Interview with Professor Yuan-Sen Ting

Dr. Yuan-Sen Ting is an astronomy professor at the Australian National University. His research focus is using statistics and computational methods to work with large data sets for a range of astronomical objects. 

An International Career Path

Dr. Ting grew up in Malaysia, where access to astronomy was essentially nonexistent when he was a child. However, he was really drawn to physics, and decided to do a joint bachelor’s and master’s program in Singapore and France. During his program, he dabbled in biophysics, high energy physics, and mathematics before settling on an interest in mathematical physics and completing undergraduate work in quantum field theory and particle physics. Allowing his interests to guide him, Dr. Ting also got to carry out research at Oxford and the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy during this time, resulting in an undergrad education that brought him to a new country nearly every year! 

With an interest in astronomy and math, but wanting to move away from high energy work, Dr. Ting started studying star formation and galaxy evolution with the goal of using machine learning to understand complex astrophysical phenomena in a statistical way.  Machine learning is perfect for this work as it enables us to capture patterns in extremely high-dimensional data spaces that would escape notice by visual inspection or traditional analysis methods. We often think about machine learning as a “black box” in which the inner workings are obscured, but it’s this underlying mathematics that Dr. Ting is interested in. He compares the general goal to giving ChatGPT a prompt and then trying to track the statistics of all of the possible responses. He notes that these methods are especially crucial in fields that are approaching very high precision or extremely large data sets (for example cosmology or galaxy formation) where it becomes really difficult to distill massive amounts of information into simpler analytical models. 

Advocating for Southeast Asian Astronomy

Over the past few years, Dr. Ting has been working hard to increase Malaysia’s role in the international astronomy community. To that end, he helped spearhead a trio of events last year, including GMAC (Global Malaysian Astronomers Convention), a galaxy formation summer school, and an IAU symposium (International Astronomical Union), all hosted in Kuala Lumpur.  Astronomy in Malaysia has already grown quite a bit — GMAC was initially planned to be a very small meeting in 2020, but after postponement from the pandemic, it ballooned into a conference of 120 participants as more and more Malaysian astronomers heard about it and spread the word.

Building up astronomy as an industry requires a strategic approach. To that end Dr. Ting and his collaborators have turned to success stories like Thailand and New Zealand, which started with similar GDPs to Malaysia and have both developed strong programming over the past decade. The main goal is to convince the country to invest enough in astronomy that Malaysian astronomers are able to have careers in Malaysia, as opposed to having to find opportunities abroad. 

While there’s a lot of interest in astronomy amongst Malaysian students, they often face a lot of barriers in finding opportunities in the larger astronomy community. Currently, pursuing astronomy requires extensive travel, whether for conferences, graduate school, or permanent employment, which often isn’t an option for Malaysian students, and students from the Global South in general, due to family needs and prohibitive exchange rates. Dr. Ting notes that the recent IAU conference was the first international astronomy conference many Malaysian students were able to attend, even for more senior PhD students. He hopes that the success of the conference provides motivation for more events like this in Southeast Asia to better connect students with the larger field. 

Advice for Students 

Follow your passions! Science is broad and there’s a niche for everyone. If you’re interested in astronomy but live in a region where opportunities are scarce it can be really difficult to make a long-term career plan, but Dr. Ting advises taking a step at a time and continuously seeking out the opportunities that will let you do what you like. He points out that astronomy is becoming more democratized; while there’s still strong science at the most elite schools, excellent faculty and education programs are much more widespread, so there are multiple paths to reach a career in astronomy. Reflecting on his own career, Dr. Ting says that it’s really valuable to let people get to know you and what you’re good at, and allow yourself to be led to new, exciting science.

Astrobite edited by: William Lamb

Featured Image Credit: The Australian National University

About Isabella Trierweiler

I'm a fifth year grad student at UCLA. I'm interested in planet formation and I study the compositions of exoplanets using polluted white dwarfs. In my free time I like knitting, playing train games, and growing various fruit trees.

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