I have explored several areas of research -- I effectively started as a theoretical cosmologist (and even did research with pen and paper -- lots of paper) working on inflation and the early Universe. During my PhD I worked mostly on the phenomenology of extended Dark Energy and Modified Gravity models. In my first postdoc I added some statistics and data analysis to my skill set and used them to analyze Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) data, and in the last few years I became interested in the physical properties of galaxies and how to measure them in a rigorous, model-independent way. My latest projects focus on using data mining and machine learning techniques to help us navigate large data sets. In CANDELS, I am an active member of the SED fitting and photometric redshift team, and I try to help make accurate measurements of properties of galaxies such as mass, age, dust content, and star formation history.
What made you want to become an astronomer? At what age did you know you were interested in astronomy?
What obstacles have you encountered on your path to becoming an astronomer and how did you overcome them?
I can look back and identify three main roadblocks. The first came early in college -- I had been able to cruise through my high school years quite easily, and when I started college, I assumed that finding things difficult simply meant that I wasn't cut out for this field. I remember a tearful conversation with my mom in my junior year, where I was adamant (as adamant as a crying and distressed individual can be) about having chosen the wrong major and wanting to go into economics. She patiently listened and encouraged me to do whatever I felt was right. A few months later, thanks to the support of my classmates who kept telling me that in their opinion, I could understand physics pretty well and I was just having performance issues in tests, things began to get better, and I ended up graduating summa cum laude and happy as a clam. Thanks, mom. Thanks, mates.
Afterward, perhaps the most difficult waters to navigate were related to moving to the US and having to face a radically different work ethic and culture. I wasn't prepared for the competitiveness of this environment and I wasn't focused enough on my career. Up to that point, I had worked reasonable hours and had mostly had a "happy go lucky" approach, which, in all honesty, had worked pretty well. I had no clue what all these fellowships everybody was talking about were, and I had no intention or desire to work 12-hour days and every weekend, but suddenly I was surrounded by people who had been planning their next move for years and were determined to succeed, as well as very smart. Work was suddenly good -- perhaps too good, as if the number of hours spent at work, rather than the results, was something of which to be proud. My reaction (perhaps also because of lack of a stable mentor at that time) was to idle, and I got stuck in a weird mode where I wasn't really passionate about what I was doing, I wasn't productive, and these two evils kept feeding upon each other. It took some serious job (or lack thereof) scare and a great mentor to get back on track and realize that hard and systematic work was the cure.
And then of course, a few years later, there was "the faculty job" issue. I don't have much to say about how to overcome this one, because getting a job requires luck. I don't mean that I don't deserve the job that I got, but I am aware that it could have gone another way and whoever was next on that shortlist is probably as good as I am. I can share a few pointers for anxiety-control during this time, though. I tried to keep my options open during the process, by identifying valid alternatives and trying to build some additional skills. For example, I took a graduate course in machine learning in my last year as a postdoc, knowing that this was a field that fascinated me and maybe it would help me find a job I'd like outside academia. I also decided to only apply for positions I really wanted; geographical constraints were an issue for me, and I only selected a handful of locations where I thought I would be happy living. Where to set this boundary is a very personal decision, but I do strongly believe in only spending energy and time toward the things we want - a job we don't like isn't better than the alternative, even if the alternative is unknown. Of course, I had no significant other or children at that time, so it was easy for me to decide to play it out this way. And finally, in times of disappointment, I found it useful to take a break, travel and just get out of it all. Placing myself in an environment where nobody saw the big deal in not getting a faculty job in a particular place was a great help in regaining perspective.
Who has been your biggest scientific role model and why?
I don't know if I have one specific person in mind, I was fortunate to work with many incredible scientists and I like to think I learned something from each of them. The person who had the biggest impact on my career was probably Eric Gawiser, another CANDELS team member and a fantastic mentor for me throughout the years. He offered me a job in a field very different from the one I had been working in up to that time, and let me have time to build up my knowledge in the new field. I had months where I was allowed to just study statistics books and work on code, and I remember them very fondly. But all the advisers I had have qualities that I admire and taught me something that I hope to replicate with my own students and mentees. Sabino Matarrese, my "Laurea" thesis advisor, believed in me even if I came from another University and he had no idea of what my GPA was; Carlo Baccigalupi taught me cosmology from the very beginning an put up with my "enticing" combination of inexperience and arrogance; Licia Verde will forever be my icon of hard, passionate work and lack of fear in asking questions; David Spergel taught me to always be open to new subjects and listen to all talks and all people.
What is it like to be an astronomer? What is your favorite aspect?
What motivates you in your research?
What is your favorite astronomical facility? (This could include telescopes or super computers, for example)
Where do you see yourself in the future? What are your career aspirations?
Because of the luxury of a (hopefully) permanent position, I have been trying to shift my mental focus on longer-term objectives rather than short-term ones -- asking myself for real, what would I want to accomplish in the next few years? In terms of research, I would really like to focus on machine learning and data mining techniques and their applications in Astronomy. I also want to see some of the underprivileged undergraduate students I supervise enter a good graduate program, and I want to help my institution strengthen the programs currently in place for undergraduate research.
If you could have any astronomy related wish, what would it be?
Turn off all the lights in NYC for a day, and show all my students what the sky really looks like. They were the ones who told me that in LA, during a massive black-out in 1994, many people called 911 reporting "a weird object" in the sky: it was the Milky Way.
What is your favorite, most mind-boggling astronomy fact?
Tough one! I guess the fact that most mind-boggling facts can be explained really simply and understood by everyone. In one of the Astro labs, we count the galaxies in a picture of the HUDF and then to calculate the number of galaxies in the Universe based on how many HUDFs-sized fields there are in the sky, and the number comes up surprisingly accurate (and definitely mind-boggling). The fