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Vacation Scholarships in Astronomy at CAS

The Centre for Astrophysics & Supercomputing (CAS) accepts applications for Vacation Scholarships from enthusiastic university students with excellent scholastic records who are in the last, or second last, year of their undergraduate or Honours/Masters degree.

With 18 research faculty and more than 30 post-docs and PhD students, CAS is a vibrant, friendly environment for studying most fields of astronomy. Swinburne astronomers have guaranteed access to the twin Keck 10-m Telescopes in Hawaii - the world's premier optical observatory - and CAS owns and operates one of Australia's most powerful supercomputers - the Green & Gstar Machines . We also develop advanced immersive 3D data visualization facilities and create 3-D animations and movies promoting and explaining astronomy to the broader community.

Swinburne's Hawthorn campus is situated in a lively, urban setting just minutes by public transport from Melbourne's city centre.

Our Vacation Scholarship program aims to provide undergraduate students with some insight into how exciting research is and how it is conducted. Students will join a research project, or maybe help start a new one, in one of the many areas of astronomy in which CAS staff and post-docs are experts. The various projects on offer are listed below. Projects can involve all aspects of astronomical research, from proposing or carrying out new telescope observations, to analysing some of the data or conducting theoretical calculations or advanced simulations. Many previous students have eventually published peer-reviewed research articles on some of their Vacation Scholarship research.

Applications can be made at any time throughout the year. We particularly encourage applicants to work over the summer months, December to February.

This program will preference undergraduates at Australian & New Zealand universities. Applications from students outside of Australia & New Zealand with exceptional scholastic records may also be considered.

Applications will be considered as they come. However, we strongly recommend all applications be sent in before October 1.

Scholarships will generally last between 8 and 10 weeks, to be negotiated between the student and their nominated supervisor. Vacation Scholars are paid a tax-free stipend of $500 per week.

Applications should include the following:

  • A cover letter (see below for further information);
  • A copy of your official academic record, including an explanation of the grading system used;
  • Your Curriculum Vitae;
  • Any supporting documentation of previous research.

Applicants should also ask a lecturer or supervisor at their current university to send a letter of recommendation. This should be sent by the lecturer/supervisor directly; applicants should not include reference letters in their own application.

Applications and reference letters should be emailed to Dr. Deanne Fisher ( with the above information attached (preferably as PDF documents).

The cover letter is important and should
(i) set out why you are interested in undertaking a vacation scholarship at Swinburne and
(ii) list at least two research projects you are interested in working on. See below for the current list of projects on offer.

Potential Vacation Scholarship research projects

The following list outlines particular projects currently on offer. Other projects not listed here may also arise. If you have questions, contact Dr. Deanne Fisher at the email above.

(Updated 14-August-2018)
  • What is ionizing the Universe?
    The project will investigate the unknown question of how galaxies contribute to the ionization background of the Universe over the last 10 billion years. Both galaxies and quasars are thought contribute to the ionization of gas, but it is difficult to ascertain which dominates at which periods in time. The student will address this by examining spectra of high redshift quasars, where quasar light gets absorbed by foreground gas along its journey to Earth. The line ratio of specific elements seen in the foreground gas provides key indicators of what objects could be contributing as an ionization source and, combined with models, can further tell us the source's relative strength. Thus, this project provides a student with the opportunity to use and measure absorption lines from high quality spectra while addressing unknown physics occurring within our Universe.
    Supervisors:Dr. Glenn Kacprzak and Dr. Nikole Nielsen

  • Quasars at sunset: how dusty is the universe?
    Astrophysical dust is a key catalyst in the formation of new stars. Therefore, understanding the dust content of cosmologically-distributed gas is an important part of understanding how galaxies form and evolve – how they use up and provide new fuel (dusty gas) for forming stars. Perhaps surprisingly, we know hardly anything about the dust content of most of the neutral gas available for forming stars in the universe. This project aims to determine this quantity precisely, and unveil some of the most astrophysically important properties of this dust by studying the very small reddening of distant quasar it causes, just as dust in our atmosphere causes red sunsets.
    The project will focus on the newest, largest public dataset of quasar spectra – BOSS III – to detect this subtle reddening signal. Python coding experience would be helpful but the code required is not complex so experience is not essential. Once the basic signal is detected, the main scientific advances will be in exploring how it varies with time in the universe and the properties of the gas clouds harbouring the dust. All these aspects are highly publishable so, if substantial progress can be made, a peer-reviewed paper is a possible outcome.
    Further Reading: Murphy M.T., Bernet M.L., 2016, Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, 455, 1043
    Supervisor: Prof. Micheal Murphy

  • Searching for rare metals in the distant universe with quasar spectra
    How the heavy elements originated in stars is an enduring problem in astrophysics, as is the question of how exploding stars polluted the gaseous surroundings of galaxies. This project will draw upon a large database of the highest-quality spectra of quasars in the distant universe, the lines-of-sight to which probe gas around foreground galaxies. The aim is to combine these spectra to search for absorption lines from heavy elements not previously seen outside our own galaxy. Identifying these rare metals can help diagnose the physical and nucleosynthetic origins of the absorption clouds, and may greatly improve future measurements of the fundamental constants in the distant universe.
    Further Reading: Prochaska J.X., Howk J.C., Wolfe A.M., 2003, Nature, 423, 57
    Supervisor: Prof. Micheal Murphy

