Reaching for the stars – Federica Chiti’s experience as a Cormack Vacation Scholar

The RSE Cormack Vacation Scholarship enables undergraduate students studying astronomy to carry out a research project of their choice at a Scottish University.

2019 recipient Federica Chiti shares her experience and how the award has made a difference to her life after falling into Astrophysics by accident.


“This scholarship is the reason why I am now determined to become an Astrophysics researcher.”

By Federica Chiti
Federica is in her third year of studying Physics with Astrophysics at the University of Dundee, where she carried out her vacation scholarship in 2019. She enjoys seeking out opportunities to discover new aspects of Astronomy and meet others who share her passion for science.

In 50 words or less, can you tell us a little about yourself and about your project?

Three years ago, I decided to leave my country to cultivate my passion for Astrophysics, becoming the first person in my family to attend University. During the summer of my second year, I joined the Magnetohydrodynamic Group in Dundee to investigate the effect of electric current on magnetic field structures in the solar corona.

What inspired you to get into your field, and what excites you about your industry?

I must admit, my first encounter with Astrophysics was truly random! It was June 2015, school was over, my friends were away, and I was getting bored. Then I found out on Google about a scientific camp on cosmic rays held by the University of Turin, so I packed my luggage and went to the Alps to start this new experience. From that moment onwards, I promised myself I would work hard to become an Astrophysics researcher.

There are still plenty of fundamental questions that need to be answered. I believe that the beauty of Astrophysics does not lie in its answers, but rather in the questions that it provides because they stimulate our critical thinking: the more we understand, the more detailed questions we formulate, the closer we get to the comprehension of the nature of the Universe. Even though science talks with equations that at first sight would challenge anyone, there is so much humanity embedded in them – every theory that has been formulated so far was born from people following their intuitions to reach a more accurate and philosophical view on who we are, how the Universe formed and what our place and role is in it.

What was the key learning or finding enabled by the Cormack Vacation Scholarship?

This funding has given me the unique opportunity to taste the life of a researcher and all the challenges that come with it. I have learnt that research is all about curiosity, creativity and grit – you need curiosity to investigate what is unknown, creativity to come up with new solutions and grit to keep working even when all your ideas seem to lead you to a dead end.

After the first four weeks of my project, the code wasn’t giving me the results I expected. I started asking myself whether I was being too slow, so I spoke with my supervisor, who helped me realise that when it comes to research we can never predict how things will go so there is no wrong or right pace. Most of the time, it can be hard to find the right solution to a problem at the first attempt, but I have learnt that this does not mean we shouldn’t take risks, or choosing alternative and unconventional routes.

I think I have learnt more from all the mistakes I made while building my code than by looking at it once it was correctly implemented in all its parts.

How will you use the information and knowledge gained from this award in the future?

This project has hugely developed my computational skills that will certainly serve me in the future since coding plays a key role in Astrophysics. For example, the process of analysing data from space telescopes and simulate cosmic phenomena are complex enough to require programming.

The coding skills I gained during the project will help me both in the immediate future – as I will soon start writing the thesis for my honours project – and in my career as an Astrophysicist that I now aspire to. Furthermore, this experience has familiarised me with the working environment and mindset of a researcher that belongs to a team.

What was the key outcome for this project as a result of this funding, and were there any unexpected outcomes?

Magnetic reconnection plays a key role in the energy release processes of astrophysical plasmas, therefore in order to expand our understanding of the behaviour of plasmas such as the slow solar wind we need to identify potential sites for reconnection to occur. Recent studies have shown that magnetic reconnection may occur at discontinuous points in a three-dimensional magnetic field such as magnetic null points, which are locations where all three components of the magnetic field are zero.

For this purpose, under the supervision of Dr David Pontin and Dr Roger Scott, I developed a code that finds the magnetic null points associated with any magnetic field model. By studying the locations provided by the null finder, it is possible to analyse qualitatively and quantitively the differences between different magnetic field models and to validate theories that associate the locations of nulls to specific structures of the field maps. We have concluded that the null points found in the simplest equilibria (i.e. zero current) are stable in more complex structures and by injecting electric currents in the corona the number of locations that could potentially host magnetic reconnection increases.

How has your involvement with the programme and with the Royal Society of Edinburgh benefitted you?

Federica Chiti

The scholarship has certainly helped me define my personal career goals. I am now determined to enter a postgraduate course to gain a more profound knowledge of a specific Astrophysics field. It has definitely helped me realise that I really enjoy the research environment, and I am now keen to build a career in academia rather than industry.

Lastly, an Awardees Reception held at the Royal Society of Edinburgh has immensely grown my passion for knowledge. Listening to young researchers with different expertise exposing their projects and sharing their ideas with passion and vision has been an inspiring moment.

Do you consider the award helpful in terms of progressing your career or enabling opportunities for collaboration?

Absolutely yes – this scholarship is the reason why I am now determined to become an Astrophysics researcher. The six-week project has helped me appreciate the research environment and understanding that I would love to develop my future career in Academia. It has also helped me expand my network and contribute to a current research project in Solar Physics.

In fact, the null finder that I have written during the last summer will be incorporated in the work done by my supervisors to model and analyse the structures of the magnetic field of the Sun, which should be part of a publication very soon.

Do you have any advice to offer applicants and future grant recipients?

I would tell them not to limit their challenges, but rather to challenge their limits! Let your creativity do the job and have faith in yourself. If you work with passion and grit, you can achieve your goals, and go beyond them!

Looking forward, what’s next in terms of this project or your career?

The null finder that I have developed can analyse any magnetic field, not only the one associated with our Sun, therefore it would be great to make it available on platforms of open-source software for mathematics, science and engineering in order to provide a new tool to the scientific community.

Regarding my personal career, I’m focused on concluding my BSc in Physics with Astrophysics in Dundee. Afterwards, I would like to apply for a Master or PhD that will let me specialise in a specific area of Astrophysics, which is still being decided! Hopefully, the next two summers will be as exciting as the past one because, as one of my lecturers says, we won’t have so much free time after University… so let’s get the most out of it!