Interview with Alicia Berciano Alba

Alicia Berciano Alba is postdoctoral researcher working as part of the astronomy group at ASTRON.

What and where did you study?
I studied Physics and specialised in Astrophysics at the university of La Laguna in Tenerife (Canary Islands, Spain)

What does your work involve?
Thinking, programming, asking for observing time in telescopes, travelling regularly to other countries to attend conferences or use telescopes, keep myself updated on what other researches in the world are doing, giving talks and writing articles about my work, and learning, learning, learning...

What is the best part of your job?
Travelling to foreign countries and working with foreigners from all over the world in a regular basis. It makes you realise how small is the world, and how complicated is human sociology.

What do you not like about your job?
Once you finish your PhD and become a doctor, you have to apply for a new postdoctoral research position every 2 or 3 years (often in a new different country), and try to become a well known and respected researcher to be able to get a permanent job (which is extremely difficult).
So, like professional top models and sport players, astronomers are requested to keep a constant level of high performance to continue having their jobs.

What does it feel like when you are getting measurements from a telescope?
Getting observing time in a telescope is not a trivial thing. For most of the telescopes, any astronomer in the world can ask for observing time, and most of the times, the observatories get too many requests compared with the time that is available. So you have to write a document (usually referred to as 'proposal') in which you explain the object that you want to observe, the kind of science that you want to do with the observations that you are requesting, and why this science is relevant. For a particular telescope, a committee will read all the submitted proposals (usually there are 2-3 dates a year in which you can submit your proposals) and choose the ones that are considered to be interesting enough to be observed. It is a lot like when I had an exam at University (preparing a proposal usually takes several weeks of hard work)... so every time that I get a proposal accepted, it is an important achievement and I feel like celebrating :).

Can you tell us more about your private life?
Right now I live in Leiden with my husband, a Dutch postdoctoral researcher that also works at the Leiden Observatory, and Talyn, a magpie that I found when he was a baby. We are very fond of cooking, science fiction movies/series/books (yes we are true geeks), design and interior decoration, spas, traveling, and good conversation. I'm also particularly found of comics, manga, puzzles, gardening, swords, martial arts, H.P. Lovecraft, nice smelling soap, spaghetti bolognese and dogs (I love them!).

What do you see when you gaze at the sky on a bright night?
Actually, I really liked to look at the sky during the night when I was a kid... and I still do. If the night is good (dry and without clouds and street lights), you can appreciate its blackness: something deep and really really big and beautiful. It always gives me a very relaxing feeling, as if I was in a deserted beach listening to the waves.

What was your favourite course in high-school?
Physics and biology.

What was a positive influence on your choice for your studies?

I knew that Science was my passion since the first moment I was exposed to it at school... so as far as I'm concerned, I was born with it. I remember being particularly fascinated by atoms because they are the building blocks of everything, and I like to understand how everything works. So I think that at some point in high school I came up with the conclusion that studying Physics was the way to find some answers, and that's what I did :).

Do you think that boys and girls should choose a technical education?

I think that (in principle) boys and girls should study things that they find interesting. As I mentioned before, I decided to go to University and study physics because I wanted to know about quantum mechanics and general relativity, not because I had a career path in mind. However, it turned out to be an excellent choice, because we were trained to think, to solve problems, and to deal with mathematics and computer programming. So it is not so much about knowing how a star is born, or how to derive the Maxwell equations... it is about the skills that I developed and trained while I was studying all those subjects. Those skills make physics students very versatile, so they can leave university and do many other different jobs. Plus, becoming a person that is used to have a critical mind has also served me very well to deal with life in general.

What else do you want to tell to the public who visits the ASTRON website?

Live long and prosper :D.

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