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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

Prof. Matthew Bailes

Prof. Chris Blake

Dr. Michelle Cluver

  • 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. Adam Deller

A.Prof. Alan Duffy

Dr. Deanne Fisher

A.Prof. Chris Fluke

Prof. Duncan Forbes

  • No projects offered at this time

Prof. Karl Glazebrook

Prof. Alister Graham

Prof. Jarrod Hurley

  • No projects offered at this time

A.Prof. Glenn Kacprzak

Prof. Virginia Kilborn

  • No projects offered at this time

Dr. Glen Mackie

  • No projects offered at this time

Prof. Sarah Maddison

Prof. Jeremy Mould

Prof. Michael Murphy

  • No projects offered at this time

A.Prof. Emma Ryan-Weber

  • No projects offered at this time

Dr. Ryan Shannon

Dr. Edward N. Taylor

  • No projects offered at this time

Project Descriptions

The following set of projects have guaranteed external funding:

The nature of the first stellar populations in the Universe

Supervisor: Prof. Karl Glazebrook

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is a 6.5m space telescope, significantly larger than the 27 year old 2.5m Hubble Space Telescope and will extend much further in to the infrared due to its cold location, one million km from the Earth. This will lead to new discoveries on topics such as the Initial Mass Function (IMF), rate of formation, elemental abundances and the presence of exotic populations. These studies will probe the fundamental physics of galaxy formation at z>4 in detail previously not possible. Recent discoveries of massive evolved galaxies (stellar masses >10^11 Msun) in such an early Universe point to an epoch of extremely fast star-formation followed by just as rapid quenching. A variety of next generation spectral synthesis codes have been developed in the past few years which allow more sophisticated treatment of emission lines, binary populations, abundances, complex star-formation histories and the IMF. In this PhD we will integrate these codes to study the stellar populations of the most massive galaxies and develop new algorithms to accelerate the modelling process. We will apply this to variety of ground-based surveys, and put in place a framework which we will use to study the millions of high-quality spectra expected from JWST. This scholarship is funded through Prof. Glazebrook's Laureate fellowship.


The Fast Radio Burst Population and Origins

Supervisors: Prof. Matthew Bailes and A.Prof. Adam Deller

Swinburne is a world-leader in the discovery and understanding of the Fast Radio Bursts, enigmatic few-ms bursts of radio emission that travel cosmological distances and impact the Earth thousands of times per day. Their origin, evolution and use as cosmological probes of the Universe are all extremely hot topics. Swinburne and their collaborators currently have access to the Parkes 64m, UTMOST and ASKAP radio telescopes to discover and characterise these enigmatic objects. This PhD will be under the joint supervision of Prof. Matthew Bailes, A.Prof. Adam Deller and Dr Ryan Shannon and use a combination of the world's most prolific and flexible FRB detectors with modern supercomputing techniques to discover, characterise and trace FRBs back to their host galaxies. Swinburne has been involved in the discovery of over half the known FRB population and our team have featured in three Science and Nature papers in the past 12 months.

Image caption: An ASKAP-localised FRB that was recently published in Science. Its follow-up involved some of the world's largest optical facilities.



Millisecond Pulsar Timing with the SKA Pathfinder MeerKAT

Supervisor: Prof. Matthew Bailes

The MeerKAT is a new 400M AUD telescope situated in the Karoo, South Africa at the SKA site. It comprises 64 dishes that will eventually become part of the 196-dish SKA-mid, a telescope of unprecedented power. Prof. Matthew Bailes currently leads the MeerTime project, which is an international collaboration using the MeerKAT to explore the galaxy's pulsars for studies of relativistic gravity, binary evolution, probe the swarms of millisecond pulsars that inhabit globular clusters and monitor the entire population of pulsars in the Southern hemisphere. This project will concentrate on precision timing of the fastest millisecond pulsars to weigh neutron stars and search for gravitational waves from supermassive black hole binaries in the distant universe. This project will involve trips to South Africa and visits to our partners in Europe, the US and New Zealand. Students will benefit from membership of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Gravitational Wave Discovery, OzGrav. The project will be co-supervised by Dr. Ryan Shannon and Dr. Daniel Reardon.

