Inspiring Nottingham Research Fellows

Helen Russell, Anne McLaren Research Fellow, Faculty of Science

I am an observational astronomer studying the structure of galaxies and vast clusters of galaxies.  Modern astronomy seeks to understand how the galaxies seen in the local Universe, like our own Milky Way, formed in the thirteen billion years since the Big Bang. 

My research explores the impact of the most energetic events in the lives of these galaxies - powerful jetted outbursts from their central supermassive black hole and massive collisions between huge clusters of galaxies. Powerful jets of high-energy particles launched in the strong gravitational environment around a supermassive black hole can heat up the surrounding gas and suppress star formation to choke off the growth of the host galaxy. Major cluster mergers are the most energetic events in the Universe since the Big Bang. The energy generated by the collision is dissipated in shocks and turbulence, which heat up and disrupt the hot gas atmospheres surrounding the constituent galaxies.

Why did you apply for a Fellowship?

I have been a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Waterloo, Durham University and the University of Cambridge and I now feel ready for a new challenge.  As an Anne McLaren fellow, I now have the opportunity to lead my own projects, explore my own ideas and pursue funding to build my own research team.  I am very proud and grateful to hold one of these prestigious fellowships that is making a real difference in retaining women in STEM fields.

Why Nottingham?

Nottingham provides a very supportive environment for my research with a breadth of expertise in extragalactic astronomy and cosmology. I was a Nottingham Physics undergraduate student and inspired to pursue astronomy research by great mentors in the department, including Professor Meghan Gray, herself an Anne McLaren Fellow at the time. I had plenty of encouragement from colleagues in Nottingham to apply for a fellowship and I am excited at the potential for new research directions and collaborations now that I have started.


Nottingham have been very understanding and flexible and helped to make this a very positive transition

What has the experience been like?

I started my fellowship only three weeks ago, on returning from maternity leave, and I have found it to be a very welcoming and supportive department. A new job, new city and a new baby, all at the same time, has been a huge adjustment for me. Nottingham have been very understanding and flexible and helped to make this a very positive transition.

What inspired you to pursue this area?

As an undergraduate at Nottingham, I worked on two summer research projects and my MSci project that focused on galaxies and galaxy clusters. These early projects inspired me to pursue a PhD project on galaxy clusters.

During my PhD, I was awarded observing time on NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory to look at the hot gas atmospheres around several galaxy clusters. I discovered that one of these clusters was particularly odd-shaped – it was a major merger between two clusters and two vast shock fronts were producing the unusual shape. 

These objects are rare but very important because temporarily ordinary matter is separated from dark matter in the collision and we can learn a great deal about dark matter. This discovery produced many additional multi-wavelength observations, simulations and projects with many different collaborators around the world.


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