Professor Sheila Rowan holding a sheet showing the properties of what produced the very first gravitational wave signal – ‘GW150914’

I’m an Experimental Physicist. I carry out research designing and building instrumentation for observatories that have detected the first gravitational signals from colliding ‘black holes’ far out in our cosmos.

These ‘gravitational waves’ carry with them unique information about what objects produced them, allowing us to study dark processes in the universe.

Professor Sheila Rowan

I wanted to be a scientist, indeed a physicist and more specifically to study the cosmos, since I was quite young – about ten years old. I was hooked by the simple questions that come up when we look up at the night sky and wonder what is out there? How far could you go if you set off in a spaceship and what would you find? I found those questions so interesting that I simply couldn’t think of anything more exciting to do with my time than to work on helping to try and answer them. I have been so lucky to be able to find a way to do that.

My research, and that of my Institute, is targeted at detecting and studying the ‘ripples in space-time’ predicted to exist by Einstein more than 100 years ago. To do this, we work together with scientists in more than 20 countries around the globe. This research pushes the state-of-the-art in technology across optical and mechanical systems needed for our observatories that have application not only in gravitational astrophysics, but also spin-offs in healthcare, satellite control, energy, and geoscience. By chasing the discoveries of tomorrow, we can help people today.

Sheila is holding a sheet showing the properties of what produced the very first gravitational wave signal – ‘GW150914’ – picked up by the LIGO observatories in 2015. Two black holes, each tens of times the mass of our sun, collided 1.3 billion years ago and caused the universe to vibrate by just a tiny amount; these vibrations give us a completely new tool to study the universe.


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