Future Students

Worlds First Twitter-Controlled Observatory


Interview with Tiffany Fields

When Tiffany was young, her father used to point out constellations to her in the night sky. Fast-forward 20 years and that initial spark of curiosity about the stars has turned into the study of galaxies, among other things, as an astrophysics major at Saint Mary’s University.

So, how did a student originally from the heart of the American Midwest, end up studying astronomy (and working with the “World’s first Twitter-controlled observatory”) at SMU? You could say, the stars aligned…

Let’s start with why you chose to study at Saint Mary’s.

I’m originally from Illinois and I was lucky enough to travel to Nova Scotia a couple of times to visit. It’s just so pretty and so unlike anything back home. It was the first time I had seen the ocean! I really loved the area and so, when it came time to go to university, I knew I wanted to move to Nova Scotia. Once I found out that Saint Mary’s is the only school in Atlantic Canada with astrophysics it seemed like the perfect choice for me.

You are now entering your 4th year in the astrophysics program. How are you enjoying it?

One of the things I like best is the opportunity to do research alongside my professors. Both during the school year and over the summer. For example, I have spent this summer working with one of my astronomy professors, doing galaxy simulation research. On a related note, I also really like the smaller campus and smaller classes. It has allowed me to get to know every one of my profs and they also know me really well. Everyone in the department, actually, is really close. When you make those types of close connections, a lot of opportunities come from that.

What is the most interesting research project, or observation you have made, as part of your studies?

One of the coolest projects I was involved in was in my Observational Astronomy class, last winter term. We used the Burke Gaffney Observatory to watch and monitor a galaxy that we knew was active. We watched it and took a photo every night (when the sky was clear) for 3 months. We could see, from all the data that we collected from the observatory, that the galaxy was changing in brightness over time and that was amazing to see.

Outside of hands-on research opportunities, it must be just amazing to have access to the most powerful telescope in Atlantic Canada.

Yes, the renovation of the observatory back in 2014, as well as everything that has gone into linking it up with Twitter and all of the media exposure that has come along with that has been great. Being able to use the new, social media connected telescope for our own projects in class, as well as sharing it with the world is exciting.

Let’s talk about the “World’s first Twitter-controlled observatory.” How do students interact with it?

The Twitter interface has been great for us students from a research point of view. It’s great because Halifax is cloudy a lot of the time and so, because the observatory constantly monitors the sky and weather conditions, it will turn itself on when it’s clear. For example, it might turn itself on at 4 am when no one is actually at the observatory, which means students get extra observing time. I can send it a tweet and say “I need observations of this object” and when I wake up in the morning, my data has been tweeted to me overnight.

And it has become quite popular with the general public.

Yes, by connecting the telescope to the world via social media, it has also sparked a lot of interest in astronomy with the general public. We get requests from around the world. Students do get priority because we need the data for studies, but public requests are in the line of “tweeted” requests and the data base of images is open to anyone to go through and look at observations.

It must be amazing to get to share your love of astrophysics with the world and think that you are, perhaps, inspiring the next generation of astronomers.

Yes, during the school year I am one of the students that works up at the observatory so that first year students can come up and learn how to use the telescope. We also invite the public up to the telescope, for an “open house” on Friday nights and next year I will be one of the tour leaders. I love seeing people get excited about astronomy for the first time.  

Finally, one of the reasons you chose SMU was because you fell in love with the province on previous visits with your family. How are you enjoying it here?

First of all, I love Halifax. It’s so pretty, there’s so much to do and there’s so much great food. And the waterfront is excellent. If I just want to be outside and hangout, I go to the waterfront. It’s just so pretty and different from where I’m from. I love it here.