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Christ Church Women in Science: Leah Morabito

Written by Leah Morabito and Eleanor Sanger, posted on Thursday, February 8, 2018

Leah MorabitoDr Leah Morabito joined Christ Church as the Millard and Lee Alexander Postdoctoral Research Fellow and a Postdoctoral Research Assistant in Galaxy Evolution in 2017. She was Co-President and Co-Founder of the Society for Women in Physics at the University of Michigan, and is currently Outreach Officer at the Oxford Society of Women in Physics. You can find out more about Leah on her personal website, and on her Christ Church website profile.

Tell us a bit about your work, and some of your proudest achievements

Every massive galaxy is thought to have a super-massive black hole in its centre, and in some galaxies the super-massive black hole is actively feeding on gas supplied by the host galaxy. This can produce very energetic phenomena, as the gas trying to reach the black hole heats up and settles into a disk whirling around the black hole, just like water going down a drain. In some cases, the gas can be funnelled into large jets that are shot out from the super-massive black hole. These jets are extremely bright at radio frequencies, and I use radio telescopes to observe them and try to understand how they impact the evolutionary path of a galaxy. I do this mostly using a telescope called the Low Frequency Array (LOFAR), which operates at frequencies just above and below the FM radio band. At such low frequencies, it is extremely difficult to make high-resolution images (the resolution of an image depends on frequency) and I have pioneered the data calibration techniques to make the highest High-res image created by Leah Morabitoresolution image below 100 MHz. This image (left) shows the radio jets from a galaxy that was active when the Universe was about 1/4 of its current age, and I was able to determine that it has the same intrinsic properties as other galaxies in the Universe today -- which is the first time that has ever been done!

I am continuing this work now at Christ Church, where I am further developing high resolution imaging techniques at low radio frequencies. In particular, I am interested in determining the spatial distribution of radio emission in galaxies which don't have large-scale jets, to determine if it is associated with the formation of massive stars, or some other small-scale process associated with super-massive black holes. Ultimately, I hope to learn via radio observations how super-massive black holes impact galaxy evolution. I'll use my high resolution radio imaging in combination with information from optical, infrared, and even X-ray telescopes to get a complete picture of the inner workings of galaxies with active super-massive black holes.

What inspired you to study science?

I've always been interested in science, and understanding how things work. I especially loved learning about physics and astronomy when I was young, but I actually started my undergraduate studies in maths! In the US, we have a broader curriculum and I ended up taking an 'Introduction to Astrophysics' course. During one of our practicals we measured the parallax of a star (to determine its distance) by using old photographs and a ruler, and that was it: I knew I wanted to be an astronomer. To be able to use such simple geometric tricks to learn something about the Universe in which we live was such an incredible moment, and that is still my favourite part of research: the moment when I make a new plot to look for patterns in the data, and realise that I've learned something new and incredible about distant galaxies and the way they evolve.

What advice would you give to girls considering studying science?

For any girls considering studying science: do it! Even if you don't make a career out of it, you'll learn valuable skills that will be applicable your whole life. It's amazingly fun and rewarding as well! Although Physics is still a male-dominated career field, the gender ratio is improving. Scientific output will only benefit from diversity in scientists, and you can and will make valuable contributions to the field if you chose to study science. Plus, observational astronomers often get to visit exciting telescopes!  I've included some images of me in front of: LOFAR in the Netherlands, the Very Large Array (VLA) in New Mexico, USA, and the Giant Metre-wave Radio Telescope (GMRT) in India.


Leah also came up with a brilliant idea for her thesis defence at Leiden, when women are expected to wear something comparable to 'white tie' for a man. She decided to make her own dress, on which she embroidered details based on her thesis work! You can see a photo of this beautiful and unique dress below, and there are more photos on Leah's website.