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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

Prof. Chris Blake

A.Prof. Jeff Cooke

  • No projects offered at this time

Prof. Darren Croton

  • No projects offered at this time

Dr. Adam Deller

Dr. Alan Duffy

A.Prof. Chris Fluke

Prof. Duncan Forbes

Prof. Karl Glazebrook

Prof. Alister Graham

Prof. Jarrod Hurley

Dr. Glenn Kacprzak

A.Prof. Virginia Kilborn

Dr. Glen Mackie

  • No projects offered at this time

Prof. Sarah Maddison

Prof. Jeremy Mould

Prof. Michael Murphy

A.Prof. Emma Ryan-Weber

Dr. Edward N. Taylor


Project Descriptions

Predictions of gravitational radiation from galaxy bulges

Supervisors: Prof. Alister Graham


Artist's impression of a flaring event from a star captured by a massive black hole. Credit: James Josephides.

While big galaxy bulges are known to harbour supermassive black holes (BHs), some bulges have been alleged to contain questionably large BHs. An accurate knowledge of the typical BH-to-bulge mass ratio is central to both our understanding of galaxy evolution and for predictions of the expected gravitational radiation signal that the Parkes Pulsar Timing Array (PPTA) is trying to detect. One mechanism by which galaxies grow is through the merger of smaller galaxies; if we can predict their central black hole masses, then we can predict the gravitational radiation from the colliding black holes. While there are nearly 100 early-type galaxies with directly measured black hole masses, only half of these have had their host bulge masses reliably measured. This project will involve optical/near-infrared image analysis of some 50 galaxies, deriving refined BH-to-bulge mass ratios, and providing updated predictions to support the PPTA campaign.

This project will be conducted within the collaborative environment of the OzGrav Centre of Excellence for Gravitational Wave Discovery hosted at Swinburne University of Technology.

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Binary millisecond pulsars and black hole binaries in star clusters

Supervisors: Prof. Jarrod Hurley and A/Prof. Yuri Levin (Monash University)


Simulated image of two merging black holes within a binary. Credit: SXS project - www.black-holes.org.

Strongly interacting binaries involving neutron stars and black holes are prime gravitational wave and radio sources. It has been demonstrated previously that star clusters are extremely efficient laboratories for producing an overabundance of close binary stars that subsequently inspiral and merge. Furthermore, binary population synthesis calculations show that the formation of millisecond pulsars via non-standard pathways such as through the accretion of material onto white dwarfs is a significant occurrence. As such there is a pressing need to quantify the expected numbers and properties of highly-energetic systems that reside in star clusters and will be detectable by next generation radio and gravitational wave facilities. Specifically this project will:

- conduct direct N-body simulations of star clusters (open and globular clusters) to reveal the morphology of neutron star and black hole binaries that form and merge within hierarchical subsystems in these highly interactive environments;

- model the evolution of binary millisecond pulsars that form through standard and accretion-induced collapse pathways, within star clusters and within the Galactic field

This project will be conducted within the collaborative environment of the OzGrav Centre of Excellence for Gravitational Wave Discovery hosted at Swinburne University.

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How to measure what cannot be seen: the dark matter that surrounds galaxies

Supervisors: Dr. Edward N. Taylor

This project will pioneer new approaches to measuring the general relativistic effect of weak gravitational lensing, with the goal of making the first direct lensing measurements of the size and mass of the dark matter halos around individual galaxies. The project will offer opportunities to observe using cutting edge integral field spectrograph (IFS) systems on some of the world’s best telescopes, and potential collaborations in the United States (Univ. of Washington in Seattle) and Europe (Leiden Observatory in the Netherlands).

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Using the largest ever spectroscopic galaxy redshift survey to shed light on how galaxies grow

Supervisors: Dr. Edward N. Taylor

The Taipan galaxy survey will measure redshifts for over 1 million galaxies across the entire Southern sky, beginning in the first half of 2017. Together with imaging data covering all wavelength regimes from the near UV through to the mid IR, as well as continuum and 21cm radio data from ASKAP surveys, the Taipan galaxy survey dataset will provide the ultimate laboratory for studying the lifecycle of baryons (gas accretion, star formation, feedback, and outflows) as a function of galaxy mass and environment. This project includes opportunities to help commission the new Taipan survey instrument, including the automated observing system, and to contribute to the development of the data handling software pipeline. (Lots of time at the telescope!) Collaboration opportunities with leaders in the field of galaxy formation and evolution across a number of Australian institutes.

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Mapping the Universe with Fast Radio Bursts

Supervisors: Prof. Matthew Bailes and Dr. Adam Deller


FRB160608: One of the first Fast Radio Bursts detected
by the UTMOS instrument (image credit: Manisha Caleb).

Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs) are intense, millisecond-long bursts of radio energy that appear to originate from outside our own Galaxy. It is not yet certain whether they originate in relatively nearby galaxies, or from truly cosmological distances of the order of billions of light-years, because to date no-one has succeeded in unambiguously associating an FRB with a host galaxy. The upgrade of the Molonglo radio telescope to "UTMOST-2D" will provide the first dedicated FRB search capable of pinpointing bursts to arcsecond precision and identifying their host galaxies. By comparing the FRB "dispersion" (which measures of the number of electrons between the source and the Earth) to the host galaxy redshift, the FRBs detected by Molonglo can directly measure the density of the intergalactic medium and be used as a cosmic ruler to map the Universe.

This PhD project will involve making and analysing multiwavelength follow-up observations to FRBs pinpointed by UTMOST-2D. Optical identification and spectroscopic characterisation of the host galaxies will be supported by radio continuum, optical, and X-ray searches for afterglow signals, as well as analysis of the population characteristics of the detected FRBs. The student will join the UTMOST collaboration under the joint supervision of Prof. Matthew Bailes and Dr. Adam Deller.

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Testing the cosmological model with the Taipan Galaxy Survey

Supervisors: Prof. Chris Blake


The UK Schmidt Telescope at Siding Spring Observatory,
where the Taipan Galaxy Survey will take place

One of the most fundamental tasks facing astronomers is to determine the cosmological model describing the physics of the expanding universe, in terms of its matter-energy content and the laws of gravity. Recent observations of the universe show that our current understanding of the relevant physics is profoundly incomplete, forcing cosmologists to invoke a mysterious dark energy, that propels an apparent acceleration in the present-day cosmic expansion rate.

The Taipan Galaxy Survey is a new Australian-based project that will measure redshifts for 1,000,000 galaxies and peculiar velocities for 100,000 galaxies, mapping out the large-scale structure of the local Universe. The resulting dataset will yield the most precise direct measurement of the present-day expansion rate of the universe, the largest maps of the density and velocity fields of local structures, and new and stringent tests of large-scale gravitational physics using galaxy motions, probing Einstein’s theory of gravity and alternatives.

Depending on the skills and interests of the student, this project could involve a focus on observations, data analysis or theory within a key science investigation in the project.

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Pinpointing the origin of Fast Radio Bursts

Supervisors: Dr. Adam Deller


FRB160608: One of the first Fast Radio Bursts detected
by the UTMOS instrument (image credit: Manisha Caleb).

Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs) are intense bursts of radio energy lasting just milliseconds that appear to originate from outside our own Galaxy. It is not yet certain whether they originate in relatively nearby galaxies, or from truly cosmological distances of the order of billions of light-years, because to date no-one has succeeded in associating an FRB with a host galaxy. The upgrade of the Molonglo radio telescope to "UTMOST-2D" will provide the first dedicated FRB search capable of pinpointing bursts to arcsecond precision and identifying their host galaxies. By comparing the FRB "dispersion" (which measures of the number of electrons between the source and the Earth) to the host galaxy redshift, the FRBs detected by Molonglo can directly measure the density of the intergalactic medium and be used as a cosmic ruler to map the Universe.

This PhD project will encompass developing, commissioning, and exploiting the Molonglo upgrade that will enable the FRBs to be localised. The student will join the UTMOST collaboration and work on the signal processing chain from the telescope front-end through the digital signal processing and subsequent event detection, characterisation, positional extraction, and analysis.

