NOAO < EDUCATION < Education & Public Outreach: Interview with an Astronomer: Pat Knezek

Interview with an Astronomer: Pat Knezek

What is your official job title?

Assistant Scientist/Instrumentation Project Manager

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

The first part of my job, being a scientist, I have been involved with since I was a small child. I loved astronomy, and read everything I could about astronomy, and visited planetariums and observatories as often as I could. So it was a natural decision for me to get a Ph.D. in astronomy and start doing scientific research.

The second part of my job, being a project manager, is very different. I never even knew what a project manager really did until I got the job! I wouldn’t have considered applying for the job, except that the person who is now my boss asked me to apply. It turns out that my background prepared me pretty well for this part of my job – I have worked at a lot of different places, with a lot of different telescopes and instruments. Also, I have strong communication skills, and that is very important. I developed them by doing a lot of teaching and public outreach. So it turned out I had this whole set of skills that prepared me for a job I would never have thought I was qualified to do.

What are some of the major tasks that you perform?

I am interested in why the Universe looks like it does today, full of galaxies. As a scientist, I use telescopes to observe galaxies. I then work with the data I obtained at the telescopes to understand how the stars in those galaxies form, live out their lives, and die, and how that affects what happens in those galaxies over time. Ultimately, I hope to understand what will happen to galaxies in the future.

As a project manager, I am in charge of organizing projects to improve old instruments or build new instruments for our telescopes. I work to put together the right team of engineers and scientists to make sure that happens. Then I oversee their efforts. I maintain a list of tasks that need to be done, decide who is going to do which task, how long each task will take, and how much it will cost. I make sure that the team members talk to each other and me so that we all know what is happening, and that involves holding meetings, and lots of communication via email, phone, and face-to-face conversation. Ultimately it is my responsibility to make sure the project to build or improve an instrument is completed as close to on-time and on-budget as possible.

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

Well, since I really have two jobs, this is kind of hard to answer. If you want to be a scientist, you really need to complete your graduate school education first. Technically, it’s not necessary to have a Ph.D. to be a project manager. However, it really helps if you want to manage the kinds of projects I do. Then you will want to find a job that allows you to do scientific research, usually a post-doc position. Post-docs are temporary positions, usually 2-3 years, at scientific institutions, for people who have recently completed their Ph.D.s. They’re kind of like residency positions for medical doctors. If you’re interested in instruments and management, I’d then recommend trying to find a position that allows you to work with instruments or telescopes and take on some responsibility for instruments as soon as possible. It’s a good idea to take some professional management courses, too, as soon as possible!

What do you like most about your job?

Well, I love doing astronomy, and being involved in any way I can! And I really enjoy interacting with people, too, so the management part of my job satisfies that. And I get to travel all over the world and see remote parts of it that very few people see!

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

Boy, this is a hard question, too. I work hard and travel quite a bit, so I’m not home as often as I’d like, and I can’t do everything socially that I’d like to do. But I think that is probably true for most people who work hard! Maybe the biggest effect, since I travel so much, is that I find it very difficult to do things that require a regular schedule. For instance, I would love to sign up for a class to improve my Spanish (I used to live in Chile), but it’s hard to attend classes regularly.

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

You bet!

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

Actually, I probably get the most satisfaction out of something that’s only indirectly related to my work. I really love doing public outreach, and it makes me very, very happy when I am able to spend some time with people who aren’t astronomers, and tell them about all the exciting things we do! And I am very interested in seeing more women become astronomers, so I try to encourage young women to think about careers in science. It’s so much fun!

What future career goals do you have?

As a scientist, I hope to continue to take on challenging scientific research problems and help to solve them. As a project manager, I plan to take on bigger and more challenging projects, and responsibilities. Ultimately I would like to be director of an observatory or astronomical institution, and work with the scientific community to ensure that astronomy continues to develop and build the tools it needs to keep advancing astronomical research. Now there’s a lofty goal!

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

People who are considering becoming scientists need to have strong math, science, and computer skills. People who want to get involved in management in scientific fields need those, too. They also need good communication skills and to be pretty good at tracking details (i.e. be pretty organized). Although if you saw my desk you’d NEVER think I was organized!

What is a normal day like for you?

A normal day for me is spent dividing my time between working on the computer, going to meetings, and talking to people – other scientists, engineers, representatives of companies that are making parts for the instruments I’m working on, etc.

What kind of great discoveries would you like to make?

I’d love to figure out what is the most important thing in the life of a galaxy. Is it the environment it lives in? How big it is? The amount of material it contains? Whether or not there’s a black hole in its center or not? There are so many possibilities!

Do you have a favorite constellation?

I’d have to say my favorite thing in the sky is not a constellation. It’s the Large Magellanic Cloud, a small galaxy that orbits out own galaxy, the Milky Way. In Chile, where I used to live, you can easily see it with your naked eye, and it’s so beautiful. And it never ceases to amaze me that I’m looking at the stars in an *entirely different galaxy*! How cool is that?

Are computers important in your field?

Very. I’d have to say I use computers for ~90% of what I do.

Do you have much free time in your day?

I won’t lie, no, I don’t. On the other hand, I have a pretty flexible schedule, so if I want to go do something during the day, like meet a friend for a shopping spree, I can do that as long as I schedule it ahead of time, and work a few extra hours at night or over the weekend from home. It’s worth a LOT to me not to be too tied down to the office!