Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Astronomer of the Month: Romeel Davé

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 Romeel Davé.

Tell us a little about yourself!

Hi, I'm Romeel Davé, and I am currently the South African National Research Chair in Cosmology with Multi-Wavelength Surveys. I just moved to this mouthful of a new position in January from the University of Arizona in Tucson, where I was a professor.  Though it is a bit scientifically isolated as I am striving to build up a group here in Cape Town, I nonetheless feel lucky to live in one of the most beautiful cities in the world with a great quality of life, doing what I love. Before becoming a professor, I held postdoctoral fellowships at Arizona (Hubble fellow) and Princeton (Spitzer fellow). I got my Ph.D. in Astronomy from U.C. Santa Cruz, M.S. Physics from Caltech, and A.B. Physics from Berkeley (Go Bears!). I also attended the University of Texas, San Jose State University, and Foothill Junior College in my rather circuitous academic journey. My father is from India (Gujarat), my mother is from America (Nebraska), and I grew up everywhere from California to Massachussets to Texas to India. I enjoy basketball, whitewater and other water sports, the outdoors, and good beer and wine. In my misspent college days I did a lot of theater, acting, directing, and being in an improv comedy troupe that did gigs around town. I enjoy traveling, and have taken trips to Eastern Europe (right after the Wall fell), Indonesia, West Africa, and other amazing locales. I am married and have two young daughters, so I have less time for my hobbies now, but I tell myself that parenting is my most rewarding hobby yet. Occasionally, I even believe it.

What is your specific area of research? What is your role within the CANDELS team? 

I am a computational galaxy formation theorist. I use large supercomputers to try to model the universe from the Big Bang until today. I am particularly interested in how galaxies form and evolve, because galaxies are the way in which we observe and mark out the distant Universe with surveys like CANDELS. My current work pushes the idea that galaxies are born, grow, and die within a cosmic ecosystem of surrounding gas, with which they continually exchange mass and energy in a way that regulates their growth and establishes
their observable properties. This "baryon cycle" approach to understanding galaxy evolution has been a key new development in recent years, and I'd like to think I'm on the leading edge of this. My role in CANDELS is to provide numerical simulations of galaxy formation to be compared with CANDELS data. This allows us to both test and constrain the baryon cycle view of galaxy evolution, and provide insights into the physics that sets the observable properties of galaxies across cosmic time as seen by CANDELS.

What made you want to become an astronomer? At what age did you know you were interested in astronomy? 

As a kid growing up in light-polluted suburbia, I was never particularly interested in the night sky. Starting in high school, I wanted to be a string theorist, because it seemed like a fundamentally new way to understand the universe at the deepest level. But once I got to graduate school at Caltech, I became disenchanted by the vast disconnect between string theory and experimental particle physics. It didn't seem like string theory was directly testable in any sense, which was a bit unsettling for a purported theory of science.  Meanwhile, on a lark I stumbled into a course on Cosmology, and realized that this field had a remarkably active and close connection between observers and theorists. Also, it seemed that computers, which were another hobby of mine, could play a key role in understanding the evolution of our universe. So I joined Tony Readhead's group working to measure the Cosmic Microwave Background using radio telescopes at Owens Valley. This convinced me that a) astronomy was pretty cool and interesting, and b) I am not cut out to be an observer because I hate reducing data! So eventually I transferred to Santa Cruz to become a theorist, specifically using computer simulations to constrain cosmological parameters. By the end of grad school, thanks to the COBE and WMAP satellites, cosmology started becoming more of a "precision" science, i.e., we know what we need to measure, we just need to measure it ever more precisely. I found this sort of "cosmic bean counting" work rather dull so I moved on, although I am glad there are people who like it because I'd really like to know the answer! In the meantime, galaxy formation caught my eye as a much more complex and wide-open area, so after my Ph.D. I started working on that, and it has held my attention ever since. I am lucky to have landed in a field that allows me to use my talents and interests while providing the intellectual challenge of working on some of the greatest mysteries in the Universe.

What obstacles have you encountered on your path to becoming an astronomer and how did you overcome them? 

Honestly, I've been pretty fortunate in my career, I can't think of any big obstacles. I've always been confident in my intellectual ability, so it's mostly been a question of deciding what I wanted to do. I've had some helpful teachers and mentors, and though I've also had my share of poor and negative ones, who I basically just tried to ignore. I had two supportive parents even though they divorced when I was very young, and a reasonably comfortable upbringing even though I never attended the same school two consecutive years until 9th and 10th grade. I had a bit of a life crisis after I quit Caltech with my consolation Master's, because the experience was so negative both personally and professionally that I started to question whether I wanted to be an academic at all. Eventually, I found that astronomers were a bit more friendly and cool than physicists (yes, I know that's a low bar), and after taking a year off, I dove back into graduate school in astronomy at Santa Cruz with renewed energy. But the year away taught me that in order to be successful in my career, I also had to live a full and enjoyable life. Achieving that life-work balance has been crucial for me ever since, and I think it's worked out fairly well so far.

