Stars in her sights
by Meredith Dault
"There's a joke," says Melanie Hall with a smile, "that if you don't want to talk to someone on the plane next to you, you say you're an astrophysicist. But if you do, you say you're an astronomer." At the end of the day, though, Hall is all about staring at the stars.
"Astrophysics is essentially the study of the cosmos," Hall explains over coffee at Common Grounds, "it's anything over our heads that we need to explain." The tricky part, however, is that unlike the other sciences, astronomy is intangible. "It's the only science where you don't get to physically intersect with your subject. You have to be a detective with just the light that you see...and you have to make different observations to figure out what's up there, and then find physical theories for why things are the way they are." But for Hall, that challenge is the draw. "We still don't know all the answers," she explains, "which is why it's so eternally interesting. There will always be another question!"
In the second year of her MSc in Astronomy, Hall's research focuses on galaxies -- which are essentially collections of billions of stars and gas -- and the mysterious and unexplored ‘dark matter' that lurks within them. "It's kind of embarrassing that we don't know what it is!" she laughs, explaining that a number of dark matter experiments are ongoing at Queen's.
Hall, an Ottawa-native, first came to Queen's to pursue an undergraduate degree in astrophysics, but enjoyed her department so much that she decided to continue on to her Master's degree. She currently works with the same advisor she had for her first degree, Dr. Stephane Courteau.
As well as her research, Hall works as the coordinator at the Queen's Observatory, where she leads school programs during the day and hosts public open houses on the second Saturday of every month. The observatory has a 16 inch reflecting telescope, which Hall says allows you see things like Saturn's rings, the moons of Jupiter and "deep sky" objects like star clusters and galaxies. "It's really cool," she says, her enthusiasm palpable.
Hall says she loves working with the public, and thinks outreach programs are really important, "especially for a science that is so mysterious for a lot of people." She particularly likes working with the children who come to visit. "They get so excited, and that remind me as to why I got into this."Though she can see herself working in a public context like a planetarium or museum on day, Hall says she will take a year off when she graduates to do some travelling (though her travels may take her to part-time astronomy work in Australia or Chile). She's also got plans to pursue a PhD down the line. For now, however, her future is as wide open as the cosmos.