit of a closet astronomer at the time. I was quite interested in all things related to astronomy and space science (rockets, probes, etc.) and was immediately drawn to these topics in newspapers and magazines but did not have a great deal of practical experience with a telescope. I did have a small telescope that my father and brothers helped me put together when I was a child (in preparation for Comet Halley) but never really had an opportunity to use it much as I went through university and eventually a full-time working career.

What were your goals when you decided to apply to SAO?
My main goals were to keep my mind active to have fun … and perhaps even find out a bit more about astronomy and what astronomers do.

At SAO communication between students, other students and professors is via discussion forums or newsgroups. How does that compare with the traditional on-campus experience? Do you think there are advantages to the online approach?
There were many advantages to the online approach. You could participate whenever you had time available rather than needing to follow a rigid time-table – this is absolutely essential if you have a demanding job (or a demanding family). The same was true for the professors/instructors, as they were often travelling to/from conferences and/or observatories and so also benefitted from this flexibility. The forums helped maintain communication even when participants had different schedules or were in totally different time-zones. It also meant, to some degree, that you could go at your own pace – there were still fortnightly deadlines but it was easier to balance your work-family-study lifestyle around these. The level of feedback and student participation was also much greater than in a traditional on-campus scenario – you couldn't just sit at the back of the lecture theatre and say nothing – you had to participate. Furthermore, you didn't just "hang out" with your group, as you typically do at school, you interacted with everyone and so got to know a bit about each person in your class. This high degree of interaction meant that there were plenty of great discussions going on which involved not just the students but also the professors – something you don't frequently see in a traditional class environment. The other major advantage is not needing to commute to/from the university. Although I lived in the same city (Melbourne, Australia) as Swinburne University I did not need to visit the university (in relation to my course) until my graduation and even then it was only because I wanted to attend.

All classes (units or subjects) have a project component. What types of projects did you complete as part of your Swinburne Astronomy Online education?
I investigated a number of the hot topics in astronomy e.g. What is dark matter? How can we detect gravitational waves? How do we solve the solar neutrino problem (a problem which is now virtually solved)? I planned the flight path and instrumentation required for a mission to the asteroid Ceres (yes, for a moment I was a rocket scientist), designed a Global Positioning System, investigated solar system dynamics with a supercomputer simulation, searched for intelligent life and modelled the pressure/temperature within stars. The pièce de résistance of all of my project work was extracting science from archival images of the Crab Nebula to determine the expansion rate of this supernova remnant and building colour-magnitude diagrams for a globular cluster to determine the age of the cluster – this is what really tipped me over the edge and made me realise that I NEED to do this as a career.

In your opinion, what are the keys to being a successful online student?
Passion, perseverance and participation. It's not fun if you don't have a passion for what you're studying (although sometimes this realisation doesn't come until you've already started), perseverance is needed because we're not all super-minds and it pays to keep at it when trying to understand something and, in the true spirit of science, participation is the best way to learn from others and to share your own understanding and knowledge.

What degree did you receive from SAO and how have you used that degree?
I was awarded a Master of Science (Astronomy). I have used this, in combination with my previous qualifications and experience, to pursue a professional career in astronomy.

Do you have plans for continuing your astronomy education at Swinburne or elsewhere?
In fact I have already done so. After completing my Master of Science I went cold turkey for a while and was really missing the daily intellectual interactions. Eventually, I decided to quit my full-time career as an Engineer and applied for a full-time PhD position (by research) at Swinburne University. I am quite proud to say that I completed my PhD in 2008 and am now a postdoctoral fellow at CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science. I am currently working on the equivalent of the Hubble Deep Field but at radio wavelengths (the Australia Telescope Large Area Survey, or ATLAS project) to try and understand how galaxies evolved in the early Universe. I will soon be working on a project to build ASKAP (Australia Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder) – a next-generation radio telescope that will not only test the new technologies needed for the SKA (Square Kilometre Array) but will be a world-class telescope in its own right.

Have you personally met any of your fellow SAO students?
Yes, I met several fellow students at my graduation and also the graduation the following year (as a number of us shared common classes but started at different times). I met a few at amateur astronomical societies and there is one at my current workplace. Even to this day, I continue to keep in touch via email and Facebook with a number of fellow students and instructors. When possible, I try to catch up with them in person to reminisce the good ol' days and to see where their passion for astronomy is taking them next.

Did anything about SAO surprise you?
Everything surprised me! That it would kindle a latent passion for astronomy, that I would meet and make friends with some amazing fellow students and professors/instructors both locally and from all over the world and that I would quit a successful engineering job to start a new career in radio astronomy.

What was your favorite thing about attending SAO?
The excitement of learning something new (sometimes "hot off the press") from professional astronomers that are active in the field but also from other students with incredible experience in amateur astronomy.


Pekka RautajokiPekka Rautajoki lives in the city of Tampere in Finland some 100 miles north of the capital city of Helsinki. He works in the marketing department of Nokia Siemens Networks a manufacturer of telecommunications equipment. During his free time he is fond of stargazing – he's particularly interested in the Sun. He is also interested in scale modeling. He is the chairman of the local astronomy club Tampereen Ursa focusing on outreach activities rather than semi-pro research.

What was your educational and professional background prior to attending Swinburne Astronomy Online (SAO)?
I had an MSc from the Tampere University of Technology in Tampere, Finland. My major was industrial economics, with a minor in software engineering. Having a tertiary level degree meant that I could enroll directly to SAO MSc program. I was employed by Nokia Networks immediately after my graduation in 1995, and I worked in marketing of a software unit. I am still doing similar tasks, but now for the joint Nokia Siemens Networks.

What was your astronomy background prior to attending SAO?
I was an enthusiastic amateur astronomer with a passion to learn more. At the time of my first enrollment in 2005, I had been chairing the local astronomy club for a year.

What were your goals when you decided to apply to SAO?
Since I wanted to learn more, I thought that I might just as well get a formal degree. I also hoped SAO would improve my English skills.

At SAO communication between students, other students and professors is via discussion forums or newsgroups. How does that compare with the traditional on-campus experience? Do you think there are advantages to the online approach?
I definitely think there are advantages to the online approach. Firstly, just about all the students are motivated, and the online program allows people with different backgrounds to attend. This brings several unique points of view to the discussion. I definitely felt more like being a part of a tight community of friends and colleagues in SAO, as compared to the on-campus experience. Of course, some instructors had more off-line responsibilities, and were not able to commit as much time for SAO. There were those, too, who felt that they could learn from the SAO units as well, and they were heavily involved in discussions – which was great!

All classes (units or subjects) have a project component. What types of projects did you complete as part of your Swinburne Astronomy Online education?
I tried to choose observational projects as often as possible, just to be able to be under the stars every once in a while. Otherwise, I did a mix of internet research-based projects, ranging from discussing general relativity –related phenomena in sci-fi movies to string theory, formation of the Moon, and the "rare Earth" hypothesis. I particularly enjoyed doing the history of astronomy project, focusing on archaeoastronomy. I chose to study Avebury henge in the UK, and actually traveled on site to take panoramic shots which I then inserted as horizon panoramas in Starry Night planetarium software to check the claimed astronomical alignments of this ancient monument.

In your opinion, what are the keys to being a successful online student?
Adherence to the studying schedule, an early start with essay and project, access to a good selection of books above and beyond the text books for each unit. At least those worked for me.

What degree did you receive from SAO and how have you used that degree?
I received the degree of a Master of Science in astronomy. So far, I have not used that degree in any particular way – after all, I only graduated about two months ago.

Do you have plans for continuing your astronomy education at Swinburne or elsewhere?
I intend to take the HET620 Planetary Science unit in the second half of 2011 at Swinburne – it will be offered then for the first time. Apart from that, I have no other plans to formally continue my education.

Have you personally met any of your fellow SAO students?
Yes, several – one of my student friends organized a meeting in the UK, attended by myself and three other students, plus one instructor. In addition, I have met another fellow SAO student during my vacation trip in Hawaii, plus five other students (plus Sarah Maddison, Glen Mackie and two instructors) at my graduation in Melbourne.

Did anything about SAO surprise you?
The amount of work did surprise me – in the final units I ended up doing more intensive studying than during my previous MSc 16 years ago. Then again, in my opinion, my essays and projects are way better quality than the work I did back then. What also surprised me was how fun it all was, despite the lack of sleep. I ended up missing SAO during the long break between semesters in December-February. I was also surprised at how easily one could befriend people around the world completely via an online studying program. The world really seems smaller to me after the SAO experience.

What was your favorite thing about attending SAO?
Being part of an international and global community of space and astronomy enthusiasts.


Jenny Russell on LeftJenny Russell (on the left in the image with her best friend from SAO Laura McLamon) lives in a 400 year old converted flour mill at the edge of the North York Moors in north-east England. She's an active gardner and she used to provide foster homes for abandoned racing greyhounds until they were well enough to be re-homed. She's also a "bookaholic".

What was your educational and professional background prior to attending Swinburne Astronomy Online (SAO)?
I attended Bromley High School from 1952-1964, which is a public (i.e. non state-funded) school for girls. It was very academic, and instilled in me that only the best work was acceptable, which has stayed with all my life. (I'm not sure that this is necessarily a good thing at times, but it certainly paid off at SAO!) The school also taught me how to write good (and correct) English, which, I'm sure, benefited me enormously at SAO. My first degree was in Music at Trinity College, London (1968), after which my main occupation was as a session singer. I also taught the piano and singing privately for almost 40 years.

What was your astronomy background prior to attending SAO?
I did a short astronomy course just before I left school, which first aroused my interest in astronomy. I feel very fortunate to have lived through the whole of the Space Age because I experienced the excitement of so many 'firsts' – the launch of Sputnik, the first man in space, the first woman in space etc. and, of course, the first men on the Moon. (I stayed up all night, watching the most historical moment of my lifetime!) About ten years ago, I had the chance to study astronomy at GCSE level (General Certificate of Secondary Education) at a local evening class. By the end, I was well and truly hooked on astronomy, and wanted to know more, so the instructor suggested that I do a part-time further education course at the University of Leeds. In fact, I did all the astronomy and related courses that were on offer, and ended up with both the ordinary and higher certificates in continuing education. Those four years gave me an excellent grounding in writing in a proper 'scientific' style, and also the confidence to apply to SAO to enrol on the Master's course in astronomy.

What were your goals when you decided to apply to SAO?
My main goal was simply to learn as much as possible about astronomy, which is why the SAO MSc (based on coursework) suited my needs down to the ground. Having to choose 12 units out of a possible 16 made me study all sorts of topics that I would otherwise have shied away from. When I began the course, I wasn't at all sure that I would get to the end of it, but I thought it worth tackling just to see how far I could get! I'm still slightly surprised that I completed the whole course!

At SAO communication between students, other students and professors is via discussion forums or newsgroups. How does that compare with the traditional on-campus experience? Do you think there are advantages to the online approach?
Personally, I think the online approach is better than the traditional on-campus method, although it does mean that shy people (like me) have to 'put themselves out there', which wasn't easy at first. I found that I said very little in an actual classroom context, for fear of looking foolish, but it was easier to discuss things online because no one could see me! I also have a tendency to stutter when I'm nervous, so having the time to compose a written question or an answer, or comment, was infinitely preferable! Mind you, even in my final unit, I often used to begin by writing, "This is probably a dumb question, but . . ."! There was a great deal of discussion as to the value of Newsgroup discussions throughout my time at SAO, with many students arguing that they didn't like the fact that such discussions formed 30% of the final grade. However, I think that it was a valuable part of the SAO experience, and I learned a great deal from my fellow students. I was fortunate that I didn't have a full-time job while I was studying, so I had the time to take an active part in the Newsgroups, but I can appreciate how others might find it difficult to find enough time.

Having said that the Newsgroups were a valuable part of the SAO experience, they could also be very frustrating! Some students simply wanted to show off, and their answers were more like essays, while others were extremely patronising, almost to the point of rudeness! I'm by no means a feminist, but I cannot abide being talked down to. In every group, there was always one intensely irritating person (sometimes more), but I suppose this is also the case in a classroom situation. The other frustration with the Newsgroups was the way in which the class instructor handled them. Many were excellent, and would skilfully steer the discussions in a certain direction, keeping the students 'on topic'. They would also take time to sum up the various discussions, as well as answer anything that hadn't been fully explained. However, others took so little part that one wondered what they were being paid for! (One even told us that we were posting too many questions and answers, and suggested limiting each fortnight to one question and one answer per student. Needless to say, this caused a virtual riot in the 'classroom', with one brave soul telling the instructor that it was time he started earning the megabucks he was being paid!)

For me, personally, the Newsgroup discussions enabled me to make several lifelong friends, which would not have happened had we all just been writing essays, projects, and doing exams. I met my best SAO friend in the first semester,and we did all the rest of the units together, which was wonderful because we supported each other if either of us was feeling low. I'm now in regular e-mail contact with half a dozen or more SAOers, and I value these friendships enormously.

All classes (units or subjects) have a project component. What types of projects did you complete as part of your Swinburne Astronomy Online education?
Although each unit had quite a large list of project topics, there was also the possibility of choosing an 'Own Project'. In all but two of the units, I chose this option so that I could write about subjects in which I was particularly interested. I really enjoy the processes of research, so the project component of each unit was usually the most enjoyable. The topics I chose were: Terraforming Venus and Mars; An overview of SETI research; A history of the Plurality of Worlds; A history of Panspermia; The Local Group of galaxies; The physical and psychological problems faced by humans on long-duration spaceflight; The discovery of a signal from ETI; The Steady State theory; The development of the refracting telescope; A history of the development of astrobiology into a 21st century multi-disciplinary science; The benefits of space exploration for humankind; The formation of massive stars; Gamma-ray bursts.

In your opinion, what are the keys to being a successful online student?
The main requirements, I believe, are self-motivation and the ability to work on one's own. But having said that, I found it really important to be in a class with at least a few people I already knew.

What degree did you receive from SAO and how have you used that degree?
I received a Master of Science degree in Astronomy, but I've not really used it, since I'm now a pensioner – I can't see me becoming a professional astronomer at my age! (although I might consider a new career as a writer, if someone offered me the opportunity). I suppose one could say, however, that my degree did contribute, to some extent, to my being elected a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, since I had to give them very full details of all my academic experience and qualifications. But I suspect that the main reason I was made an FRAS was because of what the person who sponsored me wrote. He was one of my SAO tutors, and seemed to think that what I've achieved, was in some way extraordinary. I would agree that it's different, but not, I think, extraordinary. I greatly enjoy attending discussion meetings at the RAS, and also at the Royal Society. I'm also a member of the Astrobiology Society of Britain – the UK's professional body for all scientists with an interest in astrobiology. (Astrobiology is one of my major interests, and has been ever since I wrote a project about life on Mars when I was studying at Leeds University.)

Do you have plans for continuing your astronomy education at Swinburne or elsewhere?
My next course starts in November this year, and is on Planetary Geology, which is run online by the Astrophysics Research Institute. Swinburne is producing a new MSc unit next year on Planetary Science, so I shall certainly be enrolling for that, since the planetary sciences are another keen interest of mine. After that, I'm not sure what will come next – maybe more individual units as they become available from various universities which run online courses, or possibly even a doctorate, if I can find something suitable.

Have you personally met any of your fellow SAO students?
I certainly have! We had a 'off-campus' here gathering last July, when four SAO student friends and one SAO instructor came to stay for a week (plus two spouses). It was such a great success that they are all coming again next year! I've also met two other student friends when they were visiting the UK, one of whom was Anousheh Ansari, the first private woman astronaut to visit the ISS. (She hates the term 'space tourist' because she trained just as long and hard as all the professional astronauts and cosmonauts!)

Did anything about SAO surprise you?
Yes – the prejudice against women shown by some male students! The music profession in the UK has generally treated men and women equally and fairly, so this came as quite a shock. On the other hand, members of the administrative staff were very supportive whenever I encountered any problem; they could not have been more friendly or helpful, and I never felt alone.

What was your favorite thing about attending SAO?
Two things stand out – the sheer excitement of experiencing such a high degree of mental stimulation, and the wonderful friends I've made.


Margaret TurnerMargaret Turner (shown in the image on the right) worked in the IT industry as a programmer and had her own consulting business for many years. She retired to the country (south coast of New South Wales, Australia) in 1993.

What was your educational and professional background prior to attending Swinburne Astronomy Online (SAO)?
I was not the ideal candidate for SAO. I have a poor academic background. I wagged high school. Back then, I had no interest in doing a science degree. I have no observational experience.

Educational: 90% of an EDP degree in 1970's at (now) Monash University, Caulfield campus. Post Graduate Diploma Digital Communications in 1988 at (now) Monash University, Caulfield campus. Only a high school Physics and Maths background in the 1960's.

Professional: My working background is the computer industry, since 1970 as a programmer, then I had my own consulting business for many years, retired in 1993 to the country – the south coast of New South Wales.

What was your astronomy background prior to attending SAO?
None.

I've had an interest in astronomy since I was a young child. Where we lived in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia during the heat waves (45C, 110F +) we would lie out on the lawn and view the night sky. Our next door neighbour was a sea captain, then piloting the ships into Port Phillip Bay. But as a young cabin boy he had sailed around the Horn on a sailing ship. So here was someone old enough to be my grandfather telling me stories of the night sky. Unfortunately I do not remember any of what I was told but I think that was the start of my interest in astronomy. I had only one night viewing session in Melbourne with the Council of Adult Education about 1990.

What were your goals when you decided to apply to SAO?
To be accepted for, then complete the single HET602 Solar System unit.

At SAO communication between students, other students and professors is via discussion forums or newsgroups. How does that compare with the traditional on-campus experience? Do you think there are advantages to the online approach?
I have never had a traditional on-campus experience.

My academic background involved “night school” in the 1970's – where you attended 3 one hour lectures between 6 PM and 9 PM for 3 to 4 nights a week. No tutorials, little student interaction and no teacher interaction.

Since SAO, I have enrolled for BSc at Monash University, Gippsland campus, Victoria, Australia. I have completed to date 5 Maths units and 3 IT units as a distance education student. Both departments had newsgroups but students are not encouraged to post questions or to introduce themselves – I have no idea if 2 or 50 students are doing the units. The Maths units had email access to the lecturers, snail mail for assignments and an external exam. The IT units had slightly more student interaction with newsgroups, online submission of assignments and an external exam.

All classes (units or subjects) have a project component. What types of projects did you complete as part of your Swinburne Astronomy Online education?
No observing projects.

I started every semester with a blank piece of paper representing my level of knowledge on that subject. In SAO terminology, I was a “white belter”. I struggled with finding the balance between wanting to include everything I learned during the semester to the other extreme of being too brief.

  • Solar System – Power Point – comets (s2 1999)
  • Stars – Power Point Cataclysmic Variables (s1 2000)
  • History – report – Women in Astronomy – Beatrice Tinsley (s1 2000)
  • Galaxies – report on the red shift controversy (s2 2000)
  • Space-Time – report on Gravitational Lensing (s1 2001)
  • Radio Astronomy – report on the free-free absorption model for PKS 1718-649 using Curve Expert software A mathematical project! (s2 2001)
  • Astrophotography – using APLA and IRIS (both freeware) to process supplied M51 images (s1 2002)
  • Particle Physics – report Topping off the Quark (s2 2002)
  • Stellar Astrophysics – colour magnitude diagram for M67 to determine its distance, metallicity and age using supplied images (s1 2003)
  • Major Astrophotography – writing my own Star Classification software (using XBasic) (s2 2003)
  • Space Exploration – report for planning a mission to Ceres (s1 2004)
  • Computational Astrophysics – Millisecond Pulsar Populations (s2 2004)

In your opinion, what are the keys to being a successful online student?
Wanting to study and enthusiasm.

What degree did you receive from SAO and how have you used that degree?
I completed MSc with SAO from 1999 to 2004.

Alas, my age, chronic ill health, living in a rural area that is not close to a university and budget constraints, limit my options.

I would like to begin some systematic observing, then possibly make submissions to the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO).

I am a (non-observing) member of the Canberra Astronomical Society, Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand, The Astronomical Society of the Pacific (ASP), the Planetary Society and the AAVSO.

Do you have plans for continuing your astronomy education at Swinburne or elsewhere?
I enrolled in a BSc at Monash, Gippsland campus, Victoria, Australia in semester 2, 2004. I would like to learn more Maths (but Monash, Gippsland no longer offer any distance education units for third year Maths) and update and improve on my programming skills e.g. Java, PHP, Perl, perhaps new things like Drupal.

Perhaps complete a data mining unit at Monash and play with multimedia.

Have you personally met any of your fellow SAO students?
Not before the course, but since at the March 2005 graduation ceremony, at two astronomy conferences, as guests at my home and a private visit to the USA in 2005 and 2006.

I am delighted to say that since my graduation I'm still in touch with students and lecturers by phone, email and social networking sites.

Did anything about SAO surprise you?
Within Astronomy – I was surprised by the generosity of professional astronomers (with no connection to SAO) who would reply, perhaps while observing, to my emails. This shy, quiet girl was blown away when someone like Dr. Vera Rubin would post me photocopies of some articles for my Women in Astronomy project. The excitement of being able to read papers online from the SAO/NASA Astrophysics Data System (ADS).

Within SAO – The buzz, excitement, enthusiasm and the energy of all involved. The patience of the instructors.

What was your favorite thing about attending SAO?
The newsgroups were the biggest buzz. For some units like Particle Physics there would be more than 100 postings in the first day of a new module. The newsgroup format meant this very quiet shy Aussie kid with her white belt got to ask questions. Every semester I climbed Mt. Everest. Believe me, the trek to the top may be hard work at times but the view is so breath-taking and exhilarating. The tour guides are the greatest and grab your hand if you look like falling. Trust me, even with my body shape, they were able to keep me on the path to the summit.

The fun, the learning and the lifetime friendships.

SAO took me on this wonderful magical carpet ride through the universe. SAO has been the most exciting, exhilarating, fun-filled time of my life.

This entry was posted in Education, Interviews. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s