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Polluting the First Galaxies

Supervisors: Dr. Alan Duffy and A.Prof. Emma Ryan-Weber

In the first billion years after the big bang the universe was filled with light as bright new stars formed within the rapidly growing First Galaxies. Due to their enormous distances from us these First Galaxies are incredible faint, accessible only by the most powerful of telescopes. Yet even with these telescopes the picture is far from clear, and instead supercomputer simulations of the early universe are able to inform what we do see. This project will investigate the new elements that are flung from exploding supernovae into the gas around galaxies, polluting the pristine material from the Big Bang, leaving their mark on the early history of our Universe.

A series of hydrodynamical simulations, collectively termed Smaug, has been created on the largest supercomputers across Australia. This catalogue will be used to test the manner in which galaxies in the first billion years of the universe grew, how the products (such as the oxygen we breath) from these early forming stars spread throughout the universe. How these metals pollute the gas around galaxies will then be directly compared with the latest observations at Swinburne of metals around early galaxies found using the giant Keck and Subaru telescopes.

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Making darkness visible, the hunt for dark matter

Supervisors: Dr. Alan Duffy and Prof. Jeremy Mould

The galaxy around us is held together by an invisible new type of mass, called dark matter, outweighing everything we can see five times over. This dark matter is able to travel through solid material without trace with constraints on its nature from supercomputer simulations revealing the presence of it by the stars and gas we can see. A global effort is underway to detect this dark matter with SABRE, the world’s first dark matter detector in the southern hemisphere within a gold mine in Stawell, Victoria.

This project will utilise simulated Milky Way-like galaxies to constrain the streams and flows of different dark matter candidates which will ultimately be tested by SABRE in the Stawell Underground Physics Laboratory. The candidate will learn and utilise simulations created on the nation’s most powerful supercomputer as well as aid in the development and operation of the SABRE detector itself.

Candidates with experience in software development (C/C++/Python) or electrical / mechanical engineering are strongly preferred.

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Astronomical Knowledge Discovery Beyond the Petascale

Supervisors: A/Prof. Chris Fluke and A/Prof. Virginia Kilborn


As astronomy moves ever closer to the Square Kilometre Array's exascale data era, an increasing number of existing desktop-based workflows will fail. Instead, astronomers will turn to automated processing using dedicated high-performance computing resources coupled with advanced data archives. Yet the ability to look at the most important data is crucial.

In this project, you will research, design, implement and evaluate new visualisation-based knowledge discovery approaches. The goal is to support interactive, multi-dimensional analysis of data from observations, simulations, model fits and empirical relationships. The resulting framework is expected to merge visualisation-directed model-fitting with emerging machine learning techinques - such as Deep Learning - to enhance and accelerate the path to discovery. All stages of the project will utilise Graphics Processing Units (GPUs) as computational accelerators.

Two main applications motivate this work

- Morphological (i.e. shape-based) studies of the neutral hydrogen content of galaxies, using radio-telescope data from existing and next generation surveys. A key focus will be preparing for the WALLABY survey with the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP).

- Light-curve analysis and gravitational lensing modelling using the extensive online datasets generated by the GPU-Enabled, cosmological MicroLensing parameter survey (GERLUMPH).

This project will suit a student with existing strong programming skills, and interests in GPU-computing and/or data-intensive discovery.

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Solving the mystery of lenticular galaxies

Supervisors: Prof. Duncan Forbes


Lenticular (or S0) galaxies form the link in the Hubble sequence between spiral and elliptical galaxies. Yet since their discovery, no single formation pathway has been identified and they remain the subject of much debate. Using new instrumentation on the Keck 10m telescope combined with the latest hydrodynamical simulations, this project aims to address S0 formation anew and solve this long standing mystery. The project involves collaborators across Australia and in California.

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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. Spiral galaxies appear to retain the angular momentum of their original dark matter halos as they form and evolve, in contrast ellipticals seem to lose a lot, giving a direct physical picture of the origin of galaxy morphology. However angular momentum is a difficult measurement requiring deep observations of the dim outskirts of galaxies.

In this project we will provide new measurements of angular momentum in galaxies in the nearby Universe using data from the Australian SAMI survey (to measure galaxy starlight in the optical) and from the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (to measure neutral gas emission). We will then measure the evolution of angular momentum with redshift using the 10m Keck telescope in Hawaii and the ALMA sub-mm array. This will provide some of the most fundamental constraints on galaxy formation and evolution with redshift.

Thus project is part of an extremely active collaboration between Swinburne and the University of Western Australia, funded by the Australian Research Council. It will require hands on observational skills with some of the world’s most advanced telescopes.

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Galaxy Structure and massive black holes

Supervisors: 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.

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A new paradigm of globular cluster formation with multiple stellar populations

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


Snapshot 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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Understanding Gas Flows in-and-around Galaxies

Supervisors: Dr. Glenn Kacprzak and Prof. Michael Murphy


Cool gas (green) from cosmic filaments accretes onto
the galaxy, which drives its rotation and controls the rate at
which it forms stars. Star formation and supernovae expel
gas back into the circumgalatic medium (purple). Background
quasars are used to study these gas flows around galaxies.

Ever wonder why some galaxies form stars while others do not? Or where does all the fuel for star-formation come from and what regulates it? The evolution of galaxies is intimately tied to their gas cycles - the gas accretion, star formation, stellar death and gas expulsion. As galaxies evolve, their gas cycles (known as feedback), give rise to an extended gaseous halo surrounding galaxies. Understanding how feedback works has become recognized as THE critical unknown process missing to fully understand galaxy evolution. Therefore, gaseous galaxy halos are the key astrophysical laboratories harboring the detailed physics of how galactic feedback governs galaxy evolution.

Observationally, galaxy halos are studied with great sensitivity using quasar absorption lines. Imprinted on the quasar spectrum are the motions, chemical content, density, and temperature of the gas. These absorption signatures provide details that are unobtainable using any other method of observation. Here, the student will join an international collaboration and will examine how the host galaxy properties are linked to their circumgalactic gas properties using Hubble Space Telescope and Keck Telescope data.

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Are the fundamental constants of nature vary truly constant?

Supervisors: Prof. Michael Murphy and Dr. Glenn Kacprzak


The constants of Nature play a central role in our fundamental physical theories, but these theories cannot predict the values of the constants we observe – this hints that our theories may be incomplete and that a more fundamental, "grand unified theory" might exist. Perhaps surprisingly, absorption lines seen in the spectra of extremely distant quasars offer a fairly clean and precise measurement of some fundamental constants early in the Universe's history. There has even been evidence of variation in the fine-structure constant – effectively, the strength of electromagnetism – over cosmological time and distance scales with this technique! Over the past few years, our improved methods have put that evidence aside and we have obtained the most precise measurements so far. The next major step is to prepare for and use what should be the perfect instrument for these measurements – a new spectrograph on the Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile called ESPRESSO.

Many different possible avenues exist in this endeavour, most of which are a blend of observational astronomy and "data science" (algorithm and data analysis development). The end goal is to produce the best, most precise, most reliable measurements of the fine-structure constant in the distant universe to date. Opportunities may arise for observations at the 8-m VLT, the 10-m Keck and/or 8-m Subaru telescopes, and to work with collaborators in California, Netherlands, Italy, UK and Sydney.

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Understanding galaxy evolution with next generation radio telescopes

Supervisors: A.Prof. Virginia Kilborn and A.Prof. Chris Fluke


The Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder
(Image Credit: Alex Cherney, www.terrastro.com)

Understanding the neutral hydrogen (HI) content of galaxies is important to understand the evolution of galaxies - hydrogen is the main ingredient in star formation, and the distribution of HI within galaxies helps to understand the processes affecting the galaxy. However, detailed, resolved, HI images exist for less than one thousand galaxies. 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). A small number of surveys have targeted galaxies of varying mass and environment (e.g. LVHIS, Koribalski et al. in prep; WHISP, van der Hulst et al. 2002; “THINGS” Walter 2008, AJ, 136, 2563), and individual galaxies have been mapped for various reasons (usually due to interest in particular galaxy or region), providing maps for several hundred galaxies in total.

However, 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 new 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 work closely with the latest visualisation techniques as a novel method for analysing large visual datasets.

The student will have the opportunity to be co-supervised at the Australia Telescope National Facility, and will be expected to spend time working on the ASKAP early science data – both making observations, and reducing and analyzing early science results. This project will help us to prepare for the upcoming large SKA HI surveys, and provides an outstanding opportunity to be involved in cutting-edge radio astronomy research.

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Testing planetesimal collision models with debris disk observations

Supervisors: 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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