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Interview with an Astronomer: Gregory Rudnick

What is your official job title?

I am a Leo Goldberg Postdoctoral Fellow at the National Optical Astronomy Observatory.

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

I’ve wanted to be a scientist almost as long as I can remember but my first real exposure to astronomy was in my sophomore year of high school when I took a Saturday morning class at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago. From then on I knew that I loved astronomy. After high school I went on to university where I majored in physics. A good knowledge of physics is necessary to be a good astronomer since the two fields are tightly intertwined and as astronomers we use much of our physics every day. I’m still convinced that majoring in physics was an excellent decision but I supplemented my physics education by taking all the astronomy classes that I could. After graduating I went on to the University of Arizona to pursue a PhD in astronomy. After 3.5 years my PhD advisor moved to Germany for a new position and I followed him there to finish my PhD. After finishing my PhD in 2001 I moved to another city in Germany and did research for 3 years. After applying for many jobs I received an offer in Tucson and moved back here in October of 2004.

What are some of the major tasks that you perform?

My position is a pure research position, which means I spend almost all of my time doing research and don’t have any functional or administrative duties. Most of what I do involves research. I propose for telescope time, obtain observations, analyze them, and try to figure out what they mean and what they can teach us about our Universe. I then have to share these results with my collaborators and write them into papers that get published in astronomical journals. I also perform some outreach activities and work with high school teachers and students from around the country to give them real astronomy research opportunities. In addition to these tasks I organize a weekly science discussion here at work and a Friday afternoon social hour (even astronomers need to wind down at the end of the week!)

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

Getting a university education and a PhD is necessary to become a professional astronomer. A strong physics and math background is crucial and programming ability is also important, although I myself picked this up on the way while I was first starting research. Also important are communication skills. If you are the most brilliant researcher in the world but can’t talk or write about your discoveries then no one will be able to benefit from your work. For that reason public speaking, and even more importantly, writing skills are very important. I wish I had paid more attention in English class in high school and college because writing well is a hugely important asset in being a scientist.

What do you like most about your job?

I love that every day brings something new. Science is the search for knowledge about the unknown, and that means that every day is filled with unexpected challenges and discoveries. Some of the greatest things are those that you discover by accident. Another aspect of my job that I enjoy is problem solving. Since we are always doing things that haven’t been done before we are always forced to solve problems that no one has solved before. It’s a challenge and keeps your mind very active. I’m a communicative person and I therefore also find a lot of satisfaction in being able to talk with other astronomers about what I’ve learned and ways in which we can increase our knowledge. My joy at communicating also carries over when I talk to nonastronomers and I really enjoy doing public outreach.

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

Being an astronomer is hard work. Because we love what we do there is always more stuff that we would like to accomplish. Also, the competition for permanent astronomy jobs is very tough and it is important to work hard to be competitive. I often have to work in the evenings and on weekends, although with my laptop and internet connection I can often do this from my home and still enjoy time with family. On the more positive side, my hours are very flexible and I can come and go as I please, as long as I get the work done that I need to. I get to travel a lot as an astronomer, to meetings, conferences, and telescopes, and I therefore get to see and live in parts of the world that I never would have otherwise. Also, the people at my work come from all over the world and so I have a very diverse and rich group of friends from my workplace.

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

I’ve often asked myself this same question and the answer always is yes! Being an astronomer isn’t easy but I’m very happy with what I’ve chosen to do.

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

I love discovering new things and talking about the wonders of the Universe. I also really like working with the public and teaching others about astronomy, science, and the universe around us. We live in a time of fascinating discoveries and sharing them is always a pleasure.

What future career goals do you have?

Eventually I would like to be a professor. This will allow me to continue my research but also allow me to pursue my other love, teaching.

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

First of all it’s important to realize what a astronomer does. Very little of our time is actually spent at a telescope most of the time we’re in an office working in front of our computers. Also, it’s important to know that astronomy requires a thorough knowledge of physics, astronomy, math, and even writing.

What is a normal day like for you?

I first start working at home when I get up in the morning at 6:30am. I have to communicate with my collaborators all over the world and I need to read my e-mails from European collaborators and respond to them before they leave work for the evening (Germany is 8-9 hours ahead of Arizona!). I then ride my bike to work at about 8am and when I get in I check my e-mail again and see if there is anything new that I have to answer. Then I look on the web to see if any new papers or discoveries have been made that I should know about. If there are I take a quick look at them and decide if I should examine them in more detail later. Then I usually spend the rest of the day working on the computer to analyze data and write papers on what I’ve found. We have a lot of talks that people give on their research and I usually go to one of these every few days. Sometimes I got to lunch with my colleagues and talk about work too. I ride my bike home at 6pm and cook dinner (I love to cook) when I get there. I relax a bit in the evening and then often work for 1-2 more hours before I go to bed.

What kind of great discoveries would you like to make?

To be honest, I don’t do astronomy to make big discoveries. I want to find out more about the Universe and communicate that to colleagues and to the public. If I find something that would be great, but it’s definitely not a goal of mine.

Do you have a favorite constellation?

I love Orion. It is big, beautiful and contains stars of different ages and sizes, as well as the closest region where stars are currently forming (the Orion Nebula).

Are computers important in your field?

Very! I would estimate that I spend 80% of my day at work on the computer, and I also use it extensively at home.

Do you have much free time in your day?

Probably about 2 hours a day. I spend some of this on cooking and eating with my wife, taking evening walks, watching some TV, and reading books.

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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 18 October, 2004.

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