Alumni tales: To NASA and beyond

Dr Matthew Berkeley explains his career, the importance of space dust, and what it takes to literally shoot for the stars

Dr Matthew Berkeley may not describe himself as a genius, but his degrees speak for themselves. He grew up in Dublin, graduated from Trinity and his academic and professional successes include international work on the study of the universe and DNA. His advice for Trinity students, however, is humble: “Don’t find your worth in your ability in a given field. Find something else more meaningful and permanent from where to derive your self-confidence and sense of worth.”

“Don’t find your worth in your ability in a given field. Find something else more meaningful and permanent from where to derive your self-confidence and sense of worth.”

Dr Berkeley didn’t always know he wanted to work for NASA. “From a young age, science and problem solving have always fascinated me. In school, the two topics I found most captivating were the origin of the universe, and the workings of DNA. I had no definite sense of what I wanted to do as a career though,” he explains. Dr Berkeley’s academic career path boasts impressive degrees, not just from Trinity, but also from other internationally recognized universities. He continues, “At TCD, I studied Theoretical Physics before transferring to Physics and Astrophysics. When I was in my final year, I was not certain I wanted to go on to do a PhD. While I liked the idea of having one, I knew it was a serious commitment, and I needed to be sure I would have the requisite passion for a very specific subject. While I was weighing my options, I decided to do a fairly broad masters course studying all aspects of the space industry at the International Space University in Strasbourg, France.” 

In Strasbourg, Dr Berkeley had the chance to brush shoulders with space industry professionals, even veteran engineers and astronauts from the Russian Lunar program and similar missions. This helped him decide whether to pursue astrophysics or astrobiology. “I ultimately decided to build on my foundation in astrophysics,” Dr Berkeley says. “I genuinely enjoyed the research environment, I decided to pursue a PhD in physics, focusing on some aspect of cosmology, which is the study of the origin and development of the universe.” For his mandatory three-month long research project during his masters degree, Dr Berkeley ended up at NASA. “The university has strong contacts with NASA in the US, and I was able to secure an internship with an X-ray astrophysics group at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, just outside Washington, D.C.,” he recounts. 

“after navigating the reams of paperwork required to get a US visa and to work as a foreign national at a US government facility, I started working with the cosmology department at NASA”

Alongside his academic successes, Dr Berkeley largely attributes discovering what he wanted to study for his PhD to intentional networking: “I made the most of my summer by networking as much as possible, emailing several different researchers asking to meet and discuss the prospect of doing a PhD with them. From those cold calls, I found a group whose main project was building a telescope to search for signs of gravitational waves from the early universe. It seemed like a great match for my interests, so after navigating the reams of paperwork required to get a US visa and to work as a foreign national at a US government facility, I started working with the cosmology department at NASA.” 

Many Trinity students and graduates find themselves in the United States, and so I ask Dr Berkeley what the most difficult adjustment was when he began working in the USA. “Public transport in the United States is nowhere near as good as it is in Europe,” he replies. “And everything is so big and far apart, so having a car is pretty much a necessity for getting around.” He adds, “And health insurance in Europe, for all its problems, is so much more accessible.”

Dr Berkeley returned to the United States for his PhD, where a booming discussion on space dust gave birth to his impressive PhD dissertation title. “After I finished my exams and started looking for a project I could work on for my PhD thesis, there was a major announcement made by a team of scientists at a number of top US universities. They claimed to have detected primordial gravitational waves, originating at the very beginning of the universe,” Dr Berkeley recalls. “It turned out that there was an error made in the analysis that meant the detection was not necessarily of gravitational waves, but could have been caused by clouds of dust in space. This episode sparked a wave of interest in making sure all of the different kinds of dust in space were properly understood. Hence my PhD title: Testing the Association between Anomalous Microwave Emission and Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons in the Diffuse Interstellar Medium.” 

In the USA, Dr Berkeley found a unique atmosphere in which to discuss larger-than-life topics, from the origin of the universe to the idea of existence itself. “I was employed through the nearby Catholic University of America, where I was doing my PhD coursework,” he explains. “This is a hub of philosophy and theology studies in the United States. It was a uniquely fertile environment for intellectual inquiry, and it placed me at a crossroads to consider big topics like the origin of the universe from every angle. I met some fascinating people, including Dominican priests with PhDs in physics and biology from Caltech and MIT, and a number of professors from various scientific backgrounds with an openness and keenness of thought towards the holistic questions of Being.” As a Graduate Research Assistant, he had time to work for NASA too: “I didn’t have to teach any undergraduate classes or tutorials, and I could spend all of my time outside of class working in the lab at NASA.”

At NASA, Dr Berkeley was granted a range of opportunities: “For the first two years I got to try my hand at many different projects in the lab, from designing precision CAD drawings for building experiments, to testing electromagnetic waveguide antennae, to calculating the appropriate thermal insulation for a liquid helium cryostat, and I got an inside view of the cutting edge telescope detector technology being developed by NASA.” Through these projects, Dr Berkeley discovered his love of coding: “The variety of tasks I got to work on helped me realise that my preferred job was writing software solutions for analysing experimental results. There is something thrilling about writing code that can convert unintelligible raw data into plots and results that bring about some new understanding of an experiment or of physics or of the world.”

“NASA is such a large operation with so many different missions that there were several missions launched while I was there, including missions to study the atmosphere of Mars, the solar magnetic field and the ice caps of Earth,” Dr Berkeley replies to my question about what happened at NASA while he was there. “Several of these spacecraft were constructed on site at Goddard, so I got to see them up close before launch. The upcoming James Webb Space Telescope is NASA’s next major project. This telescope spent a few years being assembled in the clean room at NASA Goddard, so I also got to see this at various stages of its construction.” 

With the growing public desire to protect our planet, I ask whether working at NASA gave Dr Berkeley a new perspective on life on Earth: “NASA has a very large focus on Earth science, and much of the data relating to climate change comes from NASA missions,” he responds. “I didn’t have any direct contact with this area of research, but there was a general sense of concern for funding for this kind of research after the 2016 election.”

To wrap up the interview, Dr Berkeley explains his current work, and gives advice for Trinity students who might want to follow in his small step for man: “After finishing my PhD in 2018, I decided to find a job that would allow me to combine writing code with the other topic that always fascinated me – DNA. My family and I moved to Geneva in Switzerland, where I started working as a scientific developer in Bioinformatics, working with a Computational Evolutionary Genomics group at the University of Geneva. I develop software solutions that can be applied to DNA, using what we know of different species’ different evolutionary histories. I am currently working on BUSCO, a quality assessment tool for genome assemblies.” 

“If you want something, call people, meet up with people who can get things moving in your favour. A conversation with the right person can help you bypass entire application systems where you may face stiff competition”

He concludes, “Firstly, it’s okay if you don’t have a career plan mapped out yet. Pursue what you are good at and what you enjoy doing and the big decisions should become easier to make. Secondly, the value of personal contact cannot be overstated. If you want something, call people, meet up with people who can get things moving in your favour. A conversation with the right person can help you bypass entire application systems where you may face stiff competition.”

Brigit Hirsch

Brigit Hirsch

Brigit Hirsch is the current Social Media Editor of Trinity News.