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Viewing posts from July, 2012

An Interview with Rachel Ross

This week’s interview is with Rachel Ross.

Jessica Barton: What is your job title?
Rachel Ross: Jedi Master!

JB: What does your work at LCOGT involve?
RR: I wear many hats including being a part of the education and outreach and science teams.  I am becoming involved in some of the operations and commissioning for the first 1-meter telescope in Texas, and in the past (and hopefully a bit in the future as well!) helped assemble some of the 0.4-meter telescopes as well as participating on a few engineering and deployment trips.

JB: Could you tell us a little bit about yourself - your education, interests, past work experiences.
RR: I grew up in northern California, went to UC Davis for my undergraduate degree, and received my Masters in Astronomy from James Cook University in Australia. At Davis, I was very involved with the astronomy department where I worked for a research astronomer for about two years, was a ‘roof helper’ (the undergrad form of TA for astronomy classes) for the Introduction to Astronomy labs for 4 years where I taught the sky as well as helped to update and write labs, and I was a member and officer (secretary and president) of the astronomy club where I helped to expand the reaches of the club and improve its outreach. I started with LCOGT in September 2005, three months before graduating from Davis, and have loved being here ever since!

JB: What led you to the career or job you are doing now?
RR: I wasn’t that into science until I had an awesome physics teacher my junior and senior years of high school. My senior year of high school, all students had to do something called Senior Exhibition which was a year-long research project on a topic of our choosing. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do mine on, so my teacher suggested I read A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking. I was hooked and did my project on a blend of cosmology and astronomy.

My first quarter at Davis I took Introduction to Astronomy and loved it. From then on I was a roof helper for the lab portion of that class and continued to be involved in most things astronomy including taking all the available classes at the time, as well as other related classes in physics, geology, and even philosophy.

JB: What is a typical day at work like?
RR:  There’s really no such thing as a “typical day”, but I usually start by checking email to catch up on everything that happened during the night before.  I’m working with some exoplanet data that I have taken from Sedgwick, ELP, and both the 1-meter and 0.4-meter telescopes in our back parking lot (doing some light curve analysis and modeling with Jason Eastman’s program Exofast, including helping find a couple of bugs by throwing wacky data sets at it) that was originally started by taking data for Agent Exoplanet and that I hope will evolve into something else.  I’m also helping to develop a system to check operational statistics for ELP which will expand as new telescopes are deployed (based on what I’ve already done and planning to upgrade for FTN & FTS) as well as doing some work on the commissioning side.  On the education side of things, I plan and host star parties at Sedgwick and Photon Ranch, Jessica and I take turns planning tours and workshops at LCOGT as well as science nights at local schools. I also write, or convince others to write, blog posts on our website about all the exciting news happening at LCOGT.

JB: What advice would you offer people wanting to go into the type of work you do?
RR: Don’t let anyone tell you that you can or can’t do it!  I had two experiences with sexist advisors in college who looked down upon women in the sciences, but since I’m generally not good at taking ‘no’ for an answer, I persevered despite the discouragement.  My mom always taught my sister and me to love what we do even if it doesn’t come with a big paycheck (as long as we can support ourselves).  If you don’t enjoy what you are doing then it’s not worth it.  Try many different things to find out what you like (or don’t) and do it, even if it’s challenging.  And never stop learning.

JB: What do you do in your spare time?
RR:  I’ve always loved to read, most anything to do with the beach, hiking, cooking, traveling, and playing with my cats (who are training to be Jedis).

JB: Thanks Rachel!

An Interview with Jason Eastman

This week’s interview is with Jason Eastman.

Jessica Barton: What is your job title?
Jason Eastman: Postdoctoral fellow.

JB: What does your work at LCOGT involve?
JE:
My major focus is building the NRES prototype spectrograph for BOS. (NRES stands for Network of Robotic Echelle Spectrographs.) We now have funding from NSF to build six identical copies which will go with the 1-meter telescopes. At each site there will be a NRES spectrograph connected by fiber to two 1-meter telescopes. This way the spectrograph can be used by one or both telescopes at the same time.

I also work on transiting planets and planets in general. I just had a paper published about EXOFAST which is a program I wrote that simultaneously fits radial velocity and transit data for an exoplanet, and gives parameters such as the mass and radius of the planet precisely.

I’m also part of the KELT collaboration. KELT stands for Kilodegree Extremely Little Telescope and it’s a survey telescope in southern Arizona designed to find exoplanets. We actually just discovered our first two planets!

JB: Could you tell us a little bit about yourself - your education, interests, past work experiences.
JE: I grew up in Omaha, Nebraska. I went to Boston University for my undergraduate degree which was a B.A. in astronomy and physics. I did my Masters and PhD at Ohio State University. Apart from a job at Sizzler in high school, all of my jobs have been research related. During undergrad, I worked with my advisor to build a spectrograph called PRISM which is a different type of spectrograph from the ones we are building here. In Ohio I had TA and research assistant positions.

