EXPLORE Career Profiles: Iain McDonald
December 31, 2023

EXPLORE Career Profiles

Name: Iain McDonald
EXPLORE Project Role: Lead developer of S-Phot Stellar Scientific Data Application
Professional Role and Affiliation: Research Fellow, University of Manchester
Nationality: British
Current location: Scotland

1. What did you want to be when you were 10?

I didn’t really have a clue, but I’d just learned to programme and I guessed it would involve computers. 

2. What was your favourite subject at school?

Unsurprisingly, physics!

3. What did you study at university? Why did you choose those topics and the places to study?

I studied astrophysics at St. Andrews. I had always had a passion for astronomy, space and writing, and a career in astrophysics let me combine the three. I chose St. Andrews because it was the closest university, meaning I could still help out on the family farm when I had a break.

4. How did you get your first job? How many jobs have you had since?

I am still in my first “real” job, which was a fortunate combination of my examiner needing a researcher at the same time I was finishing my PhD. My role and research has changed throughout the years, and I have had other jobs at the same time, but I’ve been fortunate to have been in this job for over 14 years.

5. What’s been the biggest piece of luck or ‘surprise twist’ you have had in your career to date?

I never expected to research the diversity of science I do today. Branching out from stars into discovering exoplanets isn’t that unusual, but I would never have guessed that I’d be publishing textbooks on genetic genealogy and papers in medieval history journals!

6. Have you had a mentor or person that inspired you? How did they help you?

 I owe a great debt of gratitude to too many people to mention by name. Whether that’s been someone who has proof-read my latest fellowship proposal, or someone who has sorted out my travel problems when I’m stuck in another country, or being taught how to correctly deal with liquid nitrogen or read an autocue. I am grateful to work in a very friendly community who are supportive of each other.

7. What are the main things you do each day?

 Poke computers until they do what I want them to. That might be programming a new form of analysis, making plots to examine data, or writing papers.

8. What do you like best about the work that you do and what do you like least?

The best part of my job are still the occasional times I get to spend the night observing on top of some remote mountaintop in an exciting part of the world. More often, I still get excited about looking through a fresh set of data and seeing parts of how the Universe works that no-one has seen before. The worst part is needing the patience to analyse this new data rigorously – I always want to write up my papers quickly at tell the world what I’ve found.

9. Do you have ambitions or things that you would like to do next?

There are so many different things I would like to do but don’t have the time for. There are many details of the Universe that I would like to uncover, I would like to create a better model for how humans have migrated across the globe, I’d like to climb every mountain, learn to play the clarinet and buy a farm of my own. But the most important thing I will do over the next few years is bring up a family!

10. What advice would you give your 10-year-old self?

Push yourself to try more things and get better at them. The more things you try, the more things you’ll like, and you never know when those things will become useful to you in the future. And don’t be so hard on the people who tell you to do your homework – they really do have your best interests at heart!

Quick CV

  • PhD (Keele 2009), MSc (Manchester 2005), MSci (St. Andrews 2004)
  • Research Fellow/PDRA, University of Manchester (2009-2024)
  • Lecturer, Open University (2020-2023)

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EXPLORE has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 101004214.