Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Astronomer of the Month: Dale Kocevski

Tell us a little about yourself! 

My name is Dale Kocevski and I’m an assistant professor in the Physics and Astronomy Department at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. As is the case with most academics, I’ve moved around a lot during the course of my education and professional career. Before moving to Lexington in the fall of 2012, I lived in beautiful Santa Cruz, California, where I held a postdoctoral research position at the University of California. Prior to that, I carried out my graduate work at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu and I received my Bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. I am originally from Michigan and grew up in the greater Detroit area. Although I definitely miss California, it’s nice to be back within driving distance of family, after spending 14 years living out west. I enjoy hiking and mountaineering, traveling, watching hockey (Go Wings!), and surfing (at least when I lived near the ocean). While in California, my wife and I spent many weekends exploring the Sierra Nevada Mountains, especially in and around Yosemite National Park. The Sierras are probably the single thing I miss most about California.

Snowshoeing in Yosemite National Park

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

My research focuses on the study of distant galaxies that host actively accreting supermassive black holes and the active galactic nuclei (AGN) that they power. There is mounting evidence that the evolution of galaxies is closely linked to the growth of their central black holes, but how this connection is established remains one of the key unanswered questions in astrophysics today. Current theories propose that this link is forged, in part, but the energy released during an AGN phase. In fact, without the energy input from AGN, most galaxy evolution models fail to reproduce many key properties of present-day galaxies.  Despite this, several major questions remain about AGN and their potential impact on galaxy evolution.

Artist impression of a supermassive black hole 
surrounded by an accretion disk of infalling gas 
and twin, highly-collimated plasma jets. 
Credit: Mark Garlick (University of Warwick)
To answer these questions, I use multi-wavelength observations ranging from the X-ray to the Infrared to study the morphologies, stellar populations, and environments of galaxies that host AGN.  I currently lead the AGN working group within CANDELS, which is meant to foster collaboration between team members that share a mutual interest in supermassive black holes and active galaxies. I also played a role in the early design and implementation of the CANDELS survey. This involved helping to develop an observing strategy that made efficient use of our allotment of Hubble Space Telescope time, while also providing the data necessary to answer the wide range of science questions that are at the heart of the CANDELS survey.

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

I became interested in science, and space in particular, at an early age. I was always curious about things that seemed unknown and TV shows about time travel and starships helped to fuel my fascination with science. Picking up on this, my uncle gave my brother and me our first telescope when I was 12.  Observing Jupiter and Saturn with that little backyard refractor proved to be a very formative experience. I soon began reading popular science books about astronomy and astrophysics. Not long after this, I attended NASA’s Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama, which only solidified my interest in science and technology.  In fact, much of my early fascination with space was the direct result of NASA’s fantastic outreach efforts.  This is one reason I find it particularly troubling that NASA’s education and outreach funding is now on the chopping block due to federal budget cuts.

Later, my decision to become a research astronomer was very much influenced by my time as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan. I took my first trip to a research observatory while at UofM, when I visited the MDM observatory on Kitt Peak in Arizona as part of an undergraduate research project with Prof. Patrick Seitzer. I also spent two summers participating in the National Science Foundation’s Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) internship program. I spent the two summers working at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico and the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland. After being immersed in astronomy for four years, I decided to continue onto graduate school and pursue a career in the field.

REU students at Arecibo Observatory - Summer 1998

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

Although the academic lifestyle can have its downsides, it does also have its perks. Being able to set your own schedule and focus on scientific puzzles that interest you most is definitely one of them. Another is our travel-oriented lifestyle. Between attending scientific conferences, visiting collaborators, and collecting data during observing runs, astronomers get to travel quite a bit.  I personally love to travel, so I always take these opportunities to explore a region I haven’t previously been to.

What is your favorite astronomical facility?

Overlooking the summit of Mauna Kea from the UH 2.2 meter telescope
My favorite facility is probably the Hubble Space Telescope. The images HST is able to capture still manage to amaze me to this day. That said, I have a soft spot for the University of Hawaii 2.2 meter telescope on Mauna Kea. I spent a great many nights using that telescope to carry out my thesis work. It wasn’t the most state-of-the-art facility, by any means. For example, the telescope control room lacked heat, which made for some long and cold nights observing at 14,000 ft. Everything at the UH 2.2m seemed to be on the verge of breaking down (yet rarely did!), but the data it provided was fantastic and I couldn’t have completed my thesis without it. 

Who has been your biggest scientific role model and why? 

Catching a Wings vs Sharks game with Sandra Faber
I’ve had the opportunity to work with a number of great scientists in graduate school and during my postdoctoral positions.  If I had to single out one role model, it would be Sandra Faber, PI of the CANDELS survey. Working with Sandy, I am always amazed by her ability to identify open questions in astronomy, especially in the subfield of galaxy evolution, size-up the problem at hand, and relatively quickly identify pathways to solving that problem. Recently Sandy was awarded the National Medal of Science by President Obama, so I’m definitely not the first person to appreciate Sandy’s skill as a scientist. 

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

The sheer size of the Universe has always been mind-boggling to me. The patches of sky imaged by the CANDELS survey with the Hubble Space Telescope are relatively small compared to the size of the entire sky, yet they contain tens of thousands of galaxies.  There are literally more galaxies in the sky than any astronomer could hope to count in a lifetime. On top of this, the portion of the Universe that is observable from Earth is likely only a tiny fraction of the entire Universe. Sometimes astronomy can be as humbling as it is exhilarating. 

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