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7 December 2021
R2m Grant For Supernova Scientist: Dr Michelle Lochner Elected To South African Young Academy Of Science
Astrophysicist Dr Michelle Lochner has had a (pardon the pun) stellar year. She’s received an NRF P-rating, marking her as one of South Africa’s most promising young researchers. She’s been elected to the South African Young Academy of Science - one of only ten scientists honoured this way each year. And she’s also been awarded a R1.9-million grant to support a PhD student and postdoc working under her on projects related to Chile’s Vera C. Rubin Observatory

“New telescopes need new techniques,” she said. “With the next generation of telescopes upon us, my research focus is on rethinking how to do scientific analysis in the era of massive datasets. If you have a dataset of one billion galaxies, how would you find the one that would win a Nobel Prize?” 

Dr Lochner is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), where she works on developing new machine learning techniques (a branch of artificial intelligence) to automatically analyse data and (hopefully) make amazing new scientific discoveries amongst datasets of millions of astrophysical objects.

These datasets come from telescopes like MeerKAT, and eventually the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) and the Vera C. Rubin Observatory (LSST) - both under construction, one in SA and one in Chile, providing giant eyes on the far skies. 

“These are some of the world’s largest and most powerful scientific tools, powerful enough to probe deeper into space and time than we’ve ever gone before, and to help us understand some of the universe’s deepest mysteries... if we have the right scientific techniques to go with it - and the right people as well.” 

And thanks to Dr Lochner, we may just have those.

She’s been involved in a few machine learning papers, led by bright young scientists from around the world, developing and applying machine learning techniques to detect rare astronomical phenomena. With UK colleagues, she recently published a paper applying machine learning for the classification of supernovae (exploding stars). And she’s given invited talks at a couple of conferences, including a big machine learning conference and ADASS - her first in-person conference in nearly two years!

Dr Lochner is one of a handful of South African Rubin Observatory Principle Investigators (PIs), a position awarded to scientists outside of the US and Chile to allow them access to Rubin data before it becomes public. The grant has been awarded to her and two other South African PIs to support their work on this important international project.

"The University of the Western Cape is very proud of Dr Lochner's achievements, and happy to see those achievements acknowledged,” said Professor Burtram Fielding, Director of Research at UWC (and upcoming Dean of the Faculty of Natural Sciences). “Dr Lochner embodies the best qualities of any researcher: she works on things that matter; she finds a way to make an impact; and, she never forgets that science doesn’t occur in a vacuum - it’s about people.”

Science In A Year Of Troubles

For Dr Lochner, connecting to scientists, and connecting people to science, is something that’s always come naturally - and not just as a lecturer.

She won the first ever South African Famelab competition in 2013, and was a top ten finalist in the international Famelab competition (the “pop idols of science”). She also founded and is the director of the Supernova Foundation, a global organisation which supports and promotes women in physics from around the world, and took part in Soapbox Science, sharing the joys of STEM with women and girls outside of academia. 

“The best part of my job is telling other people about the things that we're learning about the universe,” she said. “I love Astrophysics because I'm always learning new things and solving challenging problems - the universe is a very interesting place! And it's only when I tell other people about my research, the techniques we're developing and the mysteries we're working on that I remember quite what an amazing universe it is we're living in.”

Similarly, her nomination to the South African Young Academy of Science (SAYAS) isn’t just a great honour (which it is); it’s also an opportunity to further explore her passion for sharing science, and changing the way we see the universe.

“The early career phase of research can be very difficult,” she said. “So many new responsibilities, so much less guidance than when we were students. So it's very exciting to be part of a broader community of South African scientists, working on a diverse range of problems. I'm thrilled to connect with and meet with scientists outside my field.”

So what’s next on the agenda?

“I'm developing a set of general tools applying machine learning for astronomical data and I hope to get good use out of them, maybe discovering something unexpected in some MeerKAT data. In a few years, the Vera C. Rubin Observatory will have first light and then a ton of beautiful new data will come in so I'm sure that'll keep me very busy. We'll have the SKA a few years after that so I suspect I'll be spending a long time exploring new datasets.” 

And of course, she’s not going to stop sharing the joys of science.

“I plan to stay an integral and involved member of the Astro group at UWC, to support and train the next generation of students and also lead the Supernova Foundation into becoming a large, self-sustaining organisation. The next generation of world-changing scientists is out there - and I want to help give them the boost they need to reach their full potential.”