Shilpa Ranchod graduated from the University of Pretoria with an MSc which focused on detecting distant neutral hydrogen (HI) using MeerKAT, through gravitational lensing and HI spectral stacking, as well as HI in galaxy groups in the nearby Universe. MeerKAT is a world-class radio telescope located in the Northern Cape and South Africa’s precursor to the Square Kilometre Array.
She began her PhD at the University of the Witwatersrand and will be continuing her PhD studies at the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany, where she will study the polarisation properties of extragalactic sources using MeerKAT. She completed her BSc (Hons) at the University of Cape Town under the National Astrophysics and Space Science Programme (NASSP).
How did you first get interested in radio astronomy?
I was first exposed to radio astronomy in the first year of my undergraduate degree, when we visited the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory in Cape Town. There I learned about MeerKAT, which was still being built at the time, and the amazing potential for discovery using this new instrument.
How does it feel to be one of the few women in this field?
In my experience, there are many very accomplished women in this field. A lot has been done to ensure that more women are pursuing careers in astronomy, and I would not like to take away from that.
For someone so young (25), it’s impressive that you’ve made such a big discovery. Where would you like your research to take you in the future?
I hope to publish many more papers on extragalactic radio science, as well as continue to work with large international collaborations. The discoveries resulting from MeerKAT are so impressive, which makes me excited to do science with the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) in the future.
Why does your research matter?
There are many gaps in our understanding of how galaxies are formed, and what drives their evolution. The study of galaxies in different environments – for example, groups and clusters – helps us understand the role of this in galaxy evolution. The detection of a galaxy group through neutral hydrogen emission is important, as the extended nature of the gas can reveal how galaxies interact with each other and their environment.
What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
I enjoy doing yoga, crocheting, spending time out in the sun, and hanging out with family and friends.
How does this discovery alter our understanding of the skies?
This discovery is particularly exciting because we have discovered a galaxy group in its early stages of formation. This is a unique snapshot of a galaxy group in its evolutionary timeline. Our discovery, along with other observations and simulations of massive galaxy groups, will provide a complete picture of how these groups, and the galaxies within them, form and evolve.
What advice would you give young South African learners who are interested in astronomy?
Maths, physics and programming can be challenging, but if you are passionate, work hard and persevere, there are so many opportunities for exciting discoveries, particularly in South Africa and with MeerKAT. From my experience so far, this makes astronomy as a career extremely rewarding.