Spencer forges new frontier

Space exploration has always been about firsts. It's only fitting then that the University of Lethbridge's first graduate from the Earth, Space and Physical Science PhD program worked on a groundbreaking instrument that promises the first images from the deepest parts of space.

Locke Spencer (MSc '05, PhD '09), working with graduate supervisor Dr. David Naylor, played a key role in the development and eventual deployment of SPIRE, an instrument on the Herschel space telescope. Now, Spencer will be able to continue his work on Herschel/SPIRE, having accepted a position as a post-doctoral researcher at Cardiff University in Wales.

"I had such a great experience doing research-based work at the U of L," says Spencer, a University of Alberta undergrad who came to Lethbridge as a master's student and remained to complete his PhD. "Staying here and completing my PhD allowed me to continue with my project until it was launched into space. I now am working with actual flight data from the Herschel telescope in space, some 1.5 million km away from Earth."

Being able to work with Naylor was a huge factor in luring Spencer to the U of L to pursue his master's degree. Once he got on campus, he quickly learned the finer points of the University experience.

"The U of L is small enough to still be personal," says Spencer, who was born in Cardston, Alta., but lived in Vauxhall, Edmonton, Bow Island, Stirling, Lethbridge and Calgary all before graduating from high school. "I am known by name by the registrar's office, the dean, the president and so on. This is very rare at larger institutions; there really is a close-knit community on campus.

"At the same time, through the international relationships the U of L has developed, I've been able to do field work at some of the most prestigious labs in the world."

His involvement with the SPIRE project was far from peripheral and it was that opportunity, to fully participate in a project with a world-renowned researcher of Naylor's calibre, that most benefited Spencer.

"Professor Naylor is the lead investigator for Canada on this project," Spencer says. "Our work was essentially buying access to the Herschel telescope for astronomers across Canada.
"I was able to provide an explanation for an unanticipated instrumental effect which was discovered very late in SPIRE's development. My work provided critical input to the instrument data processing routines within the project, and future instrument development for projects just on the horizon."

At Cardiff, Spencer will continue working with Herschel/SPIRE, as well as the European Space Agency Planck satellite. In the long term, he looks at coming back to school, as a professor.

"I would like to continue researching astrophysics and instrumentation and if possible, our family would love to be based in western Canada and even Alberta," Spencer says.

That's an application the U of L would do well to receive.