Who has been your biggest scientific role model and why? 

Probably my most significant role model was my Ph.D. advisor, Lars Hernquist (now at Harvard). Watching him, I learned the "game" of astronomy, that is, what one needs to do in order to succeed besides just doing good work. I learned to focus on being careful and correct rather than being loud or first. I learned that it's crucial to pick the right problem to work on, something where you can make meaningful contributions but also that others will find interesting and useful. My stock advice to budding theorists is that there is nothing more useless than a dull theorist -- not all of your ideas have to be right, but they should all be interesting and provocative. So don't be afraid to think outside the box, and to trust your intuition over the accepted dogma. However, there is a fine line between being provocative and being a blowhard. It's therefore important to have a deep understanding of both the current literature and the fundamental physics, to never stop expanding your knowledge base, and to always try to be your own harshest critic. Many of these things I learned by watching Lars, but I've also seen them reflected in many senior colleagues that I respect the most, including CANDELS PI Sandy Faber.

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

Definitely my favorite aspect is the time-flexible, travel-oriented lifestyle. Face it, as astronomers we're overworked and underpaid, and until tenure it can be an uncertain and itinerant lifestyle that is not conducive to settling down with a family. So why do it? Why not make double or triple being a hedge fund manager or software guru, working fixed hours with weekends free? Many of my friends have chosen that path, but for most of them, it's been bittersweet. The best part about being an astronomer, or really an academic researcher in general, is that you get to work on your own schedule, and you are only judged by your long-term body of work. This means that you can take time off for a sick kid, or take extra time to see sights when you travel to a new place. That's not to say there aren't deadlines and goals, but the day-to-day time pressure is less than in the "real world". Also, the freedom of intellectual exploration, to be able to decide for yourself what to work on, is something that I very much cherish. I generally find the people to be great too. Of course there are the occasional jerks that you find in all walks of life, but I've made a lot of good friends that I enjoy hanging out with socially. I look forward to CANDELS team meetings and other conferences not only for the intellectual stimulation, but also for catching up with old acquaintances as well as making new ones.

What motivates you in your research? 

Basically, I love to think about things, and I love an intellectual challenge. It's hard for me to imagine a bigger one than figuring out how the whole Universe works. My brain loves to think about stuff in the background; many times I've woken up in the middle of the night and gone "hey, I just realized how to solve that problem!" And certainly, there is a (friendly) competitive aspect to it, especially as a theorist whose ideas are constantly being tested against others' by ever-improving observations. It's fun to be right on occasion, although it's dangerous to get too cocky since the next new data set could always rule out the model I'm currently pimping!

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

Probably the original Lick Observatory 36" refractor. I worked as a tour guide there during the year off I took from grad school between Caltech and Santa Cruz. The old telescope is truly a work of art with its elevating wood floor, not to mention the odd creepiness of James Lick being buried underneath it.  Also, my girlfriend (now wife) observed there for her thesis work, so I have fond memories of nights by ourselves at the telescope. Diligently working to solve the mysteries of the cosmos, of course.

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

As a SARChI chair in Cape Town, I basically have to build a galaxy formation group from scratch, in a country (actually, a continent) that has an enthusiastic commitment to astronomy but still relatively meager resources. My goal is to make Cape Town a hub for galaxy formation theory as much as Arizona or its equivalent. I don't expect it to happen overnight, but with lots of groundwork and a little bit of luck, I hope to make substantial progress in the time I'm here. A critical challenge in South Africa is human capital development; unlike in the USA and Europe, there is not a large population of highly trained young scientists who are eager to do astronomy, as it is still regarded (like most pure science research) as a somewhat esoteric and frivolous field, and the best young students are typically directed into more "practical" professions. Hence in a broader context it is important for Africa to have a forefront presence in international astronomy, in part because the next great radio astronomical facility being planned, the Square Kilometer Array, will be primarily hosted in South Africa, but also because it is sociopolitically important to raise the educational and research infrastructure in South Africa (and Africa in general) to be internationally competitive in order to help transition from a third-world "resource based" economy to a first-world "product based" economy. That I might play a small role in this was one of the reasons I was attracted to this position.
If you could have any astronomy related wish, what would it be? 

That the diversity of people who do astronomy would reflect the diversity of the overall population in terms of race, color, and gender. This is critical not only to ensure the widest talent pool, but also to make the field more interesting and enjoyable by having a wide range of backgrounds and working styles represented.

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

That the laws of physics as we know them allows us to trace the evolution of the Universe back to a mere 10^-43 seconds after the Big Bang. To me, that is just a stunning triumph of modern physics. But it also begets perhaps the greatest question of all: What came before the Big Bang?

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

In my copious spare time I help produce documentaries focused on the lives and science of minority astrophysicists. Our latest movie is Black Sun, which follows two African-American solar physicists to Tokyo and Cairns as they do solar physics experiments during the 2012 solar eclipses.  You can find out more about this exciting film (and follow us on Facebook and Twitter) at http://www.BlackSunMovie.com.

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