/Liverpool’s Sky At Night … Brandon Kelly

/Community News

Date: 4th January 2019

Liverpool’s Sky At Night … Brandon Kelly

In the second of our weekly services, we will hear from the people who conduct their research at iC2 and are setting the pace globally. Their research interests are as varied as they are and so we are delighted to welcome Brandon Kelly to introduce us to the work he carries out.

Brandon Kelly is currently a PhD student at the ARI having obtained an Integrated Master’s Degree in Astrophysics at Aberystwyth University in 2013 with a first class honours. He joined the LJMU team shortly after completing his Master’s.

I currently work with the head of department, Professor Chris Collins, on detecting Intra Cluster Light (ICL) in Galaxy Clusters. Galaxy clusters are gravitationally bound structures in the depths of space composed of a large number of tidally interacting galaxies. Throughout the formation history of the cluster, the tidal gravitational interactions between galaxies causes the stars in the outskirts of galaxies, those with a weaker gravitational bond to their host galaxy, to be stripped into the space between galaxies: the Intra Cluster Medium (ICM). Over time, these stars build up a diffuse medium which, on telescope images, appears as faint background light surrounding the cluster. It is difficult to detect observationally due to its incredibly faint, diffuse, low surface brightness nature. A significant part of my project is developing new techniques to separate such diffuse media from the background noise.

A large component of the PhD scheme which I was enrolled onto is the additional training in data management techniques. As part of the new Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) initiative, whereby a series of CDT centres were established around the UK, CDT students are expected to attend a range of training courses on Big Data, Machine Learning, Artificial Intelligence and Data Management, culminating in a 6-month placement working for a data science company. CDT students from the Liverpool CDT centre, Liv.Dat, have been sent to Munich for a training course, as well as having had several training courses organised in Liverpool. In the near future, Liv.Dat students will also be expected to organise an outreach conference for the general public in the echo arena.

In any PhD, the interaction with the wider community is an important part of the dissemination of your research, and a good way to keep up to date with current research. There are many forums for such interactions, notably international conferences of which I have attended several. Notable events include a workshop on machine learning applied to astronomy in Groningen, the European Week of Astronomy and Space Science in Liverpool, and a workshop on Big Data Analysis in Astronomy held in Tenerife. The skills and knowledge gained and transferred from these events compliment day to day studies, which mostly consist of coding, scientific meetings and discussions, and general admin.

Prior to starting my PhD, I had no experience in image processing techniques, nor had I worked with galaxy clusters or even optical data. During my undergraduate degree at Aberystwyth I completed a number of different research projects across a range of topics including a simplified form of Quantum Computing known as Boson Sampling in which I derived a scaling factor to account for realistic errors, a minor project on theoretical Black Hole physics in which I rederived the Schwarzschild metric from first principles as well as following the work of Chandrasekhar to complete the prediction of the existence of Black Holes. In addition to the written projects, I also spent my final semester abroad working at UNIS, the northernmost University centre in the world, located on the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard. While there, I worked closely with a highly regarded research team looking into ionospheric physics, and the aurora borealis using the EISCAT Svalbard radar, and the Kjell Henriksen Observatory.

After my PhD, my current goal is to continue in academia. As interesting as I am finding my current topic, I feel I would enjoy the chance to expand my options in the future and look for an opportunity in a different field. In physics, there is a clear division between observational and theoretical research, and whether you are working with data collected from an experiment or scientific instrument, or whether you are working with equations and simulations. While I am currently more on the observational side of this divide, I would enjoy exploring the more theoretical side of physics, following on from the work of my undergraduate studies.

The Astrophysics Research Institute (ARI) is part of Liverpool John Moores University and based in the IC2 building at the Liverpool Science Park. Comprised of nearly seventy research staff and forty graduate students, the work of the ARI encompasses a range of observational and theoretical research: Star Formation and Stellar Populations, Time Domain Astrophysics (focussing on rapidly changing astrophysical phenomena such as supernovae), Galaxy Formation and Evolution, Astronomical Instrumentation, and Computational Cosmology.
Additionally, the ARI works with the University of Liverpool to deliver Bachelor and Master’s courses in astronomy, and also provides a range of distance learning courses. Through its operation of the world’s largest robotic telescope, the National Schools’ Observatory provides data and telescope time to schools around the UK, helping to make professional astronomy accessible to the next generation.