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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 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 Scholarship 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 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 programme will preference undergraduates at Australian and New Zealand universities. Applications from students outside of Australia and New Zealand with exceptional scholastic records may also be considered.

Applications will be considered on an ongoing basis. However, we strongly recommend all applications be sent in before September 15.

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. Michelle Cluver (mcluver@swin.edu.au) 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. Michelle Cluver at the above email.

(Last Updated 12-August-2019)


  • Two decades of extreme scattering towards a millisecond pulsar
    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 study scintillation properties of the millisecond pulsar, PSR J1643-1224 to simultaneously understand its orbital geometry and characterise its extreme scattering. This pulsar is used as part of the Parkes Pulsar Timing Array (PPTA) to help detect gravitational waves, however scattering is a significant source of noise for this application. You will use emerging techniques to model its long-term scintillation with the ~15 year PPTA dataset. This will reveal characteristics of the dense, turbulent blobs of plasma in the interstellar medium in the direction of this pulsar. You will also improve the pulsar model, which will be directly useful for constraining its mass, distance, and velocity.
    Further Reading: Reardon D., 2018, PhD thesis, “Precision radio-frequency pulsar timing & interstellar scintillometry”
    Supervisor: Dr Daniel Reardon


  • Tracing out dark matter
    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 this investigation will explore how faithfully small-scale tracers like stellar streams probe the dark matter distribution. This project will use a high-resolution Milky Way simulation to explore the potential dark matter distribution near us, and the possibility of searching for dark matter self-annihilation signals or perturbations to the visible tracers by its presence. This research efforts will be used to generate an expectation for the range of dark matter distributions that can inform direct detection experiments. Experience in numerical simulations (esp. Gadget/GIZMO) is an advantage, as is experience in Python or C, and knowledge of observational stellar catalogues such as Gaia.
    Supervisor: A/Prof. Alan Duffy


  • 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


  • 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


  • The Ionisation State of Extreme Astrophysical Sources
    Extreme sources in astronomy include the some of the most energetic objects in the universe, which are often surrounded by highly ionised material. Two examples of such sources, the topics of this project, are planetary nebulae and ultra-luminous infrared galaxies (ULIRGS). Planetary nebulae constitute a short lived class of objects representing the end stages of the lives of massive stars and are made up of an extremely hot (~30,000 K) central white dwarf star surrounded by a nearly spherical collection of ionised gas. ULIRGS are a class of galaxies that emit most of their energy in the infrared wavelength range with the majority containing a dust enshrouded, accreting black hole at their centres that can reach temperatures in excess of 60,000 K. One way to characterise the ionisation state of such objects is by comparing the brightness of various spikes in their observed spectra. These spikes, known as emission lines, are produced by ionised species of various elements including oxygen, neon, argon, and many others. The absolute and relative brightness of these emission lines can vary significantly at different locations within these objects, and the nature of these variations can provide valuable information on the ionising source as well as their internal geometry. Using 2D, integral field spectroscopy taken with the KOALA instrument on the Anglo Australian Telescope, the student will identify and measure the various emission lines detected from these objects, explore their spatial variation, and use these to infer a deeper understanding about the sources responsible.
    Supervisor:Dr Rob Bassett