Thursday, February 27, 2014

Astronomer of the Month: Eric Gawiser

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 Eric Gawiser.

Tell us a little about yourself!

Hi! I'm Eric Gawiser, an Associate Professor in the Department of Physics & Astronomy at Rutgers University.  We academics tend to walk a long, roundabout path to becoming a professor, and I'm no exception. I started out as an undergraduate at Princeton University, majoring in both Physics and Public Policy.  Grad school was at the University of California at Berkeley, leading to a Ph.D. in Physics; I studied theoretical cosmology in those days. Then I switched specialties, starting postdoctoral research in observational studies of galaxy formation at the University of California, San Diego. My next postdoctoral fellowship was at Yale University; during two years of that time, I had a joint appointment at Universidad de Chile and spent half my time living in Santiago, Chile. That was an incredible opportunity for an astrophysicist, as half of the world's biggest telescopes are located in the Atacama Desert in the northern Chile, and I had the chance to observe with most of those.   

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

My research focuses on distant galaxies. Projects range from trying to understand what makes certain types of galaxies form new stars to using these galaxies as cosmological probes that can reveal the nature of dark matter and dark energy. In CANDELS, my research group at Rutgers has been active in assessing the data quality coming in from the Hubble Space Telescope, offering advice on how to generate catalogs of galaxies from it, and in improving methods used to determine the distances to and masses of those galaxies. On March 1, the Astrophysical Journal will publish our first major CANDELS paper, led by Carlos Vargas (now a graduate student at New Mexico State University) and Hannah Bish (an undergraduate senior at Rutgers) - you can find it at:

In that paper, we used the exquisite data from CANDELS to show that a data analysis technique called "stacking" works pretty well on average but fails to reveal that distant galaxies called Lyman Alpha Emitters have masses that vary by a factor of 100. We discovered that these Lyman Alpha Emitters have much more rapid star formation than you would expect given their masses.  

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

My original interest was in math and physics, and I slowly gravitated towards astrophysics (pun intended, sorry!). Growing up, I wanted to become a scientist but was also interested in marine biology, as the idea of spending one's time doing research on tropical coral reefs seemed pretty enjoyable. I got to take an astronomy course in high school, which put it on my list of career possibilities, but I chose Physics instead as an undergraduate major. 

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

Academia can be a rough road. As you ascend from undergrad to grad school to postdoc to faculty, the competition for the next position becomes more and more intense. It's hard not to become cynical as you see certain people who get strong pushes from their Ph.D. advisor get the best job offers based more on reputation than merit and observe universities trusting each other's judgment more than their own in their hiring decisions. There are two stages in my career where I found it hard to get a job at the next level, but I have always believed in making your own luck -- whatever opportunity I received, I thought about what type of research I could do best with the collaborators and facilities available at that institution. In the long run, I found that creativity and hard work get recognized. The flaws of academia are now an opportunity for me, as when I hire postdoctoral researchers or Rutgers hires new faculty, I look for people who are stronger than their recommendation letters or worked for less famous advisors. There are incredibly talented people in this field, many of them in CANDELS, and my greatest enjoyment in doing research is getting to work with people who are clever, motivated, and team-oriented.
Who has been your biggest scientific role model and why? 

Out of many role models both current and historical, I would have to choose Galileo, who was my original childhood inspiration to become a scientist. He conducted creative experiments to figure out how the world actually works and was brave enough to stand up to incredibly powerful forces when his results disagreed with their propaganda. We need a lot more of that in modern society.

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

Making a new discovery in astronomy is an incredible feeling. I have had a few special moments in my career when I felt that I understood something that nobody on Earth had understood before. It's a scary moment too, as after the initial "Eureka!" moment you work hard to defend your discovery in a written paper and submit it for publication while hoping that the scientific referees and your colleagues will end up accepting your results. However, I never think I'm truly the first being to understand something, as I believe there are other intelligent civilizations in the universe whose astronomers are much more advanced than we are. 

What motivates you in your research? 

One of my graduate school mentors, Prof. Marc Davis of U.C. Berkeley, taught us that when it comes to research, you should either do something first or do it best. This acknowledges the reality of astrophysics research that we need more data beyond the first discovery of a new type of object to really be sure that we understand what's happening. I have always been motivated by the "do it best" half of this motto, seeking large samples of distant galaxies with high-quality data to analyze. CANDELS is perfect for that!  

Inspiration is a funny thing, though. I have had my best research ideas while traveling, especially when sitting on a beach. 

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

It's not the biggest telescope in the world, but the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) in Chile has played the biggest role in my research. I spent 38 nights there gathering data for the MUSYC survey. Summer nights are warm, and we take long exposures, so I relish the chance to walk outside and let my eyes adjust to the darkness and see thousands of individual stars plus the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds and the dusty center of our Milky Way galaxy. Combine that with the great data yielded by the wide-field MOSAIC-2 camera on its 4-meter telescope, and CTIO's as good as it gets! 

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

On a beach!  (In order to spur new research ideas, of course.) 
If you could have any astronomy related wish, what would it be? 

I think that astronomy deserves 10 times the level of public investment that it receives, and I would wish for it to receive that. Here is the argument: nothing that I know of brings humanity together across borders, cultures and languages more effectively than realizing that we all share one fragile planet orbiting 1 out of 100 billion stars in 1 out of 100 billion galaxies in the known universe. The gain to human civilization of fully recognizing this commonality would be immense - a reduction in war, increased trade, a greater focus on developing and sharing technology to solve common problems. These benefits would vastly outweigh the relatively modest costs of supporting new astronomical discoveries and increased efforts to share our findings with the public.  

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

We don't know yet if our universe is infinite in size or not. I think this is the greatest embarrassment of modern cosmology, but it's not obvious how to tell the difference. We know that our universe is very big, at least as big as 14 billion light years in every direction, and there hasn't been enough time since the Big Bang for us to see further to look for signs that we've seen everything there is to see! 

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

I've always found it critical to balance the intense time demands of an astrophysics career with the stress release of exercise. I play soccer whenever I get the chance. I used to be a competitive (though far from professional) triathlete in graduate school and recently came "out of retirement" to start doing triathlons again. In some ways, I am only truly relaxed when my brain has too little oxygen to think about research, and exercise does the trick! 

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