MSc Astronomy & Astrophysics
University of Leeds
Haja is pictured speaking to participants at the Big Data Africa school in Cape Town, Oct 2019
Could you tell us a bit about your background, prior to coming to the UK?
I hold a BSc in Physics and an MSc in Physics, specialising in astrophysics, both from the University of Antananarivo in Madagascar. As part of my studies I took important courses such as star formation and evolution, data analysis and cosmology. I also had the opportunity to attend different workshops about big data in South Africa (the Big Data Africa schools and the SETI Skills Workshop) which introduced me to data science techniques and machine learning in particular. After completing my MSc in Madagascar, I was selected to pursue an MSc by research at the University of Leeds in the UK as part of the DARA Big Data project.
Please tell us about your MSc studies and your research.
My thesis aimed to measure distances to embedded massive young stars, utilising the wealth of astrometric data provided by Gaia DR2. At the early stage of the evolution of massive stars they are still embedded by their natal clouds, so studying them requires high-resolution instruments at infrared (IR) or a longer wavelength (radio). The calculation of their distances is still challenging and actively debated. In my project I used Bayesian techniques and Markov chain Monte Carlo (MCMC) sampling to derive the most probable distance to our selected target of interest. MCMC-based Bayesian analysis is one of the most advanced techniques that has been used in different disciplines over the last few decades so I had the opportunity to fully understand it while doing my research (Haja’s Masters thesis can be read here).
What have you been doing since you finished your Masters?
After I finished my MSc I returned to Madagascar and started to work as a part-time teacher. I think that gaining experience in teaching will be important in my future career. Apart from that, I started a farming business as I was able to do so from my savings. This helps me to gain experience in the entrepreneurial sector and it also helps others around me by providing jobs for them.
What are your future plans?
For the moment I think it’s the right time for me to look for a PhD opportunity. I would like to pursue my dream as a data scientist and a professional astronomer. I want to discover more about these fields and to face the challenges that researchers encounter.
When did your interest in astronomy and data science begin?
Stellar objects have always amazed me since I was little and I always wanted to do research on them. In 2015 I remember I attended by chance a talk about the beginning of the universe at the French Institute of Madagascar. The talk covered some interesting topics such as the Big Bang, the formation of stars, the formation of planets and of galaxies. After attending it, I felt I wanted to know more about them so I chose to specialise in astronomy at University. My interest in data science started with the first workshop about big data that I attended in South Africa. The workshop introduced fundamental data science tools and techniques which were new to me at that time. I also realised that data science techniques can be used widely in various industries, so I've been very interested ever since.
What would your dream job be, and where?
I would love to teach, or perhaps to manage my own company. I would like to work for my country but I also prefer to work in a place with a better work-life balance.
What accomplishment are you most proud of so far?
To be honest, I don’t have one yet. I consider the opportunities that I have had as good starting points for my future career. When I look at my current state, I feel very confident and ready for the challenges that I might face in the future, especially in terms of research.
What advantages do you think there are for students with machine learning skills, particularly in Africa?
I think students with machine learning (ML) skills can make a big difference in any field. One of the advantages of ML is its ability to reduce the cost and time required to execute accurate decision making. ML techniques can be applied in several areas of research as well as in industrial sectors. Nowadays there is a high demand for professionals with ML experience in various industries (ranging from finance, IT, gaming, robotics and media) around the world and especially in Africa. In addition, the continuing construction and development of very large ground-based radio telescopes in Africa (such as the SKA Telescope and the Africa Millimetre Telescope) will generate massive amounts of data, which will need someone with ML skills to be able to process them. Therefore, students who have ML skills have a big opportunity ahead as they can easily integrate into one of the abovementioned domains.
What did you enjoy most about the UK while you were studying here?
I enjoyed going to Woodhouse Moor park with my friends during the weekends where we exchanged cultures and played football together. The Laidlaw Library at the University of Leeds also is one place I will never forget, I enjoyed reading books and studying there. I also had a chance to visit different historical sites in York and London.