Monday, November 5, 2012

The Winding Road of Becoming an Astronomer

When did I decide to become an astronomer? That's an interesting question, since I don't remember actually deciding, it just sort of happened.  I've always liked space; I remember watching Space Shuttle launches on TV as a kid, and I vividly remember where I was when I heard about the Challenger disaster. But I went through a lot of phases, at times also thinking I wanted to be a vulcanologist and a meteorologist (though really I just wanted to be a tornado chaser, inspired in no small part by Twister). So science was always high on my list, but I think it was my senior year in high school when I really got attached to astronomy, mostly due to my awesome experience in my physics class (thanks Mr. Haff!). I remember when we were learning about gravity, I went home and, just for fun, did all of the homework problems in that chapter of the book (yep, I was a nerd). So, when it came time to choose a major, I didn't agonize too hard before choosing astronomy (though I nearly chose Music Education; I played trombone throughout high school and college).

Keely and I near Anchorage, doing some sightseeing during the June 2012 AAS meeting.

Things got a little bumpy in college at the University of Washington; due to the aforementioned trombone playing, I didn't have a lot of time for classwork, since I spent my nights practicing marching band formations in Husky Stadium (explaining my lifelong love of the Huskies to anyone who knows me; and yes, they were good back then!). In fact, I remember a key point at the beginning of my junior year when I nearly quit the major altogether. I was taking an upper division electromagnetism (E&M for those in the know) course at the same time as an upper division math course that was listed as a prerequisite for the E&M course, but they allowed me to take it concurrently. I remember being utterly lost for the first few weeks of the E&M course, since the professor was using math that I hadn't learned yet (multivariable calculus for those scientists out there). I have a vivid memory of standing outside the physics building in the rain (Seattle, so it was raining of course), about ready to quit. But, in hindsight what was probably one of the major turning points in my life, I didn't quit. A few months later, I decided I wanted to go to grad school, and I busted my tail off for the next year to get my grades up, and prepare myself for the next step.

Our son Kieran, super excited about his
octopus face painting.
I attended Arizona State University for graduate school. At the time, the department was on the small side (though it has grown rapidly), and did not represent a high pressure environment. But that environment is exactly what caused myself and my classmates to thrive (of the five of us who earned our Ph.D's in 2008, three already have permanent positions, and two more are CANDELS postdocs). A huge advantage of being at ASU was access to the Steward Observatory telescopes, which I took full advantage of, observing at the MMT, Magellan, and the Steward Bok telescopes (as well as spending time at both the NOAO Kitt Peak and Cerro Tololo 4m telescopes). Grad school is a tough time for everyone, but we had a great group of friends that were committed to their work but also to having fun, which made it not *too* bad.

Another major event happened for me in Arizona -- I met my wife, Keely. We had actually both gone to UW for undergrad, but we were a year apart so we never met. We started dating towards the end of my first year, and we got married in August of 2008 (right in between our thesis defenses, talk about a crazy time!). After carefully weighing our options we decided to accept postdoctoral positions at Texas A&M University. While College Station is not exactly a cultural mecca, we enjoyed working in a growing department with several young faculty, who were great at promoting our careers. It was also great for our family life, as halfway through our stay, we welcomed our son Kieran to the world.

The space shuttle flying over Austin
on its way to LA.
After three years in College Station, I was fortunate to win a Hubble Fellowship (on my fourth try nonetheless), which I took 100 miles west to the University of Texas at Austin. UT happened to be searching for a new faculty member in my area (high redshift galaxies), so during my first year in Austin I spent much of my time applying and interviewing for that job, which I was eventually offered. So, now after a little over four years in Texas, my family has settled in for the long haul (and those of you who have been to Austin know that its not a bad deal!).

So, that's my life story (or at least my astronomy life story). What can be learned from it? First, being an astronomer/scientist/academic is hard. While I'm sure some people know their whole life who and what they want to be, and never waver, that was not my experience. I nearly left astronomy at least three times throughout the years, and it was only a few key choices (that were well thought out, though also some were the result of being in the right place at the right time) that got me to where I want to be. Astronomy is just a job, but we each only have one life, and I've tried to remember that when I've been confronted with choices throughout my career.

Our dogs Jasmine (left) and Bella (right).

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