Helping more girls complete basic education in Kenya

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Photo credit: Dr Ann Njeri

Dr Ann Njeri’s recent press release article discusses the issue of keeping Kenyan girls in education and what can and is being done to help address it. Statistics shared by Dr Njeri in her article paint a clear motivation behind the importance of tackling this problem, such as the fact that only 18% of Kenyan women aged over 25 have completed secondary education. Fortunately, the Elimisha Msichana, Elimisha Jamii (EMEJA) foundation, founded by Dr Njeri, is working to solve this issue, by tackling contributing problems such as misconceptions about STEM among young schoolgirls, through the hosting of Astro-STEM workshops and mentorship programmes, as well as much more. However, as Dr Njeri points out, more help and deeper institutional change is needed to fully solve this problem. To find out more about what is causing low academic retention among Kenyan schoolgirls, the work of EMEJA, and what more can be done to help, see her full article linked below.

Astro-Obs PhD student organises black hole science demonstration for refugee children

Last week, PhD student Houda Haidar and Native Scientist coordinator Hania Tayara, partnered to organise an astronomy demonstration for Arabic-speaking refugee and asylum-seeking children. The demo was part of a broader scientific workshop that was held at Newman Catholic College in London. Houda’s demo focused on black hole physics and included three main activities.

The first activity helped the children understand the concept of density. This was demonstrated using a golf ball and a larger foam ball, to show that the biggest objects are not always the ones with the most mass.

Houda participates in these three activities with the children, to teach them important concepts for black hole physics.

The second activity involved understanding space-time curvature. The golf ball and the foam ball were dropped on a scarf, which represented the “fabric” of space-time. The children could then observe which object led to deeper curvatures in the scarf.

The third activity involved understanding how accreting black holes obscured by dusty materials can be detected using a mid-infrared camera. Houda used a black bag to represent the dusty torus of accretion material, which can obscure accreting black holes. Despite the black bag preventing Houda from being seen by human eyes (or a camera in the optical wavelengths), with an infrared camera, Houda could be seen behind the black bag.

A fun and simple model Houda made to help teach the children about active galactic nuclei. It includes a dusty torus, an accretion disc, and even jets!

Other scientists from different disciplines (e.g., medicine, biology) also presented engaging demonstrations and tutorials. These ranged from extracting DNA from a strawberry to recording signals from the brain. 

Celebrating the History of Astronomy and Telescopes in North East England

In January 2023, Dr Vicky Fawcett and Dr Chris Harrison won a ~£14K STFC Spark Award [1] to put towards a project celebrating the history of astronomy and telescopes in the North East of England. The award, along with contributions from both Newcastle University and the Great North Museum: Hancock (GNM), will be primarily used to develop a six month exhibition, hosted by the GNM in 2024.

The museum exhibition will showcase the rich history of astronomy in the North East, from the 1800’s when Gateshead was home to the largest telescope in the world (the Newall Telescope) to the 20th century, when Grubb Parsons of Newcastle manufactured many important telescopes that continue to perform cutting edge science today. The exhibition will also highlight the ongoing state-of-the-art astronomical research carried out in the region, such as the projects involving the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and Extremely Large Telescope (ELT). Despite the strong link between astronomy and the local area, the extent of impact that the North East of England has had on the progression of astronomy is relatively unknown. The exhibition will therefore aim to raise awareness of astronomy and telescope engineering in the North East and instil a sense of pride in the STEM successes of the region. The exhibition will also be designed to ensure that a large portion of objects and artefacts will be transportable, with the aim to host similar smaller-scale exhibitions at other venues across the region.

Via Photographs of Newcastle: “Construction of the Stockholm 40″ Reflector, some time in the early 1920’s for the Stockholm Observatory.
Photograph courtesy of Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums.

One key objective of the project is to inspire young people in the region to engage more with STEM and raise awareness of STEM-related careers (with a particular emphasis on schools based in areas of low socio-economic background). This is especially important in the North East, which has the lowest percentage of young people in the UK who say a career in science would interest them [2]. The project aims to address this issue by running a series of educational workshops alongside the museum exhibition, that will deliver the Key Stage 2 & 3 science curriculum in a more relatable and engaging way. These workshops will be delivered by Newcastle University and project partners: the GNM, Kielder Observatory and Durham University. Finally, a key aspect of the project will involve teacher training sessions, in order to equip teachers with the confidence and knowledge needed to deliver the astronomy workshops at school beyond the end date of the project.


North East STEM Awards

On November 11th, the North East STEM Awards were held in Newcastle. This event celebrates and recognises North East STEM Ambassadors and STEM organisations who, through their interaction, have inspired, engaged and enthused many young people and their teachers in STEM over the past year. Award categories included most inspirational employer, highest number of hours recorded by a STEM Ambassador, and special recognition awards.

Dr Vicky Fawcett attended the award ceremony and won a special recognition award for outstanding contribution to STEM education in the North East. She received this award based on her outreach work within the STEM Ambassador program1. This included presenting at STEMFest in Space 2020, 20212, running various astronomy school seminars, winning the ‘I’m a Scientist, get me out of here!’ outreach event3, and organising a space activity day at the Great North Museum: Hancock during World Space Week.

To read more, see:




Audio Universe named winner of the Early Career Academic Award at the Newcastle University Engagement and Place Awards 2022

Earlier this year, Dr. Chris Harrison and Audio Universe were presented the Early Career Academic Award at the Newcastle University Engagement and Place Awards, a showcase celebrating innovative collaborations between the University and the public that demonstrate research excellence and work for the public good. The Early Career Academic Award recognises these qualities in engagement projects led by an early career academic from across all of the university faculties. At the time of consideration, the planetarium show had been downloaded by 31 planetariums internationally and has received over 1,300 combined views in English, Spanish and Italian.

For more information on the Audio Universe project, which seeks to make astronomy more accessible for the visually impaired and enable us to interpret astronomical measurements using senses other than sight, can be found at

Outreach: 2 articles in Astrobites

Alex has published two more articles for the Astrobites collaboration.

The first article is an interview with the organisers of the Cosmology from Home 2021 conference (which includes fellow Newcastle PGR Niko Sarcevic) about what makes a successful online conference. This includes a discussion about the aims of online conferences and how they may differ from in-person conferences, as well as some practical tips, tricks, and tools for building a conference online from the start.

The second article is a daily paper summary looking at recent work done by Dan Thomas Sankarshana Srinivasan, Francesco Pace, and Richard Battye in a series of two papers about how to build cosmological simulations for modified gravity in a model independent way. Paper I sets up a mathematical framework for extending standard techniques to work in both the large and small scale limit, even through an intermediate regime where both cosmic perturbation theory and Newtonian theory don’t apply. Paper II sets up modified gravity simulations using this framework and through some simple test cases demonstrates the importance of these sorts of techniques for exploring modifications to gravity in the era of next generation surveys.

Outreach: New Astrobites Author

Alex will begin writing for Astrobites starting in 2021. The Astrobites collaboration is a group of astronomy and astrophysics graduate students around the world who write daily summaries of recent astrophysics research, accessible to the undergraduate level. These “daily summary posts” have made up the backbone of Astrobites over the last 10 years, and in more recent years they have begun to also write about things beyond daily summaries, including series of posts about DEI problems in astronomy, mental health in academia, what the day-to-day life in astronomy looks like, and application processes and career advice.

Outreach: Public talk for Astronomical Society

Remote outreach talk to the Newcastle Astronomical Society, given by Alex Gough

The Skeleton of Our Universe

The goal of this talk is to introduce the topic of my research, understanding the largest structures in the universe, to the members of the Newcastle Astronomical Society. This begins by setting the stage for where cosmology takes place, and winding back the cosmic clock to the early universe and the cosmic microwave background (CMB). From there, understanding that the very early universe is nearly the same everywhere, with only 10 parts per million deviation from the mean density, it becomes an obvious scientific question to understand how those tiny fluctuations grow into the rich structure of galaxies we see today. Understanding this growth, and the role dark matter has to play in it, is the focus of my research.

After touring through the history of the universe, we take a detour into understanding how these huge distances and times are actually measured. This detour provides a link from my work in cosmology to the stellar physics and observations that members of an astronomical society are more familiar with. It also provides a nice opportunity to look at beautiful space pictures.

The end point of the talk is the 6 numbers one needs to measure to construct the universe. These are based on the 6 parameters in ΛCDM (the standard cosmological model), slightly modified to make them more accessible to this general audience. These break down into:

  • 2 numbers from the early universe: the amplitude and scale dependence of the fluctuations in the CMB
  • 2 numbers for the “pie recipe” of the universe: how much dark energy and dark matter do we have
  • 2 timescales for the universe: the age of the universe, and the time you have to wait for the first stars to form.