Anna Scaife, Professor of Radio Astronomy at the University of Manchester, is head of the Jodrell Bank Interferometry Centre of Excellence and academic Co-Director of Policy@Manchester. Her research focuses on the use of artificial intelligence for discovery in data-intensive astrophysics and is supported by the UK’s Alan Turing Institute. She has led projects in technical radio astronomy development and scientific computing as part of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project, including the design of the computing and storage for a European SKA Regional Data Centre.
About astronomy: its importance and big data
Prof Scaife says: ‘I think that there are a lot of misconceptions out there about astronomy (including radio astronomy) and what being a radio astronomer really means. Radio astronomy has always been a highly technical field, and has significant overlaps with engineering, statistics and computing. Moreover, the range of physical principles involved in radio astronomy are very broad – and require quite a holistic understanding of fundamental physics. Historically we’ve seen lots of co-development in computing and radio astronomy, from algorithmic aspects (such as Fourier imaging) to wireless computing: WiFi itself is a product of radio astronomy, driven by the need to move data around for astrophysical research.’
She continues: ‘What we’re seeing today with the SKA and MeerKAT projects is a natural evolution of the data-driven nature of radio astronomy. If the first big radio astronomy project you’ve ever heard of is the SKA, then the data volumes might seem like a huge step: raw data rates in the zettabyte regime and even compressed data products in the exa-scale regime! But in reality, these data volumes are the product of more gradual radio astronomy development that can be traced back over the last couple of decades – helped along by improvements in high time-resolution digitisation and digital signal processing. I think that one of the reasons we’re more aware of the importance of these advances in radio astronomy today is because of the wider appreciation the world has developed for the economic importance of data, often referred to as the fourth industrial revolution. Projects such as the SKA and MeerKAT telescopes, which are at the forefront of data-intensive processing – both scientific and commercial, are now being recognised as drivers for the kind of human capital and technological development that results in wider economic gains.’
About being a scientist
What is it like being a scientist? Prof Scaife comments: ‘It’s quite difficult to condense one’s thoughts about this topic into a few sentences! Being a scientist is a very demanding job, but it can also be a very rewarding one. It’s very focused on problem-solving and increasing our knowledge about different things, so it’s not repetitive at all and nearly every day is different. The other thing that I really value about being a scientist is the sense of community that you develop with other scientists all around the world. Particularly in astrophysics, the problems that we are focused on solving take far more than the contributions of just one person and so you end up meeting and working with people from a wide range of different countries and backgrounds, who you would probably never meet otherwise.’
Prof Scaife has had a long-term association with African and South African astronomy. On this, she comments: ‘One of the most rewarding things that I’ve been able to work on as part of the SKA is the Development in Africa with Radio Astronomy (DARA) Big Data project. It was created to support the countries of the SKA Africa partnership (South Africa, Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia & Zambia) to build up their research communities, not only in astrophysics, but also in related data-intensive fields such as sustainable agriculture and health data. Part of the reason for creating a programme like DARA Big Data was to make sure that the wider translational and economic benefits of building scientific infrastructure like the SKA and MeerKAT telescopes were realised across the continent – but it’s also been fantastic to see the individual talent that has emerged through the program once the opportunity was available. There’s more information about DARA Big Data available on our webpage here: https://www.darabigdata.com, including profiles of our graduate students and news about recent events that the project has been involved in.’
Already in 2014, Prof Anna Scaife was honoured by the World Economic Forum as one of 30 scientists under the age of 40 selected for their contributions to advancing the frontiers of science, engineering or technology in areas of high societal impact. In 2017 she was awarded the Blaauw Chair in Astrophysics at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands for excellence in research, broad knowledge of astronomy and an outstanding international status in astronomy. More recently, in 2019, she received the Jackson-Gwilt Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society, which is awarded for outstanding invention, improvement or development of astronomical instrumentation or techniques.
In addition to her scientific work, Prof Scaife runs two training programmes that provide bursaries for students from Southern Africa and Latin America.
In February this year, Prof Scaife was the speaker at the NITheCS Colloquium, ‘AI in the SKA Era: Challenges for recovering well-calibrated uncertainties from Bayesian Deep-learning’. View that talk on our YouTube channel.