Alice Harpole

Excited about the LIGO discovery of gravitational waves!

Favourite Thing: Using maths (and computers) to work out how the universe works, especially if it involves space and/or explosions!



Westcliff High School for Girls 2003-2010, University of Cambridge 2010-2014, University of Southampton 2014-present


GCSEs, AS English Literature, A level Maths, Further Maths, Physics & Chemistry, BA & MSci Natural Sciences

Work History:

Current Job:

PhD student


University of Southampton

My STFC facility

Me and my work

I’m a second year PhD student, and I model explosions on neutron stars.

Neutron stars are very small, very dense objects formed when massive stars come to the end of their lives. They are about the mass of the sun but have a radius of only 10km or so. Because they are so small and dense, they have an incredibly strong gravitational field which means the physics concerning neutron stars can get pretty interesting (often involving general relativity).

Type I X-ray bursts are explosions which occur on the surfaces of some of these neutron stars. It is believed the explosion begins in a spot in the liquid surface layer (or ‘ocean’), before rapidly spreading across the entire surface, burning as it goes. By modelling this, we can infer neutron star properties such as radius and magnetic field, which are difficult to measure directly (because neutron stars are so small and so far away) but are crucial for understanding the stars’ interior physics. My work involves investigating how this burning spreads across the surface.

My Typical Day

Coding, debugging code, reading papers and creating pretty simulations.

My days at work are mainly spent doing three things: reading scientific papers, coding and drinking coffee.

As a PhD student, you still have a lot to learn, so there is a seemingly endless supply of papers to read so you can learn about what other people have already done in your field.

My PhD involves modelling physical systems using a computer. To do this, I work on writing my own code and adapting existing code to my project (primarily in Python and Fortran with the odd dash of C/C++). Unfortunately, it is a truth universally acknowledged that a programmer must spend approximately 95% of their time debugging, so a large part of this time is spent trying to figure out why my code is not doing what I want it to and attempting to remedy this. When my code does work, it can produce pretty images of swirling fluid like this:


I fuel my reading and coding by drinking a lot of coffee (spot the espresso machine next to my desk in the photo below!).

When I’m not doing science / drinking coffee, I sing in a choir, play guitar, bake/eat lots of cake, attempt to learn languages (currently French, German and Welsh) and have recently started taekwondo. I also somehow find the time to watch plenty of Netflix.

What I'd do with the money

I’d love to do something to help children in local schools discover how fun coding can be.

I remember my IT lessons at school being incredibly dull (and seemed to mostly consist of learning how to use Microsoft Office). The first time I did any proper coding was when I got to university. I’d therefore love to do something with local schools which enables children to discover how much fun coding can be. For example, there are some really cool things that can be done with the Raspberry Pi (including some physics if you use the Sense Hat attachment!).

My Interview

How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

Powered by coffee

Who is your favourite singer or band?

Grimes! (Closely followed by Father John Misty, Animal Collective, LCD Soundsystem, Radiohead and Vampire Weekend)

What's your favourite food?

Peanut butter

What is the most fun thing you've done?

I love going to music festivals, so it would have to be going to my favourite one: Field Day

What did you want to be after you left school?

An astrophysicist (predictable, I know)

Were you ever in trouble at school?

No – I was too busy reading Harry Potter

What was your favourite subject at school?


What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?

As a scientist, you sometimes get to go to conferences in cool places – last summer I got to go to Stockholm which was pretty great

What or who inspired you to become a scientist?

I first became fascinated by space when my mother took me to the London Planetarium as a child. I spent the next few years telling people I wanted to be an ‘astrofizzycist’.

If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?

Programming computer games

If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!

1) Finish my PhD, 2) Become black belt in taekwondo, 3) Develop the power to instantly conjure up coffee

Tell us a joke.

Why can’t you trust an atom? Because they make up everything!

Other stuff

Work photos:

My (rather untidy) desk:


Emma and I hard at work:


The Noticeboard of Wisdom next to my desk (including Cattiopeia the space cat, lunar calendar and solar eclipse specs):