An Interview with Dr. Rose Waugh

On a particularly windy day in St Andrews during Independent Learning Week, we get the opportunity to talk to Dr. Rose Waugh, a relatively new lecturer at St Andrews but definitely not a newcomer to the University. Dr. Waugh is one of the co-founders of the PANDA Magazine. They completed both undergraduate and PhD studies at St Andrews and are now an Associate Lecturer here. Our interviewer, Joel, learns about their experiences at different stages within the University, thoughts on diversity and inclusion in Physics, the origins of the PANDA Magazine and some other fun tidbits. The talk took place online over Teams where Dr. Waugh was occasionally joined by their dog Luna.

How did you find the experience of becoming a lecturer at St Andrews now that you have gone through the process of both your MPhys and PhD here?

It’s been interesting, especially since I’ve been at the same university, so some bits of it have been easier because I’ve kind of known the system. But it’s also been kind of interesting because I’ve seen things from all the perspectives now, whereas I guess you don’t have quite the same experience of that when you when you move around. I found undergrad hard. It was a demanding degree and I enjoyed it, but it was hard going.

I actually found the step to a PhD in some ways better. There are different pressures on you, I suppose. I felt that I could handle those pressures a little bit better. So yeah, I enjoyed my PhD. I enjoyed all the research. I enjoyed the department and the kind of culture that exists here, as well as going to conferences and writing papers. But like with a lot of us, it had hiccups along the way. The pandemic made things difficult at times.

I did some of my PhD part-time in the end. The department was very supportive of it and I probably wouldn’t have been able to finish otherwise. So that was definitely the right path for me.

[Luna enters, expressing agreement]

I was very lucky that the department could find me a teaching job as well. It’s been very interesting revisiting courses that I haven’t seen since I was an undergrad.

Photo of Luna. Provided by Dr. Rose Waugh

Yes, I saw on Instagram, you recently mentioned working on special relativity lectures?

Yeah. I haven’t really touched special relativity since I was an undergrad, and I suppose that’s just what happens when you go into research. You end up in a particular niche and you use all of the physics from that area and you don’t really use the rest of it. It’s been nice to revisit it; I did theory for my undergrad, so I did see special relativity throughout my degree. I guess it wasn’t that long ago, but it was still a while since I last saw it.

What did you work on for your PhD. I understand that it was a continuation of work you did for your Masters?

Yeah, I think like a lot of people who did their Masters and then went onto a PhD, the work kind of followed on from what I did in my Masters. It can have its negatives, but by doing a masters project, you get to kind of trial something and see if that’s what you are interested in. If you decide you do
want to go down that route, then you don’t get so broad an experience as if you picked something else but I enjoyed it!

I’ve spent a lot of time modelling the locations around stars that are similar to the Sun, but a lot younger. I’ve looked at where around them you can support these things called prominences. We see them on the Sun; they’re basically just big clouds of hydrogen. But on stars that are a lot younger than the Sun, these clouds are significantly bigger and can have substantial consequences for how the star evolves.

Image of Rose as a PhD student. Provided by Dr. Rose Waugh

So is most of your work on solar prominences observational work, or is it more theoretical modelling?

There are observations of these prominences and in fact Andrew Cameron has done a lot of work on this. So you definitely can observe them. The difficulty is that we basically have one method in which we can detect them and that is kind of crude in a sense that it’s a bit like the transit method for finding exoplanets. You have the star and the cloud has to go in front of the star and block out some light in a certain wavelength, and then you know it’s there. That’s great in theory but as you can imagine, there are lots of scenarios (like with exoplanets) where your cloud never passes in front of your star. So they have been observed many times, but the extent of how common they are or how many there are is not very easy to tell from observations.

Solar prominence image. Credit: Solar Orbiter/EUI Team/ESA & NASA 

I’ve tried reading some of the papers you’ve published and realised that they deal with a fair amount of electromagnetism. I remember you saying in another interview that you struggled with that subject in your undergraduate, but you’ve clearly overcome it. How was that experience?

Haha. Yes, I found the electromagnetism module in undergrad very difficult. I got the impression as an undergrad that I wasn’t alone in that feeling. And then I got the impression as a PhD student that this extends across universities and across generations. It wasn’t a specific problem to my class. I think that it can be a very difficult subject but as with all areas of research, whilst I do obviously work with magnetic fields now, I don’t use all of the stuff that I saw in that class. In research you become very, very good at a very small amount of science really.