  • Mapping electromagnetism's strength throughout the Milky Way with solar twin stars
    The constancy of nature's laws, characterised by the fundamental constants, has been mapped out on all size-scales, from the laboratory through to the cosmic microwave background at redshift z=1100, except for one important size-scale: our own Milky Way galaxy. This project aims to make the first check on electromagnetism's strength in our Galaxy with high enough precision that a discovery of variation is possible (i.e. not already ruled out by previous, much less precise measurements). The idea is to use the spectra of solar twins – stars with spectra indistinguishable from our Sun's, and each other – as the probe because this allows for a highly differential measurement that will be immune to all manner of systematic effects that have precluded such a measurement in the past.
    Depending on the status of this field at the time, the student will either be making the first measurements on existing solar twin spectra, contributing to an effort to identify very distant solar twins, analysing new spectra of these distant solar twins, or making measurements with them. The new spectra would be taken with a new instrument on the 8-metre Very Large Telescope in Chile. These and other options will be discussed with the candidate.
    Further Reading: The principles of measuring the fine-structure constant with absorption-line spectroscopy (though, in this case, with quasar spectra) are outlined here: Murphy & Cooksey (2016, Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, 471, 4930,
    Supervisor: Prof. Micheal Murphy

  • Projecting the 2D onto the 3D cosmic skeleton: using the-WiZZ to unlock WISE
    WISE is an infrared space telescope, which has now mapped the entire sky. With more than 300 million catalogued sources, WISE is certainly one of – if not the single – best map of our universe. But the trouble is that it is basically impossible to get distance information for all of these WISE-detected sources, especially since most of this NIR sources are very faint at optical wavelengths. Indeed, it can be very challenging even to distinguish stars from galaxies on the basis of WISE data alone! Further, distance is the crucial piece of information that we need to translate from how bright or how big an object *appears* and how bright or how big it actually *is*. Without distances, there is almost no hope.

    The aim of this project is to get statistical determinations of the distances to WISE sources, by comparing their measured positions to the positions of a reference set where distances are known independently. Basically, the idea is to use the reference set to map out the cosmic structure of galaxy groups and clusters; like using street lights to map out a city. Then by projecting the 2D WISE source distribution onto these 3D maps of cosmic structure, we can at last unlock distance information for WISE galaxies. This is the key piece of information that we need in order to use WISE to measure the number of massive galaxies in the universe, and in particular how the number of massive galaxies grows over time.
    Supervisor:Dr. Edward Taylor

  • Deeper, Wider, Faster: Discovering the fastest bursts in the Universe
    The Deeper, Wider, Faster (DWF) program is the first program able to detect and study the fastest bursts in the Universe (on millisecond-to-hours timescales), such as fast radio bursts, supernova shock breakouts, kilonovae, all types of gamma-ray bursts, flare stars, and many others. DWF coordinates over 50 major observatories on every continent and in space (gamma-ray through radio), including particle and gravitational wave detectors, with a number of these multi-messenger facilities coordinated to observe the target fields simultaneously. DWF performs real-time supercomputer data processing and transient identification within minutes of the light hitting the telescopes. Fast identification and localisation enable rapid-response spectroscopic and imaging follow up before the events fade using 10m-class telescopes like Keck in Hawaii, Gemini-South and the VLT in Chile, SALT in South Africa, as well as Parkes, ASKAP, Molonglo, and ATCA radio telescopes and 4m AAT optical telescope in Australia and the NASA Swift and Chinese HXMT space telescopes. Finally, our network of over thirty 1-10m telescopes worldwide provide follow-up imaging and spectroscopy at later times.

    Depending on the interests and experience of the student, the project will involve (1) developing techniques to search the deep CTIO DECam and Subaru Hyper SuprimeCam optical data to discover new transients, (2) cross-matching multi-wavelength (radio, optical, UV, x-ray, and gamma-ray) data to discover new transients, (3) progressing fast transient identification and predictive capabilities using machine learning and deep learning techniques, and (4) enhancing and accelerating transient discovery by progressing data visualisation and data sonification techniques. Participation in DWF observing runs is encouraged and, in some cases, will help test the results of the student project.
    Supervisor:A.Prof. Jeff Cooke

  • Formation of gravitational-wave sources
    Gravitational-waves from a merging binary neutron star and binary black holes have been observed by Advanced LIGO and Virgo. Black holes and neutron stars are the end products of the lives of massive stars. Binaries containing neutron stars and/or black holes are thought to form either dynamically in dense stellar environments such as globular clusters, or from the evolution of a binary of two massive stars. The masses, spins and merger rate of binaries observed through gravitational-waves encode information about their formation. This project will help us learn about how binary neutron stars and black holes form.
    Supervisor:Dr. Simon Stevenson and Dr. Jade Powell