NU Postdoctoral Fellow speaks about Astrophysics and Distance Learning

Our guest today is Dana Alina, a postdoctoral fellow at the School of Sciences and Humanities. Dana received her PhD in Astrophysics and Space Sciences in 2015 from the Institute for Astrophysics and Planetary Research, Paul Sabatier University in Toulouse, France. Dana’s research area is related to the study of the dynamics of the interstellar medium, star formation processes, and interstellar magnetic fields.

Dana Alina was a member of the Planck satellite telescope collaboration, a joint European Space Agency project involving Canada and the United States. She is currently a member of the PILOT stratospheric telescope space exploration program, the Galactic Cold Cores project, and the TOPSCOPE collaboration for spectroscopic studies of cold galactic nuclei.

Dana told us about her scientific research, the advantages and disadvantages of distance learning, and participation in online conferences, and also shared her recommendations for better learning.

Tell us about your area of ​​interest. What projects have you worked on before, what projects are you currently working on?

I came to Kazakhstan in 2015 after defending my doctoral dissertation. After that, I was a Research Assistant at the Department of Physics of the SSH, where I have been working as a postdoctoral scholar since 2018.

I am studying the influence of the magnetic field on the dynamics of the interstellar medium, and also studying the processes occurring in the interstellar medium. For example, how molecular clouds are formed, in which, in turn, stars are formed. Recently it was proven that the majority of stars are formed in elongated filamentous structures of interstellar space. And all my recent studies have been devoted to this particular topic – what happens inside the filamentous structures, how the magnetic field affects their formation since it is very important to always consider in what environment certain structures are formed in order to understand how they will develop.

I defended my dissertation on the studies that we conducted, which were based on data from the Planck satellite – this is the last telescope that flew in this particular range of the electromagnetic spectrum, the next ones have not yet been launched. This is a large project, the result of cooperation between the member countries of the European Space Agency, Canada, and the United States. This satellite was created specifically to answer the questions of cosmology – how the Universe develops, which cosmological models are closer to reality, which are smaller. This data is also used in astrophysics. And this collaboration, like many collaborations at the initial stage, was closed, that is, people outside the project did not have access to data. There were only two of us PhD students involved in this collaboration and who knew how to work with the available data. Thus, my expertise was closely related to the work with this particular data. This data became available to everyone only in 2015. It should be noted that this experience helped me a lot, both in developing cooperation with other scientists and in finding a job. From this, I began my collaboration with those astrophysicists who needed my skills and experience, and with those whose experience and expertise were necessary for me to further work on my research.

But I am not only working with Planck telescope data. I use a variety of telescopes, each providing the unique information I need. Some data are collected by other astronomer-colleagues, and some I collect myself.

So, this winter, as part of a study with my colleagues from France, I conducted remote observations with a telescope located in South Korea. I also make observations in the microwave range, which means that there is no need to limit such studies to nighttime only. The telescope operates almost round the clock, and the time is allocated among observers. Therefore, you might be assigned a very inconvenient time. Sometimes I had to go to bed very late or wake very early, and it was difficult for me. Of course, this is the part of astronomy that is uncomfortable in purely physiological terms. At the same time, there is a certain amount of romance in observations with a real telescope, especially when it happens directly on the spot. Most often, these telescopes are usually located in the mountains, isolated from the world, and often such an experience can be both pleasant and beneficial for the thought process.

You are studying the magnetic field. What is the essence of your research and how does it differ from similar research?

The magnetic field is difficult to study because we do not see it, we can only observe the processes that it affects, observe only the substance with which it interacts or how it acts on this substance. For example, interstellar dust is affected by a magnetic field. This has been known since the middle of the last century, and until recently it was one of the most effective ways to study the magnetic field. Dust and gas are mixed, so we usually assume that what happens to dust also happens to gas. More recently, a theory has been developed showing how a magnetic field affects the movement of gas. New technical methods have been developed that help to use the data obtained initially for completely different purposes, but which can be used again, like for a magnetic field. This is a new field for me and for astrophysics in general, which I try to apply in my research. I can say with certainty that I am one of the first researchers who decided to apply these new methods. My colleagues and I used these theoretical and numerical developments to study the magnetic field of one very large molecular cloud, in which various processes take place, including active star formation. This helped to distinguish different in nature areas in this cloud, and also to see that this cloud was formed by the collision of two other clouds. It also allowed us to observe whether the magnetic field changed from this collision. As it turned out, the magnetic field did not change, that is, it retained its direction inside the colliding clouds. But from the shock wave, stars began to actively form, as the collision compressed matter.

Moreover, we found out that a concentration of matter forms in the center of the cloud due to the fact that magnetic lines direct the flow of matter. As it turns out, the magnetic field in a cloud can be both a driven and a leading element, either subsiding to other physical forces or somewhere being a structure-forming force itself. I want to use this method, along with some other methods, and study molecular clouds because conclusions cannot be drawn when based on just one thing. Statistics is very important in astrophysics because we often study what has not been studied before and we need to rely on existing data in order to derive some general laws.

Of course, other astrophysicists are working on similar problems, although such research has not yet been carried out.

What pros and cons of online education you can name?

Well, first of all, online education saves a lot of time, there is no need to commute anymore. Since we do not need to commute, we have more time for useful work. However, one of the disadvantages is the lack of in-person professional communication, which is important for greater productivity. Moreover, sometimes it is difficult to get feedback, especially when Zooming, the cameras are usually turned off, so you cannot see your students’ eyes, understand whether they comprehend what you are saying, or whether you need to change the way you reach them. The biggest inconvenience for me is the use of online platforms because I cannot summon my students to the whiteboard to solve problems, and there are so many of them in our subject.
I always try to support my students emotionally as much as possible, because online ‘mode’ can be very demanding morally. I think distance learning is very challenging for some of our students. Because some of them are at home, with their parents, they can be busy with household chores sometimes. Especially girls, as they are often asked to help around the house, babysit younger siblings. Unfortunately, not all families have an understanding that studying is very important and it can take a lot of time. Also, not all students have their own rooms, their own workspace, access to the Internet. All this creates certain difficulties for the full immersion of students into the educational process.

In your opinion, how should one properly organize the remote learning process? What should students prioritize?

First of all, my advice is to strictly follow one’s daily routine, as well as maintain work and rest balance. My point is that many students find it difficult to manage their time. And this applies to both online and offline modes. Even before we shifted to online learning, students had done a lot of self-study, they were spending 20-30% of their time in the classroom, and the rest of the time had to be self-managed. And it seems to me that not everyone can succeed in that. Therefore, it is very important to strike this balance. One needs to be present in class when lessons are conveyed by a lecturer, and it is vital to dedicate these 50 minutes to the subject because it is easier to learn one thing at a time rather than to postpone everything for later.
And, of course, it is very important to pay attention to one’s well-being, to go out, exercise, maintain physical activity. I always advise this to my students. And I try to go outside as often as possible, taking advantage of the small amount of sunshine we have in our region.
Also, I think human interaction is very important. In my opinion, there is enough communication in humanities, however, for the students of STEM subjects, it can be more challenging. It would be great if students could get to know each other, online or offline, doesn’t matter. After all, it all boils down to working together, discussing things as a team, solving problems and cases.

Can you please tell us about your plans for the future?

Not so long ago I won a grant from the Science Committee of the Ministry of Education and Science, and now I am fully committed to this project. Also, I am the holder of a grant from the university, where I manage the “Big data in star formation” project, so my plans are to process existing data and collect new ones.
It’s no secret that a big part of the romance of a researcher’s life is travelling to various conferences. Before the pandemic and quarantine, I always tried to participate in conferences, where the most pressing issues of modern astrophysics were discussed.

Researchers participate in conferences to present the results of their research, to discuss them with the scientific community, and to get acquainted with all new things happening in their field of study. Collaboration with other scientists is also very important. While communicating with other scientists during conferences, one can always find new joint research opportunities.

However, these days, there is no room for this romance associated with conferences. Also, there are very few possibilities to look at stars with a telescope, unfortunately.

Meanwhile, I still participate in conferences, but they all are now held online. So, recently I took part in two conferences that were of great professional interest to me.

One of the advantages of online conferences is that everything is recorded and that you can re-watch the recordings and the presentations later. By the way, it would be great if this would become a thing at offline conferences, too. Interestingly, all discussions at online conferences are conducted mainly in writing. I think even when the situation with Covid-19 improves, the conferences will be held in a blended format. First, because everyone will have an understanding of how it can be managed. Secondly, there is a category of scientists who, even before 2020, stopped traveling for reasons of environmental protection: many of my foreign colleagues try not to fly by air. And of course, considering those with small children or researchers who cannot reschedule their lectures, we can deduce that in the future the number who will travel to conferences in person may be reduced.

Although our lives have now shifted to online mode, the main problems remain the same: personal, social, professional, and all of them are as real as they have ever been. And the goals we set for ourselves are real, too.