Interview with an Astronomer: Colette Salyk
What is your official job title?
I am the Leo Goldberg Postdoctoral Fellow. This means that I have a PhD but I am not yet a permanent staff or faculty member.
How did you first become involved with this kind of work?
I first got interested in astronomy in high school, where I read a lot of great books about the universe. I first got involved in actual research in astronomy in college. I had a very supportive advisor who encouraged me to get involved with his research project. I helped his team discover Kuiper Belt Objects – asteroid-like objects that orbit beyond the orbit of Neptune.
What are some of the major tasks that you perform?
Most of my time is spent doing research. The process for astronomical research is usually the following. 1) Come up with a question that I’d like to answer 2) Share this question with other astronomers to request observing nights on telescopes 3) Obtain images or spectra using a ground or space-based telescope 4) Analyze the images or spectra I took at the telescope 5) Write a paper about what I learned 6) Submit this paper to a professional astronomical journal, where it will be reviewed and then (hopefully!) published, so that other scientists can read it. Step 4 usually takes the most time. In addition to this process, I spend time working with my colleagues, talking with students and the public about astronomy, and presenting my work at conferences.
What jobs do you recommend as steps to get to this career? What training or education is required for this job?
If you’re interested in a career in astronomy, the most important thing is to get research experience. Whether you’re in high school, or college, or any other place in your life - if you’re interested in astronomy I’d suggest contacting astronomers in your school or area, or in other areas (by email) and asking them if they are looking for anyone to help with their research projects. Even if they aren’t, they can probably help you find someone to get you started. It’s also important to take classes in physics and math, and to get comfortable with using computers.
Eventually, to be an astronomer, you will need to get an undergraduate degree in astronomy, planetary science, physics, math, engineering, or something related. And, for many jobs (like mine) you will also need to go to graduate school to get a PhD in astronomy or a related field.
What do you like most about your job?
The best thing about my job is that I get to spend my days studying the universe. My work is never boring.
How does your job affect what you do or don’t do in your home or social life?
I think that, like most scientists, I sometimes find it hard to completely forget about work – there are always unanswered questions about the universe! So for me personally, I like to do things outside of work that require a lot of focus, so I can really disconnect my brain from my work thoughts for a bit. I especially enjoy trail running, rock climbing and swimming in my free time. I also think that being a scientist makes me a pretty curious person. On a more practical level, I also have to travel a lot to use telescopes or go to meetings, and have lived in many different cities – I find this very exciting but also tiring at times.
If you could do it all over again, would you still select this kind of work?
I definitely would choose to do astronomy or something similar, like physics or engineering. I think the only thing that makes me think twice is that sometimes I wish I could work on something that more directly affects society.
What gives you the most satisfaction in the work you are doing?
I think I get the most satisfaction from solving interesting problems and working with others. I also have a lot of freedom – freedom to study any scientific problems that interest me.
What future career goals do you have?
I’m hoping to get a permanent job as a professional astronomer. I’m also hoping that I’ll get to do more teaching and working with the public. I really love that people are so excited to hear about astronomy.
What information about this kind of work would be important for a person if he or she is considering going into it?
I think it’s important to realize that astronomy (and science in general) is not about geniuses having moments of inspiration. Instead, it’s about continually training and learning and asking questions. This means astronomy is a lot of work, but it also means that you shouldn’t feel like you aren’t cut out for astronomy just because you aren’t the best physics or math student in your class. In fact, research is very different from work you do in the classroom. I find it a lot more creative (there is no answer key!) and I feel that I have more time to figure things out then I would if I were taking an exam in class. The other thing I think it’s important to know is that astronomy is not just math and physics. It also involves a lot of writing and speaking with others, and a lot of creativity. Therefore, I think that people with many different types of personalities can excel in science.
What is a normal day like for you?
Most of my days are spent in my office, analyzing data and writing about my work on my computer. I would say I spend no more than 10 nights per year at a telescope, staying up all night.
What kind of great discoveries would you like to make?
I study how planets form, and in the last couple of decades, hundreds of exoplanets (planets orbiting other stars in the galaxy) have been discovered, and they are ALL different from the planets in the solar system! Therefore, I’m hoping to figure out how different types of planetary systems form, and understand the likelihood of forming a habitable planet.
Do you have a favorite constellation?
No, but Saturn is definitely my favorite planet. Maybe I should have a good scientific reason for this, but it’s actually just because I think it’s beautiful.
Are computers important in your field?
Computers are incredibly important in my field. Almost everything I do is on my computer, from analyzing data, to writing computer models, to writing papers, to making presentations.
Do you have much free time in your day?
I usually work fairly regular daytime hours when I am not at telescopes or otherwise traveling. Because my work involves a lot of thinking, I find it important to stay healthy by eating well, exercising and getting plenty of sleep. So I like to spend my evenings taking care of those things.