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5 March 2019
Seeking Answers In The Stars: UWC Astrophysicist Nicole Thomas Selected To Attend Lindau Nobel Meeting 2019

(Published - 5 March 2019)

University of the Western Cape (UWC) astrophysicist Nicole Thomas’ work on galaxies - and the supermassive black holes at their centres - has earned her an invite to the prestigious 69th Nobel Meeting in Lindau, Germany...where she will have the chance to share ideas and inspiration with over 500 of the world’s brightest young researchers, and dozens of Nobel Prize-winning scientists.

“The Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting is an amazing opportunity to meet some of the greatest scientists of our time.” Nicole says. “And not just to meet them, but to have discussions and connect with them, and try to understand the world from their point of view, and gain inspiration from the path they have travelled.”

Nicole is the seventh young PhD candidate from UWC’s Faculty of Natural Sciences to have been selected to attend the Nobel Lindau Meetings, chosen worldwide by a high-level scientific review panel from thousands of PhD candidates and post-docs in all three natural science Nobel Prize disciplines: medicine and physiology, physics, and chemistry.

“Only a few hundred young scientists from around the world have been given the opportunity to enrich and share the unique atmosphere of the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings,” says Prof Michael Davies-Coleman, Dean of UWC’s Faculty of Natural Sciences.  “This success is a testament to the students’ abilities, naturally, but also to the enthusiasm and encouragement of their supervisors, and to the space and support given to our students to grow in confidence - as individuals, as well as scientists.”

For her doctorate, funded by Square Kilometre Array (SKA), Nicole is addressing one of the most fascinating and important questions in astronomy: “I make use of state-of-the-art cosmological hydrodynamic simulations to understand how accreting supermassive black holes (or active galactic nuclei) affect how galaxies evolve.”

Simulations are something Nicole understands all too well - as an undergrad, she was part of the UWC-led winning team at the International Student Cluster Competition in Frankfurt, Germany, building a small supercomputing cluster of their design and demonstrating the greatest performance across a series of benchmarks and applications

This year’s meeting (#LiNo19) will take place from 30 June to 5 July 2019, and is dedicated to physics - and especially key topics like cosmology, laser physics and gravitational waves. The selected young scientists will experience a six-day scientific discussion programme, and will also get the opportunity to discuss their own work.

“Nicole will interact with some of the top physics minds in the world, and will broaden her horizons to better understand the context of her work,” says UWC Astrophysics Group’s Prof Roy Maartens, Square Kilometre Array (SKA) SARChI Research Chair in Cosmology, who has worked closely with Nicole during her time at UWC.

“She leaves no stone unturned in understanding the material, and doesn’t take shortcuts towards achieving her goals - and she will no doubt leave this meeting even better prepared to make an impact in the field.”

But she’s also really looking forward to meeting 579 amazing young scientists from all over the world, who have had to travel a different path to get to where they are and will continue having to do so throughout their careers.

“Pursuing a PhD in science is not easy,” Nicole notes, “and being able to share the experience with so many others, to realize you're not alone and to connect with those that are there with you, is uplifting in itself.”

Cracking the Cosmic Egg: A Wandering Scientific Career

Nicole’s academic journey has taken the longtime Bellville resident to Texas, Germany and more (she’s currently in Edinburgh).

“I've always loved physics and knowing how and why things in our natural world work, so I always knew that I would go into a physics-based career,” the PhD candidate in UWC’s Astrophysics Group explains. “But there were some things that got me stirring - looking up at the night sky and not being able to see any further than the stars, not being able to see anything more than the stars. I wanted to know more - and it is that knowledge I continue to pursue.”

After matriculating from Kasselsvlei High School in Bellville South, she initially came to UWC to do a BSc in Physics - inspired in part by "The Cosmic Egg", a short documentary she’d seen a few years before at the Planetarium in Cape Town.

“UWC was closer to home than UCT and just made sense at the time,” she recalls. “I didn't realize I would end up meeting and being taught by some of the most brilliant minds in the field.”

She went on to do the National Astrophysics and Space Science Program (NASSP) at UCT, before returning to UWC to complete a master’s thesis.

“The Department of Physics and Astronomy at UWC is probably the most comfortable environment I've worked in,” Nicole says. “Everyone is incredibly supportive and always willing to help out where they can. You're treated as a person, and not just another student going through the system. And that’s not something you find just anywhere.”

So where to from here?

“I'm still very interested in the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) - we have the world's largest scientific experiment on our doorstep, and there’s a lot of interesting work still to be done.”

After that, who knows?

“At one point I had my entire route planned. But I've learned to keep an open mind in this regard, and today I consider there to be a bit more of a grey area,” she says.

“I realize it's not that easy to just figure out the universe, and I might not find the answers I'm looking for - but I wouldn't be happy not trying.”