Hannah Sanderson was awarded the Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) Cormack Undergraduate Vacation Scholarships in 2020. Benefitting from a paid scholarship to undertake a period of research at a Scottish Higher Education Institution over the summer holidays.


I have always been fascinated by outer space. When I was younger, I wanted to be an astronaut, but as I continued through school and university I became more interested in research. Missions such as Cassini and Rosetta inspired me to pursue a career in astrophysics, because I wanted to understand more about the other bodies in our solar system and beyond. The pictures returned from the spacecraft, for example of the cloud structures at Saturn’s north pole, show worlds that are so active and different from our own, about which we have so many unanswered questions.

Hannah Sanderson
A person smiling for the camera
Hannah Sanderson

Job Title: Undergraduate student

Collaborators: Moira Jardine

Institution: University of Cambridge (degree), University of St Andrews (placement)

Amount of funding received from the RSE: £1,600

I am trying to understand if dust is present in the atmospheres of faint stars called M dwarves and if this can affect the light we see from the star. Observations by a space telescope called Kepler found stars with ‘scallop-shaped’ light curves: the light from the star varies over time, but not in a simple, symmetric repeating pattern. We think that dust trapped by the star’s magnetic field at fixed positions in the atmosphere (in prominences) could cause this. I am trying to see whether the interaction between the dust and the magnetic field is strong enough to keep the dust in place. We think this dust would have been delivered by comets, so the next phase of the project would be to calculate the rate of comet impacts on the stellar surface. Giant planets, similar to Jupiter in our solar system, can deflect comets towards the star so a large amount of cometary material could indicate the presence of a giant planet far out from the star. These planets are hard to detect using typical exoplanet surveys so understanding these light curves could eventually give us a new way to these kinds of exoplanets.

Short term goal: explaining the light curves

Long term goal: linking the light curves to the presence of an exoplanet

Adding value to Scotland

It strengthens the connections between St Andrews (where I am carrying out my placement) and Cambridge (where I study). It has enabled me to collaborate with Scottish researchers and understand what life is like at Scottish institutions. It will lead me to recommend the university to my peers and encourage me to apply there for a PhD.

The research skills and experience I have gained from the project will help me undertake my Master’s project next year and when I do a PhD.

Hannah Sanderson

Advice for future grant recipients

Go for it! Doing a summer project is a great way to get experience, so don’t be afraid to approach potential supervisors and apply for funding. The RSE award has enabling me to carry out the project and being awarded the scholarship has increased my confidence. Being involved in the programme has enabled me to develop my independent research skills and bridge the gap between a taught undergraduate course and pursuing a PhD in the future. I have really enjoyed carrying out a project and investigating something open-ended in contrast to undergraduate teaching where there is always a right answer.

What’s next?

I am doing an integrated Master’s in Astrophysics (Natural Sciences Part III) at Cambridge next academic year and then I hope to do a PhD in Astrophysics, potentially related to stellar magnetic fields and stellar activity.

The experience of carrying out a research placement has affirmed that a career in academia is the right choice for me. It will help me make a competitive PhD application as I will already have experience. It has also helped me collaborate, because I met many researchers in the field I am interested in who are at a variety of stages in their careers. They have given me useful career advice and enabled me to see the wide variety of things they work on. This means I can make more informed PhD applications to projects which I know fit my area of interest.

Related award

For undergraduate students studying astronomy to undertake a period of research