Image: The brand new MeerKAT radio telescope that will be used in the project. (Credit: SARAO)



Using scintillation to explore pulsar and plasma astrophysics

Supervisor: Dr. Ryan Shannon

Project description: Pulsars are some of the most extreme objects in the universe. They are incredibly dense and rapidly rotating stars that we use as tools to study fundamental physics. They provide unique opportunities for testing theories of gravity in the strong field, searching for low-frequency gravitational waves from supermassive black hole binaries, and exploring the fundamental behaviour of matter at supranuclear densities. Pulsars are commonly timed like a precise clock using a detailed model of their rotation, binary orbit, and interstellar plasma that disturbs their radio emission. However an emerging method for improving pulsar models is the study of the pulsar's scintillation, or "twinkling," caused by scattering by this plasma.

In this project you will analyse world-leading pulsar data sets from the new $400 Million MeerKAT radio telescope in South Africa, two decade long datasets from the Parkes Pulsar Timing Array (PPTA) project, and new data taken with the Parkes ultrawideband receiving system. You will have freedom to explore fundamental scintillation topics such as: frequency-dependence over wide observing bandwidths, variations with Earth and pulsar motion, extreme scattering events, imaging pulsar magnetospheres and AU-scale structures in the ionised medium, using scintillation to improve pulsar timing, and more!

Through this project you will learn data analysis and statistical techniques that can be applied to other domains in astronomy, academia, and industry.


The missing population of intermediate mass black holes

Supervisor: Prof. Alister Graham

There is a largely-missing population of intermediate-mass black holes (IMBHs) with masses higher than that formed by single stars today (Mbh=1.4 to 120 MSun) and less massive than the supermassive black holes (SMBHs: 105—1010 MSun) known to reside at the centres of big galaxies.  Not surprisingly, astronomers around the world are hotly pursuing the much-anticipated discovery of IMBHs.  This thesis will involve several interconnected projects involving telescope and satellite image analysis and statistical techniques.  Improved methods for estimating both IMBH and SMBH masses will be developed and applied, with ties to the upcoming Large Synoptic Survey Telescope expected.  The coexistence of these massive black holes in dense, compact star clusters at the centres of galaxies is also expected to be a source gravitational radiation detectable by the planned eLISA satellite, for which updated predictions will be made.

Students will benefit from membership in the ARC Centre of Excellence for Gravitational Wave Discovery, OzGrav.


The following set of projects are subject to a competitive allocation process where only a limited number of scholarships are available:

Astronomical knowledge discovery beyond the petascale

Supervisor: A.Prof. Christopher Fluke

The immensity of data available to modern and future astronomers demands new approaches and techniques for analysis and visualisation. Astronomers are already turning to automated processing using dedicated high-performance computing resources and advanced data archives, supported by machine learning and artificial intelligence. Within this Petascale Astronomy Era, the ability to visualise data will still be crucial for quality control, decision-making, and to support new discoveries. PhD projects are available in one or more of the following areas:

  1. Visualisation Beyond the Desktop: Previous PhD projects have resulted in the development of solutions for real-time visualisation of Terabyte-scale volumes (GraphTIVA), comparative visualisation of volumetric data on a tiled display wall (encube), and advanced graphics shaders (shwirl). In this project, you will extend, combine, improve, and develop new visualisation solutions that support knowledge discovery in astronomy beyond the desktop -- including virtual reality, augmented reality, large-format displays, Gigapixel tiled displays, and cloud-computing services.
  2. Discovery Beyond the Petascale: The goal is to support interactive, multi-dimensional analysis of data from observations, simulations, model fits and empirical relationships. The research will require an investigation into methods for combining visualisation-directed model-fitting with emerging machine learning techniques - such as Deep Learning - to enhance and accelerate the path to discovery. A key focus will be\ the WALLABY survey of extragalactic neutral hydrogen with the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder, however, the techniques developed will be suitable for a range of current and future data intensive programs - within and beyond astronomy.
  3. Cyber-Human Discovery Systems: This project addresses the question "How do humans and machines work together most effectively to maximise the scientific return of data?" Cyber-human discovery systems combine human-centred visualisation with automated data mining, through strategies such as machine learning and artificial intelligence. At different stages of a discovery process, the amount of work performed by humans and machines can vary -- but this requires an increased understanding of what astronomers do. In this research, you will provide this understanding for a number of astronomical contexts, and create new solutions to support highly customisable, dynamic, visualisation solutions that will sense and enhance the capabilities of humans working closely with machines.

