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Vacation Studentships in Astronomy at CAS

The Centre for Astrophysics & Supercomputing (CAS) accepts applications for Vacation Studentships 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 23 research faculty and more than 40 postdoctoral researchers 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 - Ozstar. 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 Studentship programme 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 possibly 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 data, to conducting theoretical calculations or advanced simulations. Many previous students have eventually published peer-reviewed research articles on some of their Vacation Studentship research.

In 2021 this programme will run remotely (unless on-campus activities are permitted inline with government directives) and will be available to students currently enrolled at Australian universities. Students from Victorial Universities are particularly encouraged to apply. Projects are expected to run over 8 weeks, between November and February, with the timing to be negotiated between the student and their nominated supervisor. Vacation students are paid a tax-free stipend of $500 per week.

Applications are now being accepted and should be received before September 17; they 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;
  • Proof of enrolment at an Australian University;
  • Any supporting documentation of previous research;
  • Applicants should also ask a lecturer or supervisor at their current university to send a letter of recommendation by the due date. 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 Nikki Nielsen ( 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 studentship at Swinburne and
(ii) list at least two research projects you are interested in working on (with an optional ranking). See below for the current list of projects on offer.

Potential Vacation Studentship 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 Nikki Nielsen at the above email.

(Last Updated 30-August-2021)

  • Using quasars to probe gas flows around galaxies
    Quasars are the brightest persistent sources of light in the Universe, and they have relatively smooth continuum emission, making them excellent background sources to study the properties of gas flowing into and out of galaxies. As quasar light passes through the outskirts of a galaxy, some of the photons are absorbed, producing a series of absorption lines that encode the chemical composition, density, and velocity of the gas, and the redshift (distance) to the galaxy. This information can be used to study how gas and heavy elements cycle in and out of galaxies, but a key step is identifying the galaxies associated with the detected absorption systems. In this project, you will use state-of-the-art data from the MUSE instrument on the Very Large Telescope (VLT) to search for line-emitting galaxies associated with absorption systems detected in spectra of redshift 6 quasars from the XQR-30 survey . You will measure key properties of the galaxy-absorber pairs and combine this with existing measurements of absorber properties to examine the origin of the absorbing gas and the physical processes driving the gas flows.

    Supervisor: Dr Rebecca Davies

  • Lyman-alpha haloes of MAGPI
    Lyman-alpha emission from galaxies is similar to a human fingerprint. It is one of the emission lines produced by the very first stars/galaxies in the Universe. Back in the day, these first stars/galaxies lead a process called reionization. This ended the ‘dark ages’ of the Universe but our current understanding on how that actually happened is quite limited. There are different ways for how Lyman-alpha emission can be produced in a galaxy. Because of that it provides a lot of information about the stars in galaxies and the neutral and ionised gas in and around galaxies. Thus, by studying the 2D and 3D profiles of this emission line we can develop educated guesses about how the line profiles are connected to the conditions in and around galaxies. In this project, you will use a subset of data from a survey called MAGPI to put together a sample of Lyman-alpha emitters. Using them you can study the how their 2D and 3D profiles are connected to other galaxy properties to see if you can come up with interesting relationships that we can use to demystify the Universe in its dark ages.

    Supervisor: Dr. Themiya Nanayakkara

  • Exploring the evolution of massive binary stars with gravitational waves
    Gravitational waves have now been observed from several different types of merging binaries, including various combinations of neutron stars and black holes. These binaries may be the end result of the evolution of pairs of massive stars evolving in isolation in galactic fields through mass transfer, common envelope episodes and supernovae. Modelling these processes is difficult, and in population synthesis codes like COMPAS they are parametrised to describe our ignorance. Population synthesis studies typically explore the impact of these uncertainties by varying one parameter at a time, and quantifying the outcome on a quantity of interest, such as the merger rate of compact object binaries. In this project you will begin to explore ways we can go beyond these simple parameter variations to help us understand the *correlated* impact of uncertainties in binary evolution. You will begin by familiarising yourself with the topics of binary evolution, population synthesis and gravitational waves. The bulk of the project will involve exploring, understanding and quantifying the correlated impact of uncertainties in massive binary evolution on the production of compact object binaries. If time permits, we will compare these results to the most up-to-date catalogues of gravitational-wave and/or radio observations of compact object binaries.

    Further Reading:

    Supervisor: Dr. Simon Stevenson

  • Searching for radio waves from compact object mergers
    In 2015, gravitational waves from the merger of two black holes was detected for the first time by the LIGO gravitational wave detector. This discovery confirmed Einstein's Theory of General Relativity and was eventually awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics. Two years later, LIGO detected gravitational waves from the merger of two neutron stars, GW170817. Over the following days detections were also made with gamma-rays, visible light, x-rays and radio waves. The emission from GW170817 has long since faded, but LIGO has discovered many more mergers since then. While no electromagnetic emission has been detected from any of them to-date, many models predict that the radio emission may not peak until months-years post-merger. In this project you will use data from the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder to search for late-time radio emission from all gravitational wave events detected by LIGO.

