Meet...Belinda Nicholson

3 February 2021

Belinda Nicholson

Name: Belinda Nicholson
Job title: Postdoctoral Research Assistant

What are you currently working on?
My work mostly centres around confirming and characterising exoplanet candidates from NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), and in particular the candidate exoplanets that TESS has only seen transit once. I do this with high-resolution, precision spectrographs to measure host star radial velocities, allowing us to rule out a false positive (such as an eclipsing binary – this is the case most of the time!), and determine the candidate’s mass and orbital period, at which point it becomes a confirmed exoplanet.

Related to this, I also work on ways to better interpret stellar activity in spectra using Gaussian Process regression. This is important for being able to detect smaller planets or planets round young and active stars, as stellar surface features can change the spectra in a way that can mask planet-induced radial velocity signals, or even create spurious ones!

Describe a typical day
I have quite varied workdays. I have collaborators in Australia, which means meetings at odd hours on some days (midnight is the worst one!). I usually try and get up early and either go for a walk or run first thing. I start my work day with setting up my to-do list for the day, and then starting with an easy, small task (write two sentences in a paper, send an email, set a program running) to build up some mental momentum for the day. I like to take a long lunch break when I can and head outdoors to enjoy some daylight/sunshine, especially in the winter months, and then do the bulk of my focused research time in the afternoon and evening. Some days, especially recently with the pandemic, the mental momentum and the focus to do research just isn’t there, and that’s okay. Accepting that, and not forcing myself to work when I can’t has a been a learning curve over the last few months (and continues to be!). We need our minds for work, so we need to be kind to ourselves and look after our minds.

If you had an entire day at your disposal (not at work), what would be your ideal way to spend it?
Doing some sort of DIY project (usually while listening to a podcast): gardening, working on my bicycle, making or painting something. It makes a nice change from sitting in front of a computer all day!

What is your favourite place in Oxford?
At the moment it is the Jericho Coffee Traders Roastery. Lovely people and lovely coffee, and if you get there at the right time and they are roasting it smells *amazing*. I also love going for walks up Boars Hill.

What discovery would you like to see in your lifetime?
I would love to see the detection of an Earth-like planet around a Sun-like star. There are advances to be made in technology and our understanding of stars and stellar spectra to get there, but we should be able to do it in my lifetime.