Besides astronomy, I’m also interested in astrophotography, rock climbing, and road biking.

JB: What led you to the career or job you are doing now?
JE: I’ve always been interested in the origins of Earth and humanity. When I started my undergraduate degree, I wanted to do a double major in theology and cosmology. It turned out that between astronomy and physics, my schedule for four years didn’t leave room for many theology classes, but that was ok with me because I was more satisfied with the scientific theories of the origin of the universe anyway.

My dad was also always interested in astronomy, and I remember one time when I was a kid, my dad had a little telescope set up in the back yard pointed at the moon. I looked at it, then looked away for a few minutes and when I looked through the telescope again, the Earth had moved and the moon was no longer visible. I was sure my dad had moved the telescope and it took him awhile to convince me that it was the Earth’s rotation that had caused the moon to move out of the field of view.

JB: What is a typical day at work like?
JE:  I do a lot of computer programming and processing and analyzing data. I also spend some time playing in the lab, building and testing equipment.

JB: What advice would you offer people wanting to go into the type of work you do?
JE: You’ll need to learn to use computers and to program. Pay attention in your science and math classes, and also in English class. You can be the most brilliant scientist in the world, but if you can’t communicate clearly in writing, no one will ever know what you are doing.

JB: What attracted you to LCOGT?
JE: I liked LCOGT’s focus on time domain astronomy and small telescopes. In astronomy there is often this temptation that bigger is better, and to keep building bigger and bigger telescopes. But with smaller telescopes you can automate and get more data with less effort. My PhD thesis was about roboticizing a 0.5 meter telescope, so this opportunity with LCOGT was a perfect fit for my interests in robotic telescopes, exoplanets, and building instruments.

JB: So what do you think of the news about the Higgs boson?
JE: I was actually a bit disappointed. I had been hoping that something was going to be discovered that would show clearly that the standard model is wrong and that we would have to rethink everything. I’ve never been all that satisfied with the the need for dark matter and dark energy. It seems like we just really don’t understand gravity very well. But with the Higgs boson now, it seems like the evidence is saying we are actually pretty close to the standard model.

JB: Thanks Jason!

2012 Las Cumbres Amateur Outreach Award of the ASP

Every year, the Astronomical Society of the Pacific (ASP) presents eight awards to the astronomy community including amateur astronomy and outreach, teaching astronomy at various levels, significant contributions to astronomy research, and to outstanding Ph.D thesis.

An Interview with Michelle Becker

This week’s interview is with Michelle Becker.

Jessica Barton: What is your job title?
Michelle Becker: Junior Software engineer.

JB: What does your work at LCOGT involve?
MB: Coding! Currently I’m working on visualization of the scheduler - It’s a web application that allows you to visualize what is going on inside the scheduler. In the past I’ve worked on other web applications and data visualization including the weather page of the LCOGT website.

JB: Could you tell us a little bit about yourself - your education, interests, past work experiences.
MB: I grew up in Whittier near Los Angeles. I did my undergraduate degree in film and media studies at UCSB. While I was doing my degree I took some higher level math, science and programming classes for fun. I met Val Gorbunov in a physics class and when he found out I could program, he told me about LCOGT and I ended up here.

During college I worked on campus as an associate producer/director for UCTV. My interests are in the visual arts, and I definitely try to find outlets to be creative in that area.

JB: What led you to the career or job you are doing now?
MB: I’ve always been interested in working with computers. I spent a lot of time doing video editing during school and was eventually tempted to learn Adobe After Effects. Some of the graphics are actually drawn using their coding language and I was curious to learn more about how that works so I took some programming classes. As it would turn out, I found Python really fun. It was definitely cool getting a different insight into how computers work and the many things one could do with them. I was totally blown away the first time I typed ‘ls’ into a terminal - I felt like another world had just opened up for me.

JB: What is a typical day at work like?
MB: A lot of my day is spent planning or designing the architecture of what I will be working on. I work pretty closely with Eric Saunders, usually we are brainstorming or discussing the design of the current web application and the next plan of action - this is especially true now that I am spending more time on the scheduler project. The rest of my time is spent putting those plans into action through programming, testing, and getting new features out there.

JB: What advice would you offer people wanting to go into the type of work you do?
MB: Never stop learning and be flexible! There will be a lot of times where you have to change or augment what you thought you knew was the best way to do things. Also, you have to test, test, test, and then test some more. You can never test too much when you are programming!

JB: What do you do in your spare time?
MB: I spend quite a bit of my time doing ballroom dancing. Recently I’ve been trying to learn to cook, which has been somewhat of an adventure. I love movies, so I watch a lot of those. I also like to read, and try to find time for painting and drawing random things.

JB: I understand you are leaving LCOGT soon. What is your next step?
MB: I’m not exactly sure yet. I’m planning to move to the Bay Area and look for a tech job. I’m hoping to find something where I can use my creative skills, so maybe some kind of visual front-end design job for a start-up.

JB: Thanks Michelle!