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PhD student Zoe Le Conte reveals early galaxies evolved faster than thought

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Zoe Le Conte and fellow researchers in our Centre for Extragalactic Astronomy used the James Webb Space Telescope to look back more than ten billion years in time and saw that the Universe’s early galaxies developed much faster than previously thought.

Zoe is a second year PhD student in our Department of Physics and was the lead PhD researcher, working with co-author Dr Dimitri Gadotti from our Centre of Extragalactic Astronomy.

Dialogue caught up with Zoe to find out more about her research and her first ever interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme.

Zoe presenting her research findings
Zoe presenting her research findings

Tell us about your research and publishing your first research paper…

Shortly after starting my PhD at Durham, a new project was presented to me which involved the use of data from the James Webb Space Telescope to search for mature galaxies up to 11 billion years ago. It took a year to collect my results and collaborate with a team of nine other academics from around the world to gather our thoughts and produce a paper. Our results are exciting as they better our understanding on when settled galaxies can start to form. The success of this paper has been astonishing, making the lengthy writing process worthy of the reward.

Zoe in La Palma
Zoe in La Palma

Where did your interest for observational astronomy stem from?

I am constantly mesmerised by the vastness of our Universe and humbled by how little we understand. I wanted to create and answer questions about how our galaxy formed. I am amazed by the scales of space and the phenomena which exist. With endless topics of research in astronomy, there has never been a day where I haven’t learnt something new. I have a creative mindset, hence coding and problem solving is extremely rewarding. My interest has grown through experiences using optical telescopes in La Palma and travelling to different institutions for discussions with experts.

Can you tell us about your interview on the Today Programme?

On the day of the press release, led by the Durham communications team, I was contacted by a journalist at BBC Radio 4 who found the research intriguing. They performed an assessment interview in which I was questioned about the research and my personal goals. Later that evening I was contacted by the producer confirming that I was going to have a live interview on the Today Programme. I was overwhelmed with pride, nerves and excitement and called my friends and family, telling them to tune in. Shortly before the live interview, I was called by the tech team and gave a sound check over the phone. Ten minutes later, my introduction was given, and the interview started. The three-minute interview flew by, and I received many congratulations from colleagues.

What do you hope to do when you finish your PhD?

After completing my PhD, I wish to continue expanding my own personal development and knowledge of astronomy, but I hope to keep sharing my experience of how amazing studying space is and to inspire the next generation.

Who inspires you, personally and professionally?

I am inspired by astronomers who share their research with the public and create accessible and innovative outreach material, such as Dr Becky. Personally, I am very grateful and motivated by my supportive partner, Tim, who has been with me throughout my entire academic journey and moved to Durham with me to achieve my dreams.

Away from your research and studying, what’s your idea of a perfect day off?

A perfect day away from my research would include walks along Seaham beach with a cup of coffee, and a swim if I am feeling brave. Followed by an evening BBQ with friends in my garden.



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