Masters of the galaxies

15th April 2014

News, Alumni news

A passion for astronomy led to Karen Masters (1997, Physics) becoming the Project Scientist for Galaxy Zoo, a citizen science project which is creating a clearer picture of galaxy evolution. Karen talks to Julia Banfield about her life with the stars.

  • Karen Masters (1997 Physics)

    Karen Masters (1997, Physics)

  • Karen takes part in the BBC's Stargazing Live

  • Meeting the Princess Royal, Princess Anne

My Physics degree gave me so much – skills in mathematics, statistics, computing, creative thinking and communications. I really enjoyed it and would highly recommend it to others

Karen Masters

As Senior Lecturer at Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation at the University of Portmsouth and Project Scientist for the internationally renowned Galaxy Zoo, Karen Masters is able to devote much of her time to her favourite subject…astronomy.

Karen came to Wadham as a Physics undergraduate in 1997. She was one of four Oxbridge entrants from the state run King Edward VIth form College in Nuneaton. Says Karen: “I applied to Wadham because the College encouraged applications from the state sector.  It was quite an achievement to get in and I was in the local newspaper a couple of times about coming to Oxford.”

“The Physics degree was fantastic and it was a delight to be somewhere where I did not have to pretend that I was not interested in Physics…I hadn’t met others interested in astronomy until I got to Oxford. I was one of only two girls in the astronomy option - the other, from St Hilda’s, has become a life-long friend,” she adds.

After graduation, Karen went on to study for a PhD in Astronomy at Cornell in America, where she spent five years before moving to Harvard to do post-doctoral research, which she describes as ‘an amazing experience’. While in Cornell she met her husband and they nowhave two children aged seven and four.

On returning to the UK, Karen joined the University of Portsmouth where, in her work for Galaxy Zoo, she co-ordinates a collaborative team of some 30 scientists.

Galaxy Zoo is a Zooniverse project. The Zooniverse is a collection of web-based Citizen Science projects that use the efforts and abilities of volunteers to help researchers deal with vast amounts of data. Other projects range from analysing real life cancer data to classifying animals in Serengeti and using data from ships’ log books to help study climate change.

Galaxy Zoo was the first such crowd sourcing project. According to Karen, the project got started in 2007 in Oxford, when Oxford astronomers Chris Lintott and Kevin Schawinski were in the Royal Oak pub discussing how to analyse big data sets, and came up with the idea for crowd sourcing via a website portal in order to classify a data set made up of a million galaxies imaged by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. With so many galaxies, the Galaxy Zoo scientists assumed it would take years for visitors to the site to work through them all, but within 24 hours of launch they were stunned to be receiving almost 70,000 classifications an hour. In the end, more than 50 million classifications were received by the project during its first year, contributed by more than 150,000 people.

Galaxy Zoo asks volunteers to help classify galaxies, by comparing online images. This information helps us understand how galaxies are formed. Karen explains: “To put it simply, galaxies used to be divided into two types, spiral galaxies where stars were formed and which appear to be blue, and elliptical galaxies, shaped like rugby balls, which were thought to be dead and appeared red. From crowd sourcing we have found information about different structures of galaxies which don’t conform to these two models. These clues add to our picture of galaxy evolution.”

New technologies such as infra-red pictures and surveying the sky with radio emissions via the Square Kilometre Array will also helping to build on this knowledge in the future. And Karen has high hopes for the new satellite, Euclid, which will be able to take much higher resolution images of many more millions of galaxies than we can see today. Which means citizen science projects will continue to play a big part in data analysis.

“The extraordinary thing about Galaxy Zoo has been the crowd sourcing. People want to contribute their time because they want to help science,” said Karen. “Part of my role is to engage with our many volunteers via blogs, google hangouts, presentations, lectures and through our open access publications. We have published more than 40 academic papers as a result of this project and we always list the names of the volunteers who have assisted,” she adds.

Karen’s research work and citizen science role have given her the opportunity to travel all round the world. “It wouldn’t have been possible without my Physics degree; it gave me so much – skills in mathematics, statistics, computing, creative thinking, and communications. I really enjoyed it and would highly recommend it to others,” she adds.