Nathalie Nguyen-Quoc Ouellette

CurioCity
29 June 2017

Nathalie Nguyen-Quoc Ouellette

I received my PhD in 2016, and am now doing postdoctoral research!

Tell us about yourself

I was born and raised in Montreal and moved to Kingston for my graduate studies in 2010. In my free time, I love to rock climb, do yoga, paint and draw, or think about Middle Earth! I love dogs and squirrels more than words can express, and am a huge animal lover in general.

What is your research about?

I study the nature and movement of stars that orbit around galaxies found in a group called the Virgo Cluster. My goal is to understand how different types of galaxies are born, and how they change over time and interact with each other! By doing this, I can study both normal matter like stars and gas, and a mysterious type of stuff we call dark matter. Scientists don't exactly know what this dark matter is just yet, but I can study how it affects all the normal matter around it through the force of gravity!

What have you enjoyed the most about your research?

I love the idea that I am intercepting light particles that have travelled millions of lightyears across the universe, collecting them in my telescope and analysing them with my computer. It makes me feel very connected to the universe, and helps me understand my place in the scheme of everything. Research is also a lot of problem solving. At work, I get to solve new puzzles and riddles every day!

What have you found most challenging about your research?

Sometimes you get stuck on a particularly difficult puzzle. It can be very frustrating and you just feel like giving up. This is especially true when I'm working on computer code and my code won't compile for mysterious reasons. In the end, as long as you persevere, you do end up figuring out the problem. It’s very gratifying to finally get everything to work again!

How has your research experience influenced your career path?

I've always loved observing nature and trying to understand how things work, and that feeling has only grown as I've done more research. Sometimes it feels like the more I learn, the more I discover there is to still learn! In the future, I definitely hope to continue doing research. But more and more, I am splitting my time between research and sharing my love of science with others through education and outreach.

How has your research impacted the world?

Astrophysics teaches us about the laws of physics that govern everything in the universe, from our daily lives to gigantic galaxies zooming through space. Sometimes, the extreme environment of space where everything is much bigger, faster, and more energetic is the best place to test our theories. And it's these theories that lead to great technological advancements in electronics or medical imaging that help our daily lives! It's all tied together.

What do you predict will be the next big breakthrough in your field of research?

Right now, hundreds if not thousands of physicists are working on the dark matter problem from every direction, from both astrophysics and particle physics. I have no doubt that scientists are close to discovering what type of particle dark matter is. Astrophysicists are finding better and better constraints in space on dark matter, and particle physicists are working hard on dark matter detectors here on Earth. It's just a matter of time before it all comes together!

What motivates you to do research?

My parents are engineers, and they always fostered curiosity and a deep appreciation for the natural world in me. I especially liked studying physical sciences: astronomy, geology, meteorology, etc. Studying phenomena like volcanoes, tornadoes, and black holes that are so much bigger than I am really makes me feel the sheer power of nature. There's something majestic about studying nature while it does its thing, completely unaware of your existence as a human. I couldn't think of anything more massive and majestic than galaxies, so now that’s what I try to understand!

Tell us about your 'Eureka' moment

On my first observation trip at a telescope in New Mexico, I was discussing which direction to take the project in with my colleagues. I was staring at a scientific diagram when I saw an interesting shape on one of them, and decided to speak out and suggest that we tweak our observations to explore that shape more closely. At that moment, I realized that I could take control of my own project, think outside the box and use novel ideas! That was the first time I felt like a real scientist.

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