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Dr Helen Maynard-Casely

Instrument scientist

Helen Maynard-Casely, instrument scientist

Instrument scientist Dr Helen Maynard-Casely’s obsession with icy moons has led to a fascinating career.

“One of the reasons I went into science is because it looked like I’d have a lot of fun,” says Helen. And she’s certainly had plenty of fun in her career – she’s done everything from hunting down hedgehog fleas for Britain’s first televised flea circus, to helping set the Guinness World Record for the longest glow-in-the-dark necklace.

Now, Helen is a senior instrument scientist at the Australian Centre for Neutron Scattering (ACNS) at ANSTO, where she works with a piece of equipment called WOMBAT. (It has a cute nickname because its real name, the high-intensity neutron diffractometer, is such a mouthful.)

Most of Helen’s job involves helping other scientists – from biologists and chemists to engineers – use WOMBAT to experiment with different materials, subjecting them to extreme conditions like pressure, temperature or a vacuum, and revealing what happens to
the material as a result. But Helen also uses WOMBAT for her own research, which is all about icy planets and moons. For example, on Titan (the largest of Saturn’s 82 moons) there are dunes, volcanoes and oceans, but they’re not made of the same materials as on Earth. Helen uses instruments like WOMBAT to recreate the conditions on moons like Titan to try and find out how these geological features are formed.

“The big question that drives me is: how do all these materials, which are nothing like rocks, act a bit like rocks?” she says.

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During her undergraduate degree, Helen spent a day at the UK’s equivalent to the ACNS and was instantly inspired. “There were gangplanks, things chugging away, things that go whoosh. I thought, this is cool, this is not equipment you can have in the lab.”

She pursued a PhD that would let her spend more time investigating moons and
experimenting with neutron scattering, and then spent some time working as a researcher,
then as a science communicator for a few months (hence the fleas and glow sticks). She
then moved to Australia to work at the Australian Synchrotron, and now the ACNS.

“The best thing about my job is working with people from all sorts of backgrounds. I’m
a people person!” she says.

Helen’s study and career pathway to becoming an instrument scientist

  • Master’s in Science (Planetary Science), University College London
  • PhD in High Pressure Physics, University of Edinburgh
  • Research Fellow, Australian Synchrotron
  • Instrument Scientist, ANSTO


This article is brought to you in partnership with ANSTO.

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