These projects are expected to make use of Swinburne University's Advanced Visualisation facilities - the Enhanced Virtual Reality Theatre and the Swinburne Discovery Wall - and the OzSTAR Supercomputer. These projects will suit students with existing programming skills and interests in data-intensive discovery. Relevant astronomical applications will be selected, offering opportunities for students to collaborate with other researchers in the Centre for Astrophysics & Supercomputing.


Finding Strong Gravitational Lenses in the High-Resolution imaging era

Supervisors: Prof. Karl Glazebrook and A.Prof. Adam Deller

Strong gravitational lens systems are a corner piece for the study of cosmology, dark matter and galaxy evolution. It has now been established that they can be found very efficiently using convolutional neural networks (a.k.a. 'deep learning') in ground based surveys, searching millions of sources to find hundreds of lenses. In this PhD project we will develop the next generation of machine learning techniques that will be able to detect strong lenses in future high-spatial resolution large imaging surveys. These include orbiting observatories such as Euclid and the Chinese Space Telescope which will survey thousands of square degrees in the optical at resolution similar to the Hubble Space Telescope, and forthcoming SKA and VLBI radio surveys which can deliver resolutions down to milliarcseconds for millions of sources. Key research probems to be addressed are: (i) simulate lensed galaxies at much higher spatial resolution in order to provide realistic training samples, (ii) simulate instrumental effects in the radio domain and (iii) will explore new techniques such as transfer learning and generative adversarial networks to build more adaptable systems.

Image caption: Example of a very high-resolution images of a gravitational lens from Tamura et al. (2015). The thin arc in the RGB image is the cold dust emission from a lensed galaxy at z=3.042 as observed with ALMA in the sub-mm band at 30 milli-arcsecond resolution. The contours show the “low” resolution infrared data from the Hubble Space Telescope superimposed, showing this emission comes from a different part of the galaxy. The galaxy acting as the gravitational lens has been subtracted from this image.


Testing the effect of gravity on light and matter with DESI

Supervisors: Prof. Chris Blake

The Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument (DESI), on the Mayall 4-metre telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory, is performing the largest existing spectroscopic survey of distant galaxies and quasars, constructing a 3D map containing tens of millions of objects across 11 billion light years. Swinburne is a member of this exciting project!

DESI will measure the effect of dark energy and gravity on the expansion of the Universe, testing fundamental cosmological physics to an unprecedented accuracy. More details about its scientific goals may be found here and here.

An important test of gravity is whether light (relativistic particles) and galaxies (moving non-relativistically) experience the same gravitational physics. The deflections of light can be measured by the gravitational lensing (shape distortions) of distant galaxies as their light propagates to our telescopes through the web of cosmic structure. The motions of galaxies can be measured via coherent distortions imprinted in their redshifts.

This PhD project will develop and perform combined analyses of the DESI galaxy distribution and overlapping weak lensing datasets, in order to test gravitational physics. Opportunities are available to conduct DESI observations at Kitt Peak, and collaborate with our international partners within DESI.

Picture caption: An illustration of how the light from distant galaxies is gravitationally lensed as it travels through the cosmic web of large-scale structure (Image credit: S.Colombi)


Mapping local structure and motions with the Taipan Galaxy Survey

Supervisors: Prof. Chris Blake

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. The full set of scientific goals for the survey is described in this paper.

The Taipan survey will start taking data in late 2019, and this PhD project will play a fundamental role in developing the early large-scale structure measurements, leading to some of the first key science analyses of the survey, quantifying galaxy clustering and motions in the local Universe. The PhD student will hence play an important role in a significant Australian scientific project.


The supernova standard candle

Supervisors: Prof. Jeremy Mould

For decades astronomers have been developing methods to better understand the variation in peak luminosity of type Ia SNe and improve their use as precision distance indicators. There are sufficient SNIa to reach the Hubble flow, whether one anchors the calibration to Cepheids or to Population II. But, as the progenitor model for SNIa remains uncertain, the possibility of a population bias in the SNIa standard candle needs investigation. This we propose to do using OzDES SNIa host galaxy spectroscopy. Up to now the only sign of population bias is correlations between SNIa light curve parameters and galaxy mass, metallicity and age. Until 2019 there was no evidence of Hubble residuals (i.e. SNIa peak luminosity) correlating with population characteristics. At that time it was found that a ∼<1.3% reduction in the uncertainty of the SNIa H0 calibration could be achieved from a photometric estimate of host population age. We have developed more focussed age and metallicity diagnostics for SNIa host spectra, and in this project we plan to apply these to quantify possible standard candle dependencies. Offered subject to funding by DP200101176.


