Dr Zoë Leinhardt

"I’ve always seen certain parts of physics as not only intriguing but also beautiful, and the same with mathematics. It’s important for me to get across to people not just what I do but the fact that it’s also beautiful."

Dr Zoë Leinhardt is a computational astrophysicist who joined Bristol University in 2010.

Currently an STFC Advanced Fellow in the Astrophysics Group, Zoë was formerly at Cambridge University, and prior to that, Harvard, and the universities of Maryland and Washington.

Amongst the many accolades and grants she has been selected for, Zoë was awarded the American Association of University Women Ph.D. Award in 2005.

"I found it very hard to choose which area of science I wanted to go into before university; whether to do geology, chemistry or physics, it was a particularly tough call between geology and physics.

It just turned out that there was a really good lecturer in physics and the professors were very attentive – when I had any questions they were extremely willing to explain things to me as well as they could.

With the geology course I really wanted to do the off-campus year which was going to be in Italy, but it turned out that for my year, the professor was going to be on leave - so the decision was made!

But I think it was the right decision. It was actually the area that I was more interested in – I really enjoyed having things explained using mathematics.

Every time there was a fork in the road where I had a decision to make, I’d say that most of the time there was no major underlying philosophy that made me pick one way or the other. It was mostly because a project was particularly interesting and I enjoyed working with someone.

The planet formation focus came out of a working relationship I had with a research scientist [Professor Derek Richardson] at the University of Washington. He had a project for first year graduate students. I decided to do that because I liked working with computers more than I liked working directly with a telescope; I found that I wasn’t in enough control with the telescope!

It was also more about the people that I met – Professor Richardson ended up being my PhD supervisor and when he moved to the University of Maryland I joined him there.

I’ve always seen certain parts of physics as not only intriguing but also beautiful, and the same with mathematics. It’s important for me to get across to people not just what I do but the fact that it’s also beautiful.

With certain parts of astronomy the beauty is quite obvious but with other parts of astrophysics that are quite theoretical it can be hard to get a concept across in a way that isn’t just logical but also shows the beauty that the scientists see, so that’s always interested me as well.

Astrophysics is an area that grips the imagination and people tend to get very excited about it, which makes you as a scientist more excited – why the Earth has developed the way it has is a mystery, and none of the planets we have observed yet can be like Earth. I think everybody wants to know ‘when are we going to find another planet like this?’

Sharing one’s findings through teaching is absolutely fundamental. I am adamant that as scientists, we need to explain to the average person what we do, why it’s important and why it’s important to them. I feel very strongly about the importance of communicating my research to the wider public.

It is a difficult balance though – we are researchers, and fundamentally, most of us would probably like to sit in front of a computer all the time doing our stuff all day with minimal interaction with other people! But I do think it’s very important to engage people in science through public lectures, work with local schools, and the media.

I currently teach a section of astronomy on the planets and have a fantastic time doing it. The students majoring in Physics at Bristol are of a very high calibre, they ask a lot of really difficult questions, which really tests you.

When you know a lot about a subject you can fall into a rut. Sometimes I find myself explaining a particular event or problem in the same way many times.

When I talk to a general audience, who are engaged and interested, who see things in very different way, they will ask me questions from a different angle - that’s a challenge that sometimes even the most preparation doesn’t set you up for!

Being a female academic in a male-dominated field, such as physics, can be very difficult. In both the US and the UK there are a good number of women doing physics at the undergraduate level and even at the PhD level but then it just starts to drop off. Maybe this is because it is very difficult to achieve a work-life balance. Maybe it is a lack of role models.

I have been very lucky in both respects. I have had fantastic role models: my parents, who have been very supportive of my choice of career and my professors, not only answered my unending questions but showed me how to ask and answer questions myself. Now I find myself at the point in my career where I can be a role model and I can be a teacher.

I feel that it is my duty to do the best that I can so that the next generation of scientists, specifically female scientists, have the foundation they need to continue where we leave off. I’m interested in trying to understand what our limitations are in terms of our knowledge of planet formation.

We have all these planets, almost 1,000, they’re incredibly diverse, from planets that are like Jupiter in mass but orbit their host star with a period only a few days, to planetary systems with planets ten times more massive than Jupiter and 100 times further away from their star than the Earth is to the Sun.

Jupiter’s orbital period is about 4000 days so you can image how strange it would be to have a Jupiter-like planet so close to its host star that the orbital period was only days. We can show that planets form fairly easily around some generic type stars but we can’t explain why planets can be so diverse, why they can have such a range of characteristics.

One of the reasons we can’t do that is because we don’t quite have the computational power and we don’t quite have the physics in our models, it’s just too much to put in. I’m currently working on trying to create a model that gets around some of those problems, to create realistic but faster models of planet formation so we can model the whole journey.

As scientists, we need to rely on multiple experts and multiple disciplines. In order to really start answering the questions that are emerging now, we need to expand our networks. That also opens up opportunities and research scope, which in a difficult economic climate, is an added advantage when applying for funding.

Personally, I’m just very interested in all of these things and collaboration is something that I enjoy – I like working on problems that stretch me.”

Dr Zoë Leinhardt, Advanced Research Fellow, School of Physics


Watch Zoë discuss what it means to be a scientist in the 21st century in our new film Facing failure: what it takes to be good at science

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