A lot of stuff just comes with practice. The first time you see it, it is really difficult; taking the EM module was really hard. But now looking back at it, I’m not saying it’s easy, but because my physics abilities have hopefully improved since then and my maths abilities have hopefully improved since then, when you come back to look at it, it’s almost not as bad the second time round. And then presumably it’s not going to be as bad the third time round etcetera, etcetera. Hopefully you make incremental steps in the right direction.

What would you say is the biggest change from being a PhD student to being a lecturer?

I think that when you are PhD student in the School, you’re highly valued. A lot of PhD students help with teaching: many of the tutorials are run by the PhD students and postdocs. So in some ways, it doesn’t feel that different. But I suppose the PhD progress can feel slow: you’re taking steps forward over a few years. There’s a lot of work that goes on by the teaching staff. Even when you know it’s a lot of work, I think you kind of can’t appreciate it until you’re in it. I guess the extent to which you are expected to be adaptable is maybe a bit different. I feel like I’m teaching more of a variety of courses this year than I did as a PhD student.

So do you continue any research as well, or are you mostly focused on lecturing now?

How the lecturers get any research done during term time, I have no idea. If they could tell me, that would be great. There’s a workload model that kind of says you should be doing X percent teaching and X percent research but obviously all of the staff that are teaching want to do the best job that they can do. Because they wouldn’t be teaching otherwise. I do have some time for research, but I don’t get anywhere near as much research done as I should.

Dr. Rose Waugh giving a Fluids lecture. Credit: Celine Parro Ricci

How are you able to manage your time with all the things you have to do: lecturing at St Andrews, parenting and science communication on social media?

As you probably notice, the outreach has taken a bit of a back seat recently. It kind of had to whilst I was finishing up my PhD. I haven’t managed to yet work out exactly how to balance my time to get back into it again. I will, I’m just not quite sure yet how to how to effectively manage that. Most of the research I do honestly right now gets done at like 11:00 PM onwards when the world (and my kid) is asleep. I don’t feel like I have any work at that point and that’s when I can do my research. But the teaching always comes first: you want to do the best you can for the students. The teaching is kind of fixed, and everything else you just kind of try to slot in where you can. The department is very understanding and friendly though. I think it probably is quite hard in some departments where the culture is possibly quite different.

Dr. Waugh at work. Credit: Celine Parro Ricci

Do you think that this is an environment unique to St Andrews?

I mean, I’ve not been to that many universities out there to know a lot about their cultures and environments, but St Andrews does generally care a lot about students’ happiness and success and I think it’s part of the culture. Whereas, perhaps if you had a bigger department, it’s a little bit different. It’s very normal, for instance, in St Andrews that lecturers and other staff members will know the names of lots of people in their classes whereas this may be more difficult for some other universities. It makes everyone, students and lecturers, more human and influences the energy of the department.

I know you’ve done a fair amount of work as well on equality, diversity and inclusion in St Andrews and in general. In the broader world of physics, what’s your sense of how inclusivity is progressing, or not progressing?

I have to try and keep myself positive about these things because I think it is quite easy to fall into a kind of pit of despair sometimes. And at that point, you almost aren’t motivated to help to make the changes. However, I think that academia in Physics in the UK has a long way to go. It can be shockingly bad when it comes to equality in Physics. For example, gender equality often only focuses on whether there are women in the workplace: it’s all a binary thing most of the time. There is a long way to go. I can’t pretend that there isn’t. Some departments are more aware and open to change than others: I always like to highlight that when I’m asked these kind of questions because you don’t want to find yourself in a university that is less aware of the changes that need to be made.

I don’t have the answers as just one person. I have opinions about things and I like to try to form my opinions from facts where possible, but I am also human. I think that there are policies that can be put in place to help. There are systemic things that need to change but we can all do our bit as well.

Even in St Andrews, which is a supportive environment, a lot of female students decide to leave at the BSc level. And it can’t be explained really why that’s happening. There are issues with retainment for all minority groups when it comes to continuing studies and this goes all the way up to permanent positions.

