By Guest Author 08/11/2016

In this guest post series astronomer Dr Yaël Nazé details her experience traveling from Belgium to New Zealand for the International Astronomy Union Symposia – The Lives and Death-Throes of Massive Stars.

Attending a scientific congress – a classic activity for a researcher.

Of course it helps to keep up to date with the latest discoveries, but it also allows you to detect the new fashionable trends (yes, there are “trends” in research, and those are the fields where the grants go!). But that’s not all: when you’re a PhD student, you go to meet people – that’s how I met Prof Chu, and went work with her in Illinois, for example; when you’re a post-doc, you do networking with the hope of finding a job; when you’ve a permanent job, you continue networking, but not only for you, for your students too!

So every year, it’s the same: checking the agenda to see if there’s something interesting. A small and very specific workshop, or a mammoth assembly? Not this year. Every two or three years, there is a “beach meeting” as we call it – a medium-size congress focused on massive stars. Each research group sends at least one person to such meetings (yeah, astronomers are like dogs, they must claim territory – but at least our way of doing it smells less).

Only thing: it’s organized in… New Zealand. When we heard that, we didn’t think of great landscapes à la Peter Jackson, or of never ending beaches or coconuts mixed with kiwi fruits. Not at all (well… to be honest – a little bit of such thinking couldn’t be avoided – gee! New Zealand, the other side of the Earth, how thrilling!). No, we thought about money: “Oh my God, the other side of the Earth, how will we manage?” So, first thing is to talk between colleagues and see who’s interested. One cannot go because of health problems, two others because they have to write their PhD theses – well, in the end, four volunteers are left for the next step.

About eight months before the meeting, the call for proposals is sent. Now you have to choose something to present. Not something you just finished – it’ll be old news by the time the meeting takes place. Not something you’re beginning – it’ll never be finished in time. Difficult to choose, especially since research is not predictable… I could select about ten themes, which I used to answer the call. My colleagues do the same, the selection committee looks at all proposals and three months later the news comes back: no talk accepted for our University of Liège team, and one poster only for each. In the meantime, there are other news (like a forthcoming baby, planned just in time for the meeting), so that there are just two left for the Earth crossing: my colleague Eric and I.

But the preparatory work is not finished. Now, you have to dig out money. I ask the International Astronomical Union (to cover the registration fee), our university (to cover the hotel and meals), and our national research office (to cover the plane). After two months, the answers come: I got two hits and one failure in my grant research… After a checking (who said begging?) with the boss, I found it’s possible to cover the rest locally, with an annual grant. So, NZ, here we go!!!!

What will I present?Two studies on magnetic massive stars, one is about searching for them in the closest galaxies, the Magellanic Clouds, and the other about the X-ray emission of such stars. It may appear strange, but in fact, magnetism is brand new in our field: the first magnetic signature in an O star (the hottest and most massive stars) was only detected in 2002! As there is also a splinter meeting (that’s a separate session during the symposium), I should also be able to talk a few minutes about X-rays (yeah, again – I just love high-energy!), but this time about X-rays coming from the gigantic collisions between winds of massive stars. That’s another thing very different between solar stars and massive stars – we don’t have a weak tenuous breeze, we have supersonic dense flows, so beware of the shocks between them!

Dr Yaël Nazé is a FNRS research associate at the University of Liège (Belgium) where she studies massive stars, be them alone or in couple, and their winds. Her interests also concern the history of astronomy, the cultural impact of astronomy, and scientific outreach.