Interview with an Astronomer: Buell Jannuzi
What is your official job title?
My current title is “Astronomer with tenure.” The intent of AURA, Inc., the non-profit corporation that employs everyone at NOAO, is for our scientific staff jobs to be analogous to those of professors at a research University. We have “assistant”, “associate”, and “full” astronomers like the assistant, associate, and full professor positions at Universities. We have a tenure system. While some aspects of our jobs are like those of a University professor, many are not – so the analogy is only approximate.
How did you first become involved with this kind of work?
My first “work” in astronomy was while I was still an undergraduate in college. I helped some astronomers at the Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, MA, keep track /organize some of their data from a spacecraft named the International Ultraviolet Explorer (IUE). While that was my first “job” in astronomy, I was interested in physics and astronomy starting when I was in 6th and 7th grade.
What are some of the major tasks that you perform?
My job is to pursue astronomical research and help develop and run astronomical facilities that will enable others to undertake their own research as well. I make observations using instruments attached to telescopes. I use computers to analyze the measurements I’ve made. I then combine these results along with my understanding of physics and astronomy to learn new things about galaxies and the Universe. I share observing techniques, instruments, and software that I help develop with the rest of the astronomical community so they may make use of these improvements in their research efforts as well.
What jobs do you recommend as steps to get to this career? What training or education is required for this job?
Astronomers are scientists trying to understand the Universe. We make extensive use of the latest developments in technology and all the sciences. A strong background in math and the physical sciences is a prerequisite. To be a “professional” astronomer you will generally need to obtain a doctoral degree in astronomy and astrophysics or a related field (e.g. physics, chemistry, or math). You will also need to be a strong reader and writer in order to exchange results effectively with your colleagues and the public. Doing research involves learning new things, but is not the same as learning from a textbook. You might love learning about astronomy, but you might or might not like working as a researcher. It is better to try and figure this out before you finish 4 to 6 years in graduate school. If you are a college student and think you might be interested in becoming an astronomer, try getting involved in a summer (or part-time) research project. There are many such opportunities in astronomy, but any field will serve this process. You should spend some time in the work environment of scientists as a way of educating your decision about a choice of career. There are also opportunities for high school students to conduct research and this might influence your choice of college or major field of study.
What do you like most about your job?
I love learning new things. This applies to not just new things about galaxies or stars, but also skills or techniques I need to learn in order to do work on the research problems I want to study. I also like working with talented, bright, and energetic people. Astronomy is an increasingly collaborative enterprise, and I get to meet and work with a lot of interesting people.
How does your job affect what you do or don’t do in your home or social life?
My schedule is more variable than that of some people. My family (my wife and I have two sons) has to put up with me traveling (either to some observatory to observe, or some other city for a meeting) a fair amount. My work does take up a lot of time, but I still have time to play and work with my kids.
If you could do it all over again, would you still select this kind of work?
Yes—at least so far!
What gives you the most satisfaction in the work you are doing?
There are two activities that give me similar feelings of satisfaction. First, when observing, if we run into a technical problem and I’m able to solve it or create a work around, I do get a sense of accomplishment. Similarly, when I’ve finished a piece of research and successfully presented it to my colleagues (either as a published paper or a talk at a meeting), I enjoy the sharing of new ideas and results with others.
What future career goals do you have?
I’m not sure. I’m just in the process of finishing two major surveys and will have to evaluate things when those are done.
What information about this kind of work would be important for a person if he or she is considering going into it?
You should be aware that most of the time astronomers are NOT working at night at an observatory. Instead, we spend most of our time working in an office on a computer. This is not as romantic as the image some people have of astronomical research. We DO get those nights. Standing on top of a mountain at sunset as you open up to start a night’s observing is very exciting – and I’ve gotten to do that more than 500 times – but most of my days and nights are spent working hard at a computer. I enjoy that as well – but it is not for everyone.
What is a normal day like for you?
One of the things I like about my job is that it changes from year to year, depending on the projects I’m working on – but most of my “normal” days are spent sitting in an office working on a computer – reading, writing, or programming. I also spend more time than I like in meetings with others at the observatory regarding telescope operations, planning for the future, or other items. Several times a week I will get to hear a science talk or lecture from a visitor or local scientist. About once every six weeks, I’ll spend from two to five days/nights observing somewhere or visiting another research institution or university in order to work on collaborative projects.
What kind of great discoveries would you like to make?
I hope to be involved in improving our understanding of what physical processes play the major role in controlling the evolution of galaxies and large-scale structure in the Universe.
Do you have a favorite constellation?
Yes, Hydra. When I was a kid, long before I knew the existing names of the constellations, I thought the stars in this constellation (plus some others) looked like they formed a picture of a dragon. While there is a constellation Draco, I still like “my” dragon, which includes the stars in Hydra.
Are computers important in your field?
Yes, they are critical. I spend 90% of my work time using a computer. I use them to perform calculations, analyze measurements (images and spectra), and communicate with my colleagues.
Do you have much free time in your day?
Not on a typical work day – which is not always just during the normal work week. I spend a fair number of weekends working at Kitt Peak or traveling for various work related reasons.