Armagh Observatory and Planetarium (AOP), in partnership with the Institute of Physics (IoP), delivered its first UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) Introductory Course for starting PhD students in Astronomy.

The course, which was to take place in the summer of 2020, was postponed due to Covid-19. AOP and IoP put measures in place to ensure that the course would go ahead virtually at the beginning of January 2021, which resulted in the first virtual UKRI graduate school in Astronomy being delivered.

PhD students play a vital role in AOP’s research program. Training is the key to success of our PhDs and generally this starts with an exciting introductory course in astronomy that all UK starting PhD students have the chance to attend each year in person.

AOP’s online course featured 24 invited lecturers, including stimulating complementary skill talks on scientific writing and public engagement as well as very informative sessions on gender balance in astronomy (by Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell) and careers outside academia for astronomy PhDs. The school saw the participation of over 150 students from a range of international backgrounds and including students from the whole of Ireland.

Students delivered over fifty five-minute-long talks in between lectures to ensure that the online session was interactive with informal Zoom breakout rooms offered during coffee breaks to further engage. Furthermore, there were over 80 student virtual posters that were presented at this school, taking advantage of several novel features (voice recording, videos, chat rooms) provided by the iPosterSession platform.

Some of the online participants

Prof Simon Jeffery said: “We awarded several prizes to the best PhD student talks and posters. These were all very good and our panel of academic experts had a hard time in deciding the final winners.”

The PhD course was also accompanied by a public on-line lecture by BBC Sky@Night presenter and Oxford Prof Chris Lintott, who delivered an inspiring talk alongside AOP representatives. This was well attended, with over 250 people attending and asking plenty of questions to Chris.

AOP Head of Research Dr. Marc Sarzi said “The conference went very smoothly and was well received by students. It was the first time that a UKRI summer school in Astronomy was delivered online, and its success is also down to our own PhD students who greatly helped with creating an engaging environment during the meet-the-speaker sessions”.

Delivering virtual UKRI sessions could increase due to the popularity and indeed success pioneered by AOP.


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