Monday, September 30, 2013

Astronomer of the Month: Dan McIntosh

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 Dan McIntosh

Tell us a little about yourself!

My name is Daniel McIntosh, Assistant Professor of Physics & Astronomy at U.Missouri-Kansas City starting Fall 2008. I was born in Columbus, OH (my parents met at Ohio State U.).  After moving around quite a bit early on, I spent my teenage and young adult years in Los Angeles. I attended LA Valley Community College and then UCLA, then I went to the University of Arizona for grad. school. I was a postdoc researcher at University of Massachuselts-Amherst for 7 years before moving to K.C. I have two great, college-age children who were born while I was still an undergraduate. I am married to a wonderful person and a fellow academic who shares my sense of adventure.

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

I am interested in the growth of galaxies over cosmic time.  In particular, I'm interested in the role of galaxy interactions and collisions, and I want to understand the physical processes that make the largest galaxies spheroidal in shape and dead in activity.  My role within CANDELS has mainly been in helping the Morphology Working Group set up the visual classification infrastructure. Additionally, I am mentoring two students who are investigating the evolution of spheroidal and disturbed galaxies from z=2.5 to today.

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

It wasn't until I was taking calculus and physics in college that it occurred to me that I might actually set my goal to become an astronomer. Yet, I always loved science and I found math to be fun from my earliest memories. When I was five I said I wanted to be an archaeologist (I really meant paleontologist but didn't know that word). I loved learning about the planets in elementary school and by the time I was 12 my uncle had given me his old 3-inch refractor and my grandparents had given me a subscription to Sky & Telescope. I read a lot of popular science books on astronomy and watched every documentary with the word 'space' or 'universe' in its title, but I could not imagine actually being an astronomer -- it seemed too much like a dream. When my college calculus teacher recommended The Mechanical Universe & Beyond -- an acclaimed video instructional series for freshman physics at Caltech -  the light bulb finally went off for me when I learned that the math I was enjoying was at the heart of the clockwork of the universe.

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

In retrospect, my largest obstacle was gaining the confidence to finish research projects.  I had no trouble with finding interesting projects, coming up with questions, and doing the hard work. What I got stuck on, and what can still trip me up, is knowing when you have done enough and have enough to say something of interest. It is important to gain this confidence and to avoid perfectionism. My advice to overcome this hurdle is: make a plan, use time management practices to assess your plan's progress regularly, and do not work in isolation. It is important to realize that all questions are valid; it is a trap to think that your question is dumb or that you 'should know the answer'. Keep on asking questions -- it is at the heart of what we do!
Who has been your biggest scientific role model and why? 

That's a tough question! I have several.  Pieter van Dokkum (Yale) for clarity of writing and productivity. Two close friends, Eric Bell (Michigan) for always asking interesting and tough questions and Stephane Courteau (Queens) for his enthusiasm for mentoring students. Finally, Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson for their ability to communicate science to the world.

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

I love my career. As a professor, I have many hats, but teacher and scientist are foremost and on equal footing in my mind. I think that where these two intersect is my favorite aspect;I love working along side and mentoring student researchers from first-time undergraduates to experienced graduate students. I am also passionate about communicating scientific ideas and concepts to the general public whether informally or in a big 'Astro 100' classroom.

What motivates you in your research? 

I enjoy the process of seeking answers to questions -- it is lifelong learning in a nutshell. And I feel that there are so many unanswered questions about galaxies; the more we learn the more questions come to mind. I find this tremendously exciting.

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

The Hubble Space Telescope, of course!  It has revolutionized our understanding of the universe and made the past 20 years a very exciting time in astronomy.

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

I want to continue to inspire students for as long as I can. Having a positive impact on a young person's life is what it means to be a professor. And I want to continue to make my small contributions to improving our overall understanding -- after all, science is a collective endeavor.
If you could have any astronomy related wish, what would it be? 

That our politicians would collectively (all parties!) wake up and realize that federal investments in all basic science like astronomy research and facilities have always paid huge dividends to our country's status and economy, and thereby the small current investment should be simply doubled rather than further constricted. This would solve hundreds of issues and help our country in countless positive ways that are difficult to predict but are clearly important.

What is your favorite, most mind-boggling astronomy fact? 
That we are star stuff -- that the atoms that make up me and my loved ones were formed long before our world and Sun.

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

I really appreciate the public's engagement in astronomy; I think it is a wonderful thing.

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