Monday, November 19, 2012

Astronomer of the Month: Steven Boada

Each month we will highlight a member of the CANDELS team by presenting an interview introducing them and what it's like to be an astronomer. This month's Astronomer is Steven Boada.

Tell us a little about yourself!

My name is Steven Boada; I'm a third year graduate student at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas. I'm originally from Pegram, Tennessee, which is a small town just outside of Nashville. Before coming to Texas, I received an undergraduate and a Master's degree in physics from the University of Tennessee. While at Tennessee, I had the wonderful opportunity to work at the National Center for Computational Science at Oak Ridge National Lab. I've done a few other interesting things along the way. I worked for a newspaper as a photographer for three years. I made thousands of ravioli for a pasta company (after getting my Master's degree). I can boil an egg in a paper cup.
What is your specific area of research? What is your role within the CANDELS team? 

I am interested in galaxy assembly and evolution. I investigate how galaxies put themselves together while evolving into the galaxies we see today. Recently, I have started looking at clusters of galaxies, which I am hoping to use to help us better understand our cosmological models of the Universe. As a part of CANDELS, I am a junior scientist, working with Dr. Casey Papovich, and an active member of the galaxy morphology team. 
What made you want to become an astronomer? At what age did you know you were interested in astronomy? 

I have been interested in astronomy for as long as I can remember. I grew up in the country just outside of Nashville, which provided slightly darker than usual skies. I recall looking at the sky and being fascinated about what I saw. Books from the library, and programs on public television only fueled that interest. When I went to university, I went in wanting to major in physics (only because there was no astronomy degree). Odd as it may sound, I have only recently learned what professional astronomers actual do. I didn't know any growing up, and my college education was almost exclusively from physicists. It has just been something that I have always been interested in, and so I decided from an early age that it was for me.
What obstacles have you encountered on your path to becoming an astronomer and how did you overcome them? 

My sophomore year I took my first class on modern physics. It was taught by a professor who was a great researcher, but a terrible teacher. I struggled, a lot. This was the first time that I really thought about changing careers. Looking back on it, I have never been that great of a physicist. Equations and math was never something that came easy for me. I have never made straight A's. I was told by a math teacher in high school that I would never amount to anything. After that modern physics course, I looked through the course catalog for something else that I would rather do with my life. I couldn't find anything that piqued my interest as much as physics and astronomy. So I decided to just work hard and make it through. So I hired a graduate student to tutor me, and six years later, I am living in Texas on my way to a PhD. 

Who has been your biggest scientific role model and why? 

There isn't a single person. Like most scientists, I have been inspired by many of the greats over the years. I would also have to give credit to the good teachers that I have had, and to my family for encouraging me a long the way. I most certainly couldn't have done it without their love and support. 

What is it like to be an astronomer? What is your favorite aspect? 

It's one of those things that is both extremely challenging and deeply rewarding. It's hard, because we don't always know what we don't know. Doing research isn't always easy. Often times it is frustrating and confusing. It can be all consuming when you are constantly thinking about a difficult problem that you are working on. But when you learn something knew or inspire some one to learn about science, it makes it all worth it.

What motivates you in your research? 

First and foremost you have to like doing research. You have to like trying to do things that people have never done before. Not being able to Google the answer to your question can, at times, be awfully frustrating. I like learning new things. I like working on hard problems and trying to think about things differently from before. Then, of course, I just plain like astronomy.

What is your favorite astronomical facility? (This could include telescopes or super computers, for example) 

There are too many to choose a favorite. Because I am still relatively new, I haven't had the opportunity to visit too many of the facilities in person. I have done some work at McDonald Observatory out in West Texas. That was a lot of fun. There are no telescope operators or support staff that stay up with you all night, so it is just you and the scope. If you break something, it is your own fault, and you  have to do a lot of the setup yourself. That makes you feel like you are doing real astronomy. With my computing background, I always have a special place in my heart for a good super-computer. ORNL, just got the fastest one in the world, Titan. 

Where do you see yourself in the future? What are your career aspirations? 

Goal number one: finish my PhD. Doing as separate Master's degree has helped in a lot of ways, but it also stretches my time in graduate school. So I am fully focused on my research and the few remaining classes. Luckily for me, I'm in a great place. In the future? Who knows. The job market in astronomy (and it seems in most sciences) is more and more in flux these days. I'd like to stay in academia, be a professional astronomer somewhere. We'll see.
If you could have any astronomy related wish, what would it be? 

More money for astronomy, always. But I'd like to go to the moon, or even just space in general. Sign me up.

What is your favorite, most mind-boggling astronomy fact? 

I love the 'Pale blue dot' photograph from Voyager. The distances in astronomy are so crazy and we are so small. It seems to me that astronomy is the most humbling science. I am just constantly reminded of how big the universe is. And not even the universe as a whole. There are galaxies one hundred times bigger than our galaxy. There are stars extremely more massive than our Sun. 

One could say the numbers are mind-boggling. They're astronomical. 

Is there anything else you would like for the public to know about you or astronomy in general? 

Nope. Remember to support your local astronomer. I play some mean ping-pong.

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