What do you think are some simple things the average student can do to promote a better environment?

Honestly, I think the students are probably the best at it. I can’t speak on behalf of everyone, but I think the students generally do a good job of supporting their peers. However, I think that there are more things that departments can offer. For example, mentorship schemes: having someone (even just one person) who you can relate to can be helpful. Being able to say “I relate to that lecturer; I can see someone like me doing that job” is already a really important thing. It’s obviously not fixing everything but feeling like the odd one out, or one of the odd ones out, can be uncomfortable.

As researchers, we can also do our bit. When I write a paper, it’s up to me to reference researchers. Lots of citations can signify that someone’s work is really important: it can make someone more likely to get a job, a permanent position or funding. It’s very easy to just give citations to the same old people. It involves a bit of effort, but it’s useful to think about using references from diverse sources – these little things can make a difference although they’re not solving the [diversity] problems by themselves.

Moving onto a bit of a lighter topic now, how did you all go about starting the PANDA Magazine? What inspired its beginning?

Wow. It feels like a long time ago. There were a few of us at various levels in our studies that felt like it would be beneficial for lots of reasons. We felt like it would be an avenue for people to do something kind of creative, which is often kind of lacking from the Physics degree. There are lots of physicists who are interested in writing and the more traditionally creative kind of thing. We felt like it was also an avenue for students of different years to meet each other as well. A lot of times in undergrad, it can be easy to only have friends in your year group. It was a nice way for undergraduate students to network with one another and also to chat with me about what it’s like being a PhD student. It just seemed like a good idea I suppose, especially with everything being online at the time. We felt like it would be a way for there to be a connect within the student body.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to become an astrophysicist (other than to buy your book):

Haha. Hmm, at what point are they in their life?

Let’s say at the undergraduate level.

Cover of “How to Become an Astrophysicist”, written by Rose Waugh

I would say not to worry too much about individual grades or exams. Yes, you want to do well in your degree – of course you do. But we all have bad exams; we all have bad grades hidden away and they get forgotten about with time. A few bad exams are not going to define your career by any stretch of the imagination. The fact that you maybe are not an exam person will not ruin your life. Once you get to PhD level, researching takes a different set of skills.

I would say that it’s useful to do an internship if you can before your Maters/BSc project. This is so that you:

A. Have some experience with some research (Even realising you don’t like something can be useful.)

B. Have something to talk about for PhD applications.

If you don’t have an internship, that’s not the end of the world: you will still have your dissertation, though you might not have as much you can say about it [compared to an internship] at the time of your PhD applications. So it is valuable if you can do an internship but I appreciate that it’s not practical for everyone for various reasons.

Otherwise, I’d recommend talking to people. Talk to people who are doing PhDs, talk to people who are your lecturers or tutors, especially if they are doing astronomy and that’s what you’re interested in. Even if they’re not astronomers, they’re still researchers so they have a lot of insight that they can share.

Any significant plans for the future?

So, I have a job here until May and then I guess I might be unemployed but I’m hoping I won’t be! I will apply for some more jobs or fellowships. Having to make those applications will be a steep learning curve for me but I would like to continue my research and I also really do like teaching so I would like to keep doing that if I can.

Rapid Fire:

  • Favourite place in St Andrews: Ooh. There is a bench on East Sands that is outside the gates to where Albany used to be. It’s one of my favourite places.
  • Terry Pratchett question supplied by one of our editors, Niya: If you had Rincewind’s luggage, what would you put in it?
    Ooh. That is a good question. My entire supply of Terry Pratchett books I guess? Haha. I’d carry it around with me.
  • Surprisingly, I haven’t asked this yet, but where are you from?
    I’ve spent my formative years in both England and Scotland.
  • In science communication, what would you say is a flawed/annoying explanation that you find is commonly presented?
    I think the one that annoys me the most is when things talk about the Sun being a burning hot ball of gas. There’s something about the idea that you’re trying to tell people it’s on fire that I really cannot get behind. It’s not burning; I know what they’re trying to say but, as with anything, you have to be aware of how people might interpret what you’re saying. I’m far from immune to it, but what you think you’re saying may not always be interpreted how you think it will be.
Rincewind luggage picture: at

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *