Alex: Mastering astrophysics from across the ocean

When not working ridiculous hours as an engineer, Alex is finishing his Master of Science (Astrophysics) at USQ. He has two beautiful kids, two dogs and a better wife than he deserves. He enjoys long walks on the beach, cool jazz, scotch ale, analytical rigor as part of a healthy engineering review process, and the utility of transit timing variations towards secondary detection of exoplanets.

'Are you serious?'

Sigh. It’s not exactly a secret, but it looks like the beginning of another meeting at work is about to be derailed by a discussion about my studies. I’ve got a moment to take another sip of coffee and put it down before the inevitable avalanche of questions. Sooner or later somebody brings it up.

So, why is a middle-aged (okay, maybe not that middle-aged) spacecraft systems engineer in the United States studying astrophysics via distance learning from a school in Australia?

When it came to undertaking further study, it all came down to these three essential factors:

1. Technical credibility.
Over three decades I’ve worked a variety of roles in the space industry. However, one of the biggest challenges I’ve had in my professional life has been in really understanding the needs of my customers, in particular, members of the science community. Let’s face it: engineers and scientists think differently. Engineers want to build something while balancing cost, schedule and performance. Scientists… never mind. Anyway, I realised that in order to work with scientists I needed to be able to think like one. And in order to think like one, I needed to learn, um, science. Since the majority of projects I was involved in dealt with exploring the universe, astrophysics seemed the logical choice.

2. Schedule.
I’ll be honest; trying to find time to attend classes is a pain. Heck, trying to find time to do anything on a regular basis can be a pain. My work schedule can get a bit erratic; there’s no such thing as a typical week. I don’t have time to take classes at the local university during the day (and for some strange reason, nobody seems to offer astronomy or astrophysics classes at night, when the stars come out… go figure). Did I mention the frequent travel?

That left distance learning. I was pleased to find a program that I could complete from my laptop. Surprisingly, the difference in time zones between my home and the USQ campus turned out to be an advantage: when it’s Sunday night at home, it’s Monday afternoon in Toowoomba – time for another Skype session with my advisor. Which brings me to the next factor:

3. The people.
At the end of the day, people are what really make a difference. Everyone at USQ, from fellow students to staff and instructors, have been fantastic. I like to think that I’ve made a few friends, even if we’ve only met via email or Skype. One of the most surreal experiences I’ve ever had was conducting my thesis proposal defence into a conference room full of graduate students and staff from 12,000 kilometres away. I’ve hit a few bumps along my journey, but people at USQ were always ready to offer help.

The greatest gift my parents gave me was a love of learning. As far as I’m concerned, when you stop learning, you stop growing, and when you stop growing… you know what I mean, right?

So the next time you’re at a meeting, and you see a somewhat distinguished man sitting at the table, don’t be surprised if someone mentions that he’s not only an engineer, but is involved in exoplanet research at a school far, far, away. You never really know.

Do you share my deep love for learning? It doesn’t matter how old you are, if you want to study a postgrad degree, you can do it with USQ from wherever you are in the world.


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