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Emily Ahern

Physics PhD student

Emily Ahern - Physics PhD Student

Emily Ahern works on atomic clocks which are super helpful in the race to space!

As a young child with a deep desire to understand the world, Emily used to sit next to her parents’ bookshelf and read the encyclopedia. Emily’s curiosity has paid off in life, and soon it will take her to NASA where she has secured an intensive 10-week internship at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.

Emily, a physics PhD student at the University of Adelaide, was selected by Australia’s SmartSat Cooperative Research Centre for the internship. Her work involves atomic clocks for use with satellites – clocks that instead of using a ticking hand use the vibrations or oscillations of atoms to measure time. They’re super precise, making them perfect for working out where a satellite or even a space probe might be at any point in time.

“There’s a lot of atomic physics and laser physics involved in what I do,” Emily says. “And you also need a pretty decent understanding of a few different programming languages because we communicate with the clock via computers.”

Emily says she wasn’t an exceptional student at school and didn’t study straight physics, but when she ended up doing a physics elective in her undergraduate science degree, she loved it.

She loved it so much that she ended up switching to a new degree in physics. “Unfortunately, I’d never planned to do physics, so I didn’t have the mathematics prerequisites and I had to do a bridging course as well.”

Now, Emily works alongside engineers building devices for satellites and she’s excited about how fast South Australia’s space industry is growing. “There are plenty of jobs opening up,” Emily says.

With South Australia’s ambition to develop its satellite launching capability, more careers are on the horizon.

Emily says students interested in a career in aerospace should stick with physics. “It’s not something that comes easy to most people, but struggling doesn’t mean that you’re not suited to it. If you’re genuinely interested, talk to your teachers as they are more often than not very willing to help you through.”

Emily’s STEM study path

  • Bachelor of Science, Theoretical Physics and Experimental Physics, University of Adelaide
  • Bachelor of Science (Physics) (Honours), University of Adelaide
  • PhD Student, University of Adelaide

This profile first appeared in Careers with STEM: Engineering 2023. Sign up to the Careers with STEM e-newsletter to keep up to date on all things engineering careers.

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