Joshua MacEachern

Joshua MacEachern's image
Designing a new radio telescope to help study the universe when it was just a fraction of a second old
Gary Hinshaw
Why did you decide to pursue a graduate degree?

When I was little, I was completely fascinated by astronauts and astronomy and this eventually evolved into a love for physics and astronomy. Towards the end of high school, I knew that I wanted to study these topics in my undergrad degree (which was also at UBC). In the second year of my undergrad, I quickly found a love for computer science as well after being exposed to it in a computational physics course. I promptly switched my major in astronomy to a double major in astronomy and computer science and couldn’t have been more interested in all of my courses. Because of how much I loved what I was studying, the possibility of going to graduate school was always in the back of my mind.

My real decision to pursue graduate school came from my experience in the Co-op program at UBC (entering co-op was easily one of the best life decisions I have ever made!). I had two co-op work terms where I was able to do research in astronomy and cosmology and I was absolutely over the moon (I was looking forward to going to work on Monday during the weekends). My last co-op term, where I got to work on the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment (CHIME - a UBC, U of T, McGill, and NRC led cosmology experiment) completely changed my life. Never had I found myself more interested in my work and I absolutely loved the tightly-knit and friendly Canadian cosmology/radio astronomy community.

My supervisors/mentors from this co-op term encouraged me to do an undergrad thesis on CHIME and I absolutely loved it. During this thesis I got to know my current grad school supervisor and I couldn’t have been happier working with him and the rest of the team. Based on how happy I was with the work, this made going to graduate school a natural next step. I applied to the program and was so honoured and ecstatic to be accepted.

Why did you decide to study at UBC?

In my undergrad, I really got great insight to how incredible the researchers in our physics/astronomy department (and the rest of UBC) are. Two of the cosmology faculty on the team that I joined at UBC (including my supervisor) won a Fundamental Breakthrough Prize in Physics in 2018. Their work on the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) quite literally revolutionized experimental precision cosmology and our understanding of the universe. They are truly “legends” in cosmology and it’s so unbelievably cool that they are UBC faculty.

I also grew up in Vancouver and am in love with the city. Vancouver is the most beautiful place on Earth (in my biased opinion) and there’s no place I’d rather be! It’s incredibly lucky that such a fantastic university happens to be located in my favourite place on Earth.

What is it specifically, that your program offers, that attracted you?

What I mentioned above in “why did you decide to study at UBC” sums it up very nicely. I’ll also add to that by saying that the other faculty in cosmology and other physics fields are amazing and are all excellent teachers. The courses offered at UBC are excellent and the fact that TRIUMF is so nearby means that we have a super strong physics department. I also think it’s really cool to have the opportunity to do research while working as a teaching assistant (and getting paid to do both).

This experience will be really helpful after graduating. I also really like the work environment in Physics/Astronomy. The department faculty and other grad students really make you feel like you’re a fellow colleague and everyone treats each other with respect.

What was the best surprise about UBC or life in Vancouver?

I grew up in Vancouver so there weren’t too many surprises for me about life in Vancouver. But there is so much that I love about Vancouver. You can basically do any outdoor activity that you like and you can do most things outside any time of year. There’s excellent skiing/snowboarding and the city is beautiful in the summer. Another kind of nice surprise is that I didn’t realize how close UBC is to one of the best radio astronomy observatories/sites in the world: the Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory. The proximity of our fantastic university to this world-class research facility is super unique.

One could also say the same about TRIUMF. I think a nice surprise about UBC (even though I had been to UBC before while growing up in Vancouver) was how beautiful the campus is and how it’s so close to the beach. I was also pleasantly surprised by how welcoming and friendly everyone is on campus (and especially in physics/astronomy, though I’m sure it’s like that in other departments too).

What aspect of your graduate program do you enjoy the most or are looking forward to with the greatest curiosity?

As I mentioned a bit above, I love being a part of the community in my department: talking to my fellow students, talking to professors, brainstorming research ideas with my colleagues, asking them questions, and things like that! I’m also really looking forward to seeing where my research takes me and what I will have done/accomplished by the end of my PhD. I’m also looking forward (but am slightly nervous about) experiencing the whole PhD process: having committee meetings (my first one will be this summer) and incorporating my committee's guidance into my research, writing the actual thesis, and then defending it. I think it will be a challenging but also very cool experience.

What do you see as your biggest challenge(s) in your future career?

I really want to stay in academia, do a few post docs and hopefully become faculty at a university somewhere eventually. I’m sure this is also true in many other fields, but in my field, getting post docs and especially faculty positions is really really competitive. I think my biggest challenges will be getting my first post doc and in my post docs, being productive enough in order to set myself up to eventually get a faculty position somewhere.

How do you feel your program is preparing you for those challenges?

Being able to do research and teach every day, both as essential parts of my graduate program, I think is excellent preparation for this. The teaching experience will be helpful for that eventual faculty position (fingers crossed) and the research skills (and other skills) that I’m building under the outstanding guidance and direction of my research group will be extremely valuable for those post docs and hopefully my future research as a faculty member somewhere.

One thing that really relaxes me is that I know that the skills that I’m building in my program will help me no matter what I end up doing after I graduate, whether or not it works out for me in academia. I know the skills that I build during my time at UBC will open doors, paths, and job opportunities that I could have never predicted.

What aspects of your life or career before now have best prepared you for your UBC graduate program?

The co-op program at UBC really feels like the most important piece of preparation. The skills you build in co-op (both soft skills and technical skills) are so valuable and are hard to build elsewhere. It goes without saying but my undergraduate degree was also excellent preparation. I also think my background playing team sports in high school and while I was growing up really prepared me for working in team environments, which is a super important skill that I use on a daily basis (I’m sure this is true for nearly all other graduate students).

What do you like to do for fun or relaxation?

My favourite thing to do is play basketball (even though I’m short and not very good). I also love being outside: riding my bike, going on hikes, camping, rock climbing (on occasion), and other things like that. My favourite sport used to be downhill skateboarding and I still do that from time to time (but I go a lot slower these days).

What advice do you have for new graduate students?

1. It may be kind of a cliche piece of advice, but definitely don’t be afraid to ask questions. There’s no such thing as a stupid question and you will learn so much from asking questions. It also shows your supervisor that you’re engaged and have a good understanding (and if you don’t yet have a good understanding, keep asking questions and your understanding will only improve).

2. Take time to relax and have fun. Balance is so important in grad school. I certainly haven’t followed this piece of advice very well in past, but I have been recently and my mood is way better because of it. I wish I could go back and tell myself this piece of advice when I started grad school.

3. Try to keep the big picture in mind. It’s easy to get stressed when focusing on little things (grades, exams, deadlines), but often the things that we’re stressed about don’t matter a whole lot in the big picture. For example, using up a bunch of time for a tiny part of a homework problem due tomorrow is much less important than having a well-prepared presentation for a conference next week.

4. Remember that graduate school is often a marathon and not a sprint. Keep the marathon mindset and do whatever you can (in terms of self-care, time-management, etc.) that will help to keep you going.

5. Have fun doing the work, Graduate school is a super unique and awesome time in your life, regardless of what you end up doing in future. You’re part of a really cool community and you just get to come to your office/lab and do research every day (i.e. without having to secure funding, etc.). This is an incredibly unique experience so enjoy it.

Joshua MacEachern's imageJoshua MacEachern's image

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