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Viewing posts from May, 2012

An Interview with Dave Mullins

This week’s interview is with Dave Mullins.

Jessica Barton: What is your job title?
Dave Mullins: Electronic technologist.

JB: What does your work at LCOGT involve?
DM: I design and build control electronics for telescopes and astronomical instruments.

JB: Could you tell us a little bit about yourself - your education, interests, past work experiences.
DM: I grew up in Cody, Wyoming and I’ve always loved the outdoors. I did two years of junior college in Wyoming and then came to California. I’ve worked for many places over the years including telephone companies and a CNC company. CNC refers to Computer Numeric Controlled which is anything automated moving under computer control of a motor and using feedback. That’s what we call a servo loop. I work a lot with control systems. They live in an electrical panel between the computer controller and the telescopes. They’re really interesting because they integrate the electronics with the physical, real-world instruments.

JB: What led you to the career or job you are doing now?
DM: On my last job before coming to LCOGT, I was in an electronics store and there was an ad for this job taped to the counter. The ad looked so old and worn by the time I noticed it, I was sure the position would have been filled already, but I called and they asked me to come in for an interview. It turned out be a natural fit for what I’m interested in and my experience.

JB: What is a typical day at work like?
DM: I come in and get a good cup of coffee then take care of email. I spend a lot of time solving one of two types of problems. Sometimes we have equipment we know we want to use, and we have to figure out how to wire it up. Other times we know what we want to do, but we don’t know what equipment we need so we have to research that. I do a lot of design work and maintaining manufacturing documentation. I actually get to build prototypes and things we are only making small quantities of, like FLOyDS. We’re only making three of them so we are doing them all in-house. My work is a nice mix of desk work, machine shop, and electronics work. One of the great challenges is when we come up with an idea, we actually have to design and make what we want. We can’t just go down to a local telescope parts store!

JB: What advice would you offer people wanting to go into the type of work you do?
DM: All that stuff you’re learning in school and wondering if you will ever use it? You’ll use it. In fact I think that a lot of the physics behind what we do is as interesting as looking through telescopes. My other advice would be to finish college. There’s a lot you can do with a junior college degree, but there’s more with a bachelors.

JB: Do you have any hobbies?
DM: I have a lot of hobbies - maybe too many! I like mountain biking, scuba diving, fishing, camping. And that’s one of the things that’s so great about not only this company, but this location. It’s all right here. Almost every day, we have  to ask - why do we have to work in this beautiful weather? (A: So we can live in this beautiful place!!!) It’s very different from where I grew up in Wyoming; sometimes we would get two months when it never got warmer than 0 degrees Fahrenheit, in the daytime!

JB: Thanks Dave!

AstroDay 2012

May 5th saw the 11th annual AstroDay celebration on the Big Island of Hawai'i. Observatories across the state were invited to participate in the event located at Prince Kuhio shopping center in Hilo, including LCOGT. JD Armstrong and Rachel Ross attended along with Heather Kaluna and Marco Micheli, grad students from University of Hawai'i Manoa.

An Interview with Stuart Lowe

This week’s interview is with Stuart Lowe.

Jessica Barton: What is your job title?
Stuart Lowe: Astronomy web developer.

JB: What does your work at LCOGT involve?
SL: I support LCOGT’s education and outreach program by making cool things on the web. I helped make Agent Exoplanet and Virtual Sky (which, along with Chromoscope, are my attempts to start making the astrometrics lab from Star Trek). I helped with Star In A Box, adding some features, remodeling here and there. I’m also contributing to the coding for the public observing interface that will be used once our network comes online. I actually think of these things as hand-made, kind of like a craft. I know a lot of people don’t think of things on the web this way, but I think it’s the same kind of crafting process where you make something, then whittle it down, work on it some more, and polish it until you’re happy with it.

JB: Could you tell us a little bit about yourself - your education, interests, past work experiences.
SL: I grew up in a city and never had a telescope. As a child I was interested in space and watched Star Trek, Doctor Who and things like that. In secondary school I thought I wanted to be an architect, but then I realized I was spending a lot of time in school chatting with a friend about the Universe. I hadn't realized until then that it was something you could study at university. I applied, and was accepted, to a degree program in physics with astrophysics at the University of Manchester. After that I did my PhD in radio astronomy at Jodrell Bank Observatory. My PhD work was mostly using a radio telescope in Poland. After my PhD I did a post-doc working on ESA’s Planck satellite where I helped build and test instruments both before launch, and afterwards while it was on its way to L2. It is great to be able to say that things I’ve handled are now 1 million miles away from the Earth.

JB: What led you to the career/job you are doing now?
SL: It was a series of fortunate events. I wasn’t one of those people who knew from an young age that I wanted to be an astronomer - I just keep following my interests.

JB: What is a typical day at work like?
SL: I cycle into work at Cardiff University and then spend some time catching up on emails from the previous night. That’s one of the things about working with an organization with lots of people in other time zones. I spend my day writing computer code, editing the LCOGT website, coming up with new ideas, learning new skills, and looking for inspiration of cutting edge web technology and thinking about how to adapt it to astronomy. One of the reasons I wrote Virtual Sky was because I wanted to learn HTML5. There are also a couple of tea breaks each day (I’m British after all) and some time spent chatting with my office mates, which is where some great ideas come from actually.

JB: What advice would you offer people wanting to go into the type of work you do?
SL: Do things you are interested in. Don’t necessarily believe that how others think you should proceed is going to be the right way for you, and don’t stay in a job if you aren’t interested in what you’re doing. Also, things are often more flexible than they appear. For example, I recently spoke with a secondary school student who wanted to study astronomy, but was worried they might not get accepted to university because they weren’t taking physics as part of their A-levels (UK exams at age 16-18). I encouraged them to speak with someone at the university and apply anyway, because there can be more flexibility than it might appear especially if you have good mathematical skills. Persevering at mathematics is important as it gives you a great foundation for many physics-related jobs.

JB: Do you have any hobbies?
SL: Well, I used to do a lot of mountaineering, but where I live now is quite far from the mountains. However, I’m much closer to the sea now so I recently started learning to sail. A lot of my spare time I spend doing web stuff, for example I built Chromoscope in my spare time while I was working with Planck.

JB: Thanks Stuart!