Dark Matter Visible

Supervisors: A.Prof. Alan Duffy

There exists an unknown invisible mass in the Universe, outweighing everything we can see five times over. This mysterious substance is called Dark Matter, non-interaction with electromagnetism makes it both challenging to directly observe or detection as it is therefore nearly collisionless. Astronomical observations have confirmed the large-scale distribution of dark matter but to determine the particle nature will require measurements on light year scales or event direct detection of the particle itself. Confirming the nature of this new particle is one of the greatest scientific endeavours of our century. Swinburne is part of SABRE, a new experiment one-kilometre underground at a gold mine in Stawell, which will attempt to detect this dark matter.

This project will use high-resolution simulations of Milky Way-like galaxies to explore the potential properties of the dark matter near the Sun's orbit and which SABRE may detect. It will also generate distributions that can inform indirect detection efforts such microlensing, self-annihilation signals and perturbations to the visible sector. A series of zoom-in hydrodynamical simulations of Milky Way type galaxies have been created on the largest supercomputers in the world. Along with these simulations is a new technique to be developed in collaboration with Caltech’s Prof Phil F Hopkins on a more robust numerical estimate for small scale dark matter structures. This research efforts will be used to generate an expectation for the range of dark matter distributions that can inform direct detection experiments. A background/masters in numerical simulations (esp. Gadget/GIZMO) is an advantage as is experience in Python or C.


Simulating Warm Dark Matter

Supervisors: A.Prof. Alan Duffy

The current dark matter paradigm has been incredibly successful in creating the large-scale structure of the universe we see around us, with simulations explaining the distribution of galaxies across cosmic distances. If you zoom in on smaller scales the simple ‘cold dark matter’ model of a massive particle that has effectively no thermal velocity begins to struggle to explain what we see. From cusp vs core tensions of the inner densities to the missing satellite problem there would appear to be only two options: complex astrophysical processes dramatically alter the dark matter structure on small scales, and / or the dark matter is in fact not perfectly collisionless and ‘cold’, instead it is either self-interacting or has some internal thermal velocity – known as warm dark matter.

Creating the simulations to explore warm dark matter are fraught with numerical instabilities which cause immense difficulties in testing this theory. In this PhD we will explore a new, more rigorous mathematical framing of the theory that will allow us to finally test this highly compelling extension of the dark matter paradigm. Experience in mathematical modelling, python / C / C++ will be advantageous.


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.
Understanding How Circumgalactic Gas Drives Galaxy Evolution

Supervisors: A.Prof. Glenn Kacprzak, Dr. Nikole Nielsen and Prof. Michael Murphy

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 recognised as THE critical unknown process missing to fully understand galaxy evolution. Therefore, gaseous galaxy halos are the key astrophysical laboratories harbouring 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.


Gas flows in and out of extreme star bursting galaxies

Supervisors: Dr. Deanne Fisher and A.Prof. Glenn Kacprzak

In this project the student will work with data from the new, cutting edge instrument on Keck telescope to study the gas flows in extreme star forming galaxies. Shortly (10-50 Myr) after stars form a small fraction of them will explode in violent supernova events. Supernovae, as well as intense radiation from young stars, inject energy and momentum into the surrounding gas. This arrests future star formation and provides outward pressure preventing galaxies from collapsing under their own gravity. We call this process 'stellar feedback'. Without stellar feedback cosmological simulations cannot explain bulk properties of galaxies. Measuring the gas flows that come from these supernovae is therefore a critical aspect of galaxy evolution, which in the past has been extremely difficult. However, with the recent commissioning of the Keck Cosmic Web Imager and MUSE spectrograph on the VLT, we can now make point-to-point measurements of gas flows within galaxies. The student will join a team of researchers working on many details of studying outflows and how they affect the galaxy that contains them.


Artist's impression of a black hole. Credit: James Josephides.
Galaxy Structure and massive black holes

Supervisors: Prof. Alister Graham

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.


Testing planetesimal collision models with debris disk observations

Supervisors: Prof. Sarah Maddison

Testing planetesimal collision models with debris disk observations: Planets form through the collisions of asteroid-like bodies. The only way to see these large bodies is via the dust grains they produce via collisions. The student will join an international team conducting the PLATYPUS survey with the Australia Telescope Compact Array to study intrinsic properties of debris disks and test predictions of collisional models of planetesimals.