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Interview with an Astronomer: Janice Lee

What is your official job title?

Currently I am working as a “Hubble Fellow” here at the National Optical Astronomy Observatory in Tucson. Generally, most professional astronomers take one or two short-term (1-3 year) research jobs after they have finished their Ph.Ds, and before applying for a “permanent tenure-track” position at an observatory or a university. During this transitional period, one is called a “postdoc.” There are many kinds of jobs that someone can have as a postdoc, including being a “fellow” of some sort where you are given a grant to carry out a self-designed research program. The grant pays your salary, and also gives you extra money for research expenses (e.g., buying computer hardware/software, traveling to conferences, and publishing papers). As the name implies, my particular fellowship is associated with the Hubble Space Telescope. About a dozen these particular fellowships are awarded each year for conducting “independent research that is broadly related to the [Hubble] mission.” For more information, visit: http://www.stsci.edu/institute/org/spd/hubble-fellowship/hubble-fellow-overview

For other examples of postdoctoral fellowships that are currently offered, visit: http://www.aas.org/career/fellowshipsetc.php

Post-docs can also work directly for a more senior astronomer, on projects of that person’s choosing. For examples of these jobs, visit: http://members.aas.org/JobReg/Jobregister.cfm

How did you first become involved with this kind of work?

I first became involved with research at a relatively late stage in my academic career — after I had already graduated college, earned a Master of Arts in Teaching, and spent some time teaching high school physics and math. I applied to a Masters program at Wesleyan University (http://www.astro.wesleyan.edu/academics/grad.html) after rediscovering a past interest in astrophysics, and making the decision to switch from a career in secondary math and science pedagogy/policy to one in academic research. The Wesleyan program gave me a unique opportunity to catch up on upper-level undergraduate physics and astronomy classes and to simultaneously gain experience in observational astronomy research. I note that most students applying to graduate school in astronomy are college seniors who have already had a full load of coursework as a physics and/or astronomy major, and have gotten one or two basic research projects under their belts. Thus, my path was “non-traditional.” It certainly becomes increasingly difficult for one who has not started on the more traditional path early in college to enter back onto the path at later stages, and so I am very grateful to the Wesleyan program for helping me to start my career.

What are some of the major tasks that you perform?

Most of my time is spent doing observational research in extragalactic astronomy. Some of the major tasks involved in this are (1) writing proposals for grant money and for telescope time to perform observations of galaxies, (2) preparing for and going on observing runs, (3) processing the data obtained at the telescope to get it into a form that can be measured and analyzed, (4) looking for trends in the measurements and trying to understand what this tells us about the physics of galaxy formation and evolution, (5) writing journal papers, (6) giving presentations about your work, whether at your home department or at other institutions or scientific conferences, and (7) regularly keeping up with the latest research by attending local talks/discussion groups and reading journal articles written by other researchers. Astronomers rarely work alone on projects these days, and most of the projects that I have undertaken are done in collaboration with other astronomers. I also spend time doing “community service” by, for example, organizing weekly scientific talks and critiquing papers for scientific journals as a “referee.”

What jobs do you recommend as steps to get to this career? What training or education is required for this job?

As I mentioned before, the traditional path to being a professional astronomer would be to major in physics and astronomy while in college, and to begin to become involved in research as an undergraduate. One would then apply for doctoral programs as a senior in college. The path then involves 1 to 2 short terms postdoctoral research positions before trying for a permanent position as a university professor or observatory staff astronomer. There is a helpful website maintained by the American Astronomical Society on preparing for a career in research astronomy at: http://www.aas.org/education/students.htm - school Of course, the traditional path is not the only one, and it is never too late to begin a career as a professional astronomer! It just takes a bit of aptitude for math and science, and A LOT of tenacity and hard work.

What do you like most about your job?

That I get to spend time thinking about how the Universe works.

That I have some freedom to come up with questions that I want answered, and to find ways to scientifically investigate them.

That I have the opportunity to share what I’ve learned with others and am able to attend conferences in different parts of the world as part of doing this.

And I love spending nights observing at telescopes (usually on high mountain tops). The clear night sky at a dark site is inspiring beyond words and incredibly humbling — it really puts one’s place in the Universe in perspective.

How does your job affect what you do or don't do in your home or social life?

I invest a great deal of time in my work as an astronomer (it’s a lot of fun!) and I have a family (husband, son, and daughter), so I don’t have copious amounts of free time to spend on other things. But I don’t mind it since my family and career are all that I personally need to stay fulfilled and happy. Maybe I’ll itch to go see a movie or do something mindless every once in a while, but I can usually find time for that during the holidays. I would imagine that the constraints on one’s social and home life imposed by a career in research astronomy are not that different from those that come with other demanding careers (e.g., as an attorney, physician, politician).

If you could do it all over again, would you still select this kind of work?

Absolutely.

What gives you the most satisfaction in the work you are doing?

There are the obvious, generic things that most scientists find great satisfaction in — like finally being able to answer the question that you set out to investigate, having other scientists find your work useful and for them to use it as a stepping stone for new studies, winning that big grant proposal etc. — and these are things that I find quite satisfying too. But I also find a lot of satisfaction in being able to overcome the more mundane day-to-day challenges that most astronomers face — like writing short pieces of computer code that not only work but work well, understanding a sticking points in say your analysis methods or data reduction pipeline, helping your colleagues figure out things that they get stuck on, writing some text for a proposal or paper that sounds just right, or finding a clever way to explain something in a presentation.

What future career goals do you have?

To be able to continue doing research, to be able to mentor students, and to become involved in developing a vision for the future of astronomy beyond the years of my career.

What information about this kind of work would be important for a person if he or she is considering going into it?

If you choose to pursue a career in astronomy research, you must really enjoy doing it for the pure sake of doing it. Unlike many other demanding and/or highly sought after careers, doing astronomy rarely will make one wealthy. In fact, there is no guarantee that one can find a permanent position doing research at a university or observatory since the number of those jobs is relatively limited. (No problem in being gainfully employed after finishing an astronomy Ph.D. in industry though, say at a finance or tech company since those with doctoral degrees in math or the physical sciences are highly sought after by such businesses.) Typically, one moves to where research positions jobs are available — you have a limited say in where you will end up living. So, there are some sacrifices that must be made to try to make astronomy research into a life-long career, and you really need to enjoy it to make those sacrifices worth it.

What is a normal day like for you? Do you have much free time in your day?

When I am not traveling, I drop my children off at school at about 9 AM and get to my office a little after that. What I do really varies from day to day, but generally I begin by answering e-mails from my collaborators. Some combination of the major tasks described above fills the rest of the day. The quiet time that I have to work in my office is interspersed with attending scientific presentations (aka “talks” — there is one, and sometimes even two, nearly every day of the academic year between NOAO and the University of Arizona’s Department of Astronomy, which is directly across the street from NOAO), visits from other astronomers who come by to ask questions or discuss problems or going to find other astronomers in their offices to do the same, and periodic telephone conferences. The day goes by really fast and before I know it, it is 7 PM and time to go home. I have dinner with my family (we usually eat out) and the kids go to sleep around 9. I normally try to sneak in a few more hours of work after that, and these hours become particularly important to me on very busy days when I don’t get much quiet time in my office.

What kind of great discoveries would you like to make?

I study galaxies beyond the Milky Way. In particular, I am interested in the smaller, less massive systems that are called “dwarf galaxies.” These are galaxies that are roughly 1/1000 the mass of the Milky Way. A small fraction of the dwarf galaxy population seems to be out of equilibrium because the rate at which stars are being born in those galaxies is abnormally high. However, there seems to be no apparent reason for some of these “starbursting” dwarf galaxies to be in such a violently active state and I would like to understand what is triggering these spectacular events.

Also, our Universe is growing old and is not as fertile a place as it once was. Astronomers have now established that the average rate at which stars are born to the Universe has, on average, decreased by a factor of 10 over the last half of its lifetime (7 billion years). However, we are only in the early stages of understanding this decline. I am working to help us develop our understanding of the processes that have caused this to happen.

Do you have a favorite constellation?

Not really. I do have a favorite “emission-line” though, and that is “Halpha” (produced when an electron in the hydrogen atom falls from the n=3 to the n=2 energy state). Observing the H-alpha emission in nearby galaxies allows you to see where the stellar nurseries are, and the amount of this emission give you a measurement of the rate a which stars are being born. For some pretty pictures where the Halpha emission (i.e., the stellar nurseries) is shown in red go to: http://www.noao.edu/noao/staff/jlee/11HUGS.html

Are computers important in your field?

Computers are CRITICALLY important. ALL of the major tasks that I listed above involve computers. For example, most day to day communication between me and my collaborators is done through email. Also, having a good understanding of how to get a computer to do what you want it to do (i.e. programming) is essential — most analyses involve a very large number of calculations that would be too time consuming/impossible to be done by hand, whereas a computer can take care of it quickly and efficiently. Most scientific presentations are done with Microsoft program Powerpoint. The vast majority of information one needs (proposal forms and instructions, telescope capabilities, data processing software documentation, journal articles and much much more) is on the web. And the list of things that we do with computers goes on and on. Want to do something fun?

Go to: http://nedwww.ipac.caltech.edu/forms/images.html and type M81 and click “submit query.” You can also play around and try different numbers after the “M” (e.g., M31, M32, M51, M101). This is a website that many astronomers who study galaxies regularly use in their research. To find out what the “M” and the numbers stand for, go to: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Messier_object


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NOAO is operated by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA), Inc. under cooperative agreement with the National Science Foundation. Last updated 14 May, 2007.

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