Conversation with Joan Najita (NOAO Astronomer)
What sparked your interested in astronomy, Joan?
I never built my own a telescope. And as a kid, except for the moon, I never really looked at the night sky. The schools I went to were not strong in science. Not a great start toward being an astronomer. One Saturday I went with other high school kids to hear some guy talk about the Voyager mission to Jupiter. The images were amazing! So detailed, so beautiful! I asked the speaker, Carl Pilcher, if there was any chance I could get a job doing that. He introduced me to some solar astronomers at the Institute for Astronomy, and I spent my summer at the summit of Haleakala making measurements of the solar magnetic field. I couldn’t believe you could get paid to have fun like that.
What do you do currently at NOAO?
Most recently I worked with a committee of people from the US astronomical community to look at how astronomers currently use large telescopes (6.5-m to 10-m in aperture) and how their needs will evolve in the future. We made recommendations that we hope will enhance the instruments available on large telescopes and the US community’s access to them. As a longer term activity, I work to maintain an active dialogue between NOAO and the community it serves (US astronomers) via an electronic newsletter, Currents, which I edit.
What are you currently passionate about?
My current passion is studying disks around young stars with the Spitzer Space Telescope and large ground-based telescopes. With Spitzer we made the exciting detection of water and organic molecules in the planet formation region of these disks. Our results seem to show that disks are chemically active. A chemically active disk may synthesize molecules of biological interest. Such a process may have played a role in the origin of life on Earth. We also hope to use the molecular tracers we detected to search for evidence of planet formation. Planets are expected to create large radial gaps in the disks from which they form. We may be able to detect the signature of such a gap with high spectral resolution data from ground-based telescopes. These kinds of measurements can test planet formation theories. They are also science drivers for large aperture ground-based telescopes.
How long have you worked at NOAO and how have you contributed to its mission?
I have been at NOAO since 1998. One of the first things I got involved with was proposing a large-aperture national facility for highly multiplexed spectroscopy. My NOAO colleagues and I recognized that astronomers were doing a lot of wide-field imaging. We thought they would need to take spectra of the objects they imaged in order to meet their science goals. Some new facility would be needed to keep up with the demand for such spectroscopic follow up! Our concept, the Spectroscopic Wide-Field Telescope (SWIFT), would collect spectra of thousands of objects at a time. Similar concepts are being explored today.
I also helped NOAO to develop a concept for a next generation large telescope, the 30-m aperture Giant Segmented Mirror Telescope (GSMT). I was responsible for the early science case for such a facility, which was developed with the help of members of the US astronomical community. I also worked on the science case for a closely related concept, the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), where I advocated for the mid-infrared as a large, unexplored discovery space.
What skills do you find are important in doing your job?
A broad background and interest in many astronomical topics, reasonable writing and communication skills, creativity, organization, and an interest in getting along with others.
What challenges do you face in your job?
It is a challenge keeping up with the pace of astronomical progress! Another challenge is balancing the needs of work and family. NOAO is a great place to work because other people here also have young families, and there is flexibility in setting your own schedule.
And the rewards?
I enjoy doing astronomical research! I also enjoy the fact that my effort goes toward helping other people (i.e., the US astronomical community). Sometimes one can wonder whether a career in astronomy is really the best way to spend one’s time. I mean, it’s not like being a doctor where you could have an impact on something critical like someone’s health. So by helping others as part of my job, I guess I assuage some of that guilt.
What do you like about working and living in Tucson?
The beautiful Sonoran desert. The birds and animals in my backyard. I can afford to buy a house. Great friends. A diverse and vibrant astronomy community.