    Further Reading:

    • Dobie, D., Murphy, T., Kaplan, D.L., et al. (2021), MNRAS, 505, 2
    • Dobie, D., Stewart, A., Murphy, T., et al. (2019), ApJL, 887, L13
    • Murphy, T., Kaplan, D.L., Stewart, A., et al. (2021), accepted PASA

    Supervisor: Dr. Dougal Dobie

  • Studying circularly polarised variable sources with ASKAP
    The strong magnetic fields associated with rapidly rotating neutron stars (pulsars), low mass red dwarf stars and Jupiter-like exoplanets can cause them to emit circularly polarised radio waves. While targeted studies of this emission from known sources is commonplace, the discovery of new sources through their circularly polarised emission alone has so far been hindered by a lack of sensitive, widefield searches. The Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder is a radio telescope operating in Western Australia that is currently undergoing commissioning. As part of early science observations we have obtained 10 deep observations of a single field to search for transient and variable sources. In this project you will use these observations to search for radio emission from known potentially polarised sources in the field (such as pulsars and flare stars) and then perform an untargeted search for previously unknown circularly polarised sources, including exotic pulsars and exoplanets.

    Further Reading:

    • Pritchard, J., Murphy, T., Zic, A., et al. (2021), MNRAS, 502, 4

    Supervisor: Dr. Dougal Dobie

  • The Characterizing the ISM in Extreme Starbursting Galaxies
    In this project, the student will work with data from the new, cutting edge instruments on both the Keck telescope and VLT to study the accretion and star formation feedback in extreme star forming galaxies. Our team is studying stellar feedback through direct measurement of the gas and detailed study of the extreme populations of stars that drive this feedback. This project focuses on measuring emission line fluxes for galaxies in the sample, in order to compare those to physical models of the interstellar medium. In 2019 and 2020 we were awarded several nights of Keck time for a survey called DUVET using the cutting edge KCWI spectrograph. We additionally include several targets with VLT/MUSE data. This project will focus on identifying regions within these galaxies of metal-poor gas. High star formation rates are likely to result from accretion of gas from the Universe around it. Gas from outside the galaxy can be found by searching for regions in the galaxy that have lower metal content. The student will learn the physics of the interstellar medium gas, they will learn the practical skills of using python codes, processing IFU (integral field unit) spectroscopic data, and for astronomy purposes learn how to continuum subtract spectra of star forming galaxies. All needed data is taken, we only need you to work on this exciting data set. This project is part of a key program in the Australia-wide Astro3D collaboration. The student will join a team at Swinburne that includes multiple professors and postdoc and three graduate students. They will be encouraged to present their results to the Astro3D galaxy evolution team.

    Supervisor: A/Prof. Deanne Fisher

  • The Search for Gas In Between Galaxies
    In this project the student will work with data from the MAGPI survey using MUSE on the VLT. Galaxies in the Universe cycle gas into galaxies through accretion and out of galaxies through violent outflows driven by supernova and AGNS. This process is known as the baryon cycle. The baryon cycle is critically important for maintaining the star formation rates of galaxies and growing their mass. Recent advancements allow us to observe gas at extremely faint surface brightness with very long exposures using instruments like MUSE. We can now, for the first time directly observe the gas that is outside the galaxy, and thus learn details of the state of gas as it is in the phase of the baryon cycle that is outside of galaxies. The MAGPI survey is a 400 hour program with VLT of very long exposures of galaxies at z=0.3. It is the first large program lead by Australians on the VLT, one of the most cutting edge telescopes on the planet. The survey team is spread across a number of universities in Australia and Europe. The student will work with this exciting data set. They will learn practical skills such as using python code, working with integral field data sets, and identifying and measuring emission lines. Locally the student will be a member of a team at Swinburne that includes multiple professors, a postdoc and 3 graduate students. The student will take part in MAGPI team meetings, and at present the results of their project to the MAGPI team.

    Further Reading:

    Supervisor: A/Prof. Deanne Fisher

  • Exploring our local Cosmic Web
    The (recenty completed!) 2MASS Redshift Survey mapped the all-sky distribution of galaxies in our local universe to a distance of roughly 115 Mpc. Using another all-sky survey, WISE, we now have mid-infrared photometry (providing stellar mass and star formation rates) for roughly 10 000 of these galaxies. In this project, we'll be exploring some of the most famous superclusters in our local Cosmic Web which, when combined with the 2MRS group catalogue, can tell us more about how galaxies are coping (or not) with being part of an assembling superstructure.

    Supervisors: A/Prof. Michelle Cluver and Prof. Darren Croton