Interview with an Astronomer: Greg Doppmann
What is your official job title?
I am an Assistant Scientist here at NOAO.
How did you first become involved with this kind of work?
I first became interested in astronomy at age 24 when I spent a summer working on Orcas Island in Washington State. The dark skies that summer captivated me and I began to read all I could about the different objects in the sky that I was seeing each night. I was attracted by the pictures I saw of astronomical observatories located in other parts of the world. When I realized that one could make a career out of using big telescopes to study astronomical objects, I was hooked. So I immediately started looking for university programs that would give me the training to do this kind of work.
What are some of the major tasks that you perform?
My time is split between conducting my research in studies of star formation, and carrying out observatory support that helps other astronomers needing to collect data for their own research. In the latter case, some of the tasks I perform include reviewing proposals that are submitted by other astronomers seeking time on facility telescopes. Once time has been granted, I also help astronomers specify their science programs using software designed for queue observations. I also support astronomers who need to travel to Kitt Peak to collect their data there.
What jobs do you recommend as steps to get to this career? What training or education is required for this job?
I recommend getting a graduate degree (i.e., M.S. or PhD) in astronomy; usually a PhD is required for this kind of work. Graduate school is the ideal environment in which to learn the kind of skills that one needs for this sort of work (e.g., instrumentation, programming, observing techniques). Also, a great way to get experience in any of these areas is to find someone who is doing research on something you find interesting and exciting. Approach them and see if you can assist them in some way. Doing this as an undergraduate will give you a head start and open many doors for you!
What do you like most about your job?
I suppose it would be a combination of getting to visit world-class observatories, which are located in beautiful mountainous places, and the opportunity to meet astronomers from all parts of the world who represent different cultures, but share similar interests and passions in astronomy and science.
How does your job affect what you do or don’t do in your home or social life?
This job has opened my eyes to a world community that is diverse, yet often shares common values, especially where astronomy is concerned. In my own life, this has taught me to embrace different view points, and give someone the benefit of the doubt, rather than making a judgment based on a limited view point.
If you could do it all over again, would you still select this kind of work?
Absolutely – only I would’ve done it even earlier in my life!
What gives you the most satisfaction in the work you are doing?
I think it has to do with the potential of discovering of something new. To be the first person that gets to figure out or find some new thing about the universe, however small or seemingly insignificant, it is an awesome feeling which keeps me coming back for more!
What future career goals do you have?
For the future, one of the most important things to me is involvement in outreach. I think astronomy can play a pivotal role in helping to bring awareness to more people on the planet, especially in terms of the environmental challenges we must face as a global community. Astronomy compels a global perspective, which is urgently needed.
What information about this kind of work would be important for a person if he or she is considering going into it?
I would say that it’s fundamentally important that you identify some part of astronomy that you really enjoy. You will need this to carry you through the other parts that may be difficult or less exciting. So choose the work or job that lets you get to do this thing you really enjoy, at least some of the time.
What is a normal day like for you?
A normal day for me consists of a combination of different activities (usually all on the computer), which might include, replying to emails that have something to do with observatory support, troubleshooting an observing program for another astronomer, processing some data I took at the telescope several months ago, developing a computer program to model the shapes and depths of spectral lines that could fit observations I have from the telescope, or working on a paper to submit to one of the professional journals. The list is much longer, but each day there’s usually a different line-up of things to be done, which keeps the work varied and fresh.
What kind of great discoveries would you like to make?
I think the greatest discovery would be to find conclusive evidence for intelligent life somewhere besides the Earth. I would settle for even some small support role in a large campaign that achieved this. It would be the ultimate discovery for humankind.
Do you have a favorite constellation?
I don’t really have a favorite constellation, but the Pleiades has been my favorite object in the sky ever since I first noticed it that summer on Orcas Island.
Are computers important in your field?
Yes, they are essential, actually.
Do you have much free time in your day?
Formally, I would say no, but a lot of my daily work is fun to me. So it can feel like I’m spending free time when I’m getting to the kinds of things that I really enjoy doing.