Dr Charlotte Mason (2009)
Charlotte Mason came to Merton in 2009 to read physics. Twelve years on, she is a NASA Hubble and CfA Fellow at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian. During her four years at Merton, besides her physics studies, Charlotte was fully immersed in College life. She held the roles of JCR Vice-President, Captain of the Women’s Boat Club and Junior Common Room Food Rep – as well as making costumes for BOPs.
After Oxford, she left for the warmer climes of the western USA, where she did an MA in Physics with Astrophysics at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Two years later, she moved a little further south down the coast, to Los Angeles, to do a PhD in Astronomy at UCLA. Then in 2018, Charlotte was awarded a NASA Hubble Fellowship and the CfA Fellowship at the Center for Astrophysics, based at Harvard and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, so moved to the east coast of the USA, to Boston, Massachusetts.
Charlotte’s research focuses on understanding what happened during the ‘Cosmic Dawn’ – the first billion years of our Universe. Her interests lie in how the first galaxies formed, and how they relate to the Universe’s final phase transition: the reionisation of intergalactic hydrogen. Her work combines theoretical modelling with statistical analysis of observational data – data obtained from some of the largest telescopes on the ground and in space, including the Hubble Space Telescope.
She is very excited to be part of an international team that will have early telescope time on the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which is the successor to the Hubble telescope. The JWST will be the largest, most powerful space telescope ever built and launched, and will be able to look at even more distant objects and even earlier galaxies than the Hubble telescope. It is due to be launched from French Guiana later this year.
Charlotte is not only passionate about her research but is also active in bringing it to a wider audience. She is involved in Astronomy on Tap outreach events to take astrophysics research to the public in bars in US cities, where people can ‘learn about the Universe over a pint’. She was a regular speaker and host of Astronomy on Tap events in Santa Barbara; now she helps organise the Boston Astronomy on Tap events.
Charlotte may now be in the USA but she has taken with her many of the lessons she learned at Merton:
"I believe the tutorial system was fantastic preparation for a career in scientific research, and I aim to emulate the tutorial style when teaching and supervising students."
She is always happy to advise Merton students wishing to pursue further study in the USA.
Thinking of the first day you walked through the Merton Lodge arch as a student, what was your first impression?
I was so excited (and a little bit intimidated) that I was going to be part of this place.
Do you have a particular memory that stands out from your time at Merton?
Too many to choose from! But the one I most often recall when I need a boost was bumping Keble during Summer Eights, right in front of the Merton boathouse, and feeling like the whole college was cheering us on. Nothing can beat that adrenaline rush!
Tell us something about yourself that we would not know.
I was in the RAF Combined Cadet Force at school, and learnt to fly a plane before I drove a car.
What tips would you give your younger self to prepare for the career you have achieved?
These are definitely still things I tell myself now: don’t doubt yourself, define your own goals and expectations rather than comparing yourself to others. And don’t be afraid to take chances and make mistakes, that’s usually how you learn the most.
Describe Merton in three words.
Community; Beautiful; Formative.
Dr Mason gave an online talk, part of our 40 Years Series of lectures, on Saturday 17 April 2021. Her subject was, 'Chasing Cosmic Dawn with the James Webb Space Telescope'.