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Potential PhD Topics


PhD Supervisors

Below are listed those CAS staff who may be currently looking for PhD students.


PhD Projects

The following list outlines particular PhD projects currently on offer. Contact the staff member(s) listed for more information. Note that, due to the nature of research, this list constantly changes; potential PhD candidates are encouraged to contact the relevant staff member(s) as soon as possible. Other projects, not listed here, may be possible; contact the staff member above whom you feel is most suited to your ideas and areas of interest.

Prof. Matthew Bailes

  • No projects offered at this time

Prof. Chris Blake

  • No projects offered at this time

A.Prof. Jeff Cooke

  • No projects offered at this time

Prof. Darren Croton

  • No projects offered at this time

A.Prof. Chris Fluke

  • No projects offered at this time

Prof. Duncan Forbes

  • No projects offered at this time

Prof. Karl Glazebrook

Prof. Alister Graham

Prof. Jarrod Hurley

Dr. Glenn Kacprzak

  • No projects offered at this time

A.Prof. Virginia Kilborn

Dr. Glen Mackie

  • No projects offered at this time

Prof. Sarah Maddison

Prof. Jeremy Mould

  • No projects offered at this time

Prof. Michael Murphy

  • No projects offered at this time

A. Prof. Emma Ryan-Weber

  • No projects offered at this time

Project Descriptions

The fundamental physics behind galaxy formation

Supervisors: Prof. Karl Glazebrook & Danail Obreschkow (ICRAR/UWA) & Roberto Abraham (Toronto)


Simulated spiral galaxy simulated on
the Swinburne supercomputer (Credit: Rob Crain).

One of the oldest and most fundamental observations about galaxies is they spin. Rotation drives the majestic spiral structures but also the properties of elliptical galaxies. Surprisingly the angular momentum distribution of galaxies has never been mapped systematically, unlike their mass and size, and neither is it consistently incorporated in to models. However simple physical arguments (Obreschkow & Glazebrook 2014) really do strongly imply angular momentum is critical to understanding the large scale diversity of galaxy structure and the Australian SAMI survey is leading the world to gather the first large scale survey of galaxy spin. The aim of this PhD is to take and analyse SAMI data as well as targeted follow-up data from the Keck telescopes and other high-redshift samples to carry out the first complete census of how angular momentum drives galaxy formation. Data will be compared with new theoretical models being constructed incorporating these new physical ideas as an underlying basis. This PhD offers the opportunity to have a major impact on our basic understanding of galaxies.

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Galaxy Structure and massive black holes

Supervisor: Prof. Alister Graham


Ultraviolet image of the Andromeda Galaxy taken
with NASA's Galaxy Evolution Explorer.
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This project will explore how stars are distributed in galaxy images obtained from both ground-based telescopes and satellites such as Hubble and Spitzer. The structure of galaxies reveals much about how they formed, how they are connected with one another and also with the massive black holes that reside in their cores. A feeling for the type of research done with Prof. Graham can be seen in his Press Releases.

One specific PhD project on offer will involve a search for the descendants of the massive, compact galaxies known to exist in the high-redshift, i.e. young, Universe but reportedly now missing today. Another project will, quite literally, measure the observed damage caused by massive black holes at the centres of giant galaxies.

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A new paradigm of globular cluster formation with multiple stellar populations

Supervisor: Prof. Jarrod Hurley & Kenji Bekki (UWA)


Snaphot of a star cluster simulation performed with NBODY6,
where stellar and evolution and stellar dynamics have combined
to produce a population of exotic stars and binaries.

Galaxies consist of stars, gas, dust, and dark matter, with the vast majority of stars formed as star clusters. As such, star clusters are fundamental building blocks of galaxies, containing valuable information on the chemical evolution, star formation histories, and stellar dynamics of galaxies. Recent observational studies of the Galactic globular clusters (GCs), which are the most massive and oldest class of star cluster populations, have discovered that most of the GCs consist of different stellar populations with different chemical abundances – GCs are no longer a simple stellar system with a single age and a single metallicity, as previously thought. This new discovery has revolutionized the research field and this timely PhD project will take full advantage by:

  • constructing a new theoretical model for the formation and dynamical evolution of GCs with multiple populations;
  • using this model to understand and explain the latest observations of GCs (such as chemical abundances, stellar kinematics and radial structure).
The PhD student will work within a national collaboration that combines expertise in modelling the formation environment of GCs (Bekki), detailed modelling of the evolution of GCs with the direct NBODY6 code (Hurley) and observations of GC stellar populations (led by astronomers at Mt Stromlo, ANU).

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The star formation efficiency of galaxies in groups

Supervisor: A.Prof. Virginia Kilborn & Prof. Gerhardt Meurer (University of Western Australia)

We are becoming increasingly aware that the galaxy group environment plays an important role in the evolution of galaxies. Galaxy groups are the most common environment in the Universe (over 50% of galaxies live in groups), and the proximity of galaxies in groups, and their low velocity dispersions provide conditions conducive to galaxy interactions. Many of the properties of clusters (e.g. high early-type fractions, redder stellar populations) are often observed in the group environment. This project will take a detailed look at the star forming properties of galaxies in nearby groups, using observations of their neutral hydrogen content, and current star formation rates. The neutral hydrogen (HI) observations are taken from the HI Parkes All Sky Survey (HIPASS) with high-resolution follow-up observations from the Australia Telescope Compact Array (ATCA). The star-forming properties of the galaxies will come from the Survey of Ionization in Neutral Gas Galaxies (SINGG).

The SINGG survey was an H-alpha follow-up program, examining the star forming properties of HIPASS galaxies. Around 400 galaxies were observed in the Survey. Most of the galaxies observed were found to correspond with individual star forming galaxies - however, in about 5% of the cases there are four or more H-alpha emitting galaxies at the position of the HIPASS source. The HIPASS observations have very poor resolution so we do not know the HI content of the individual SINGG galaxies. To overcome this problem, we have performed high-resolution HI imaging with the ATCA - these data will allow us to distinguish the HI content of the individual galaxies. Since HI typically exists in a disk extending out beyond the optically bright portion of galaxies, it often shows signs of tidal disturbance and interaction. This the HI in these fields may give a better indication of how the galaxies in these groups are interacting. The student will assist in the observations, data reduction and analysis of the HI data. It is envisioned that the PhD student will lead this project and extend the data to other wavelength domains. This project will be co-supervised by Prof. Gerhardt Meurer (University of Western Australia).


The morphology of HI disks

Supervisor: A.Prof. Virginia Kilborn

Detailed, resolved, HI images exist for less than one thousand galaxies. Making such images is time consuming, and requires use of radio telescope interferometers such as the Very Large Array (VLA), Australia Telescope Compact Array (ATCA), Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope (GMRT), and the Westerbork Synthesis Radio Telescope (WRST). Galaxies have been mapped in HI for a number of reasons – for example, spiral galaxies in the Virgo cluster have been mapped for HI to understand environmental effects in dense regions (e.g. Chung et al. 2009, AJ, 138, 1741). The Local Volume HI Survey (LVHIS, Koribalski et al. in prep) mapped all the nearby galaxies that had been detected in HI from HIPASS (approx 65 galaxies), and the Westerbork HI Survey of Irregular and Spiral Galaxies (WHISP, van der Hulst et al. 2002) mapped a few hundred spiral and irregular galaxies. The “THINGS” (Walter 2008, AJ, 136, 2563) and “Little THINGS” (Ashley et al. 2013, AJ, 146, 42) surveys mapped a few tens of galaxies to high sensitivity in multi-wavelength bands. In addition to these coordinated surveys, individual galaxies have been mapped for various reasons (usually due to interest in particular galaxy or region) – data from all the above telescopes becomes accessible to the public typically 12-18 months after the observations – thus a treasure trove of data is available in the online archives.

The advent of the next generation radio telescopes, in particular the SKA pathfinders ASKAP and Apertif will change this paradigm, with resolved images expected for more than 10,000 galaxies with ASKAP alone as part of the WALLABY all-sky HI survey.

This PhD project will use archive data as detailed above, along with dedicated observations to investigate the relationship between the HI properties of galaxies and their optical properties. In particular the student will investigate the HI extent, profile, and HI surface density of galaxies of differing optical properties (such as morphology and colour) as a function of stellar mass.

The student will be co-supervised at the ATNF, and will be expected to spend time working on the ASKAP BETA array initially – both making observations, and reducing and analyzing early science results. The student will be involved with ASKAP-12 and WALLABY early science, in particular the investigation of HI in different environments. There is a natural synergy with this project, and the SkyMapper survey.


Testing planetesimal collision models with debris disk observations

Supervisor: Prof. Sarah Maddison


7 mm image of the Fomalhaut debris disk made with ATCA.
The disk centre (blue star) is offset from the central
(yellow) star, in agreement with HST observations,
possibility due to the eccentric planet Fomalhaut b.
From Ricci et al. (2012).

Planets are formed through the collisions of asteroid-like bodies in the early stages of planetary systems. But collisions between these bodies can also be disruptive and generate a swarm of dust fragments. The dust in debris disks is thought to be produced by collisions between km-sized planetesimals (comets and asteroids) leftovers of the planetary formation process. Since we cannot detect planetesimals, sub-mm and mm wavelength observations of the cold dust in debris disk is the only way to study these unseen bodies. Thermal dust emission in the sub-mm and mm wavebands can be used to study the size distribution of dust grains, which in turn can be used to distinguish between different collisional models. In this project, the student will join an international term conducting a survey of debris disks called PLATYPUS with the Australia Telescope Compact Array to study their intrinsic properties and test predictions of collisional models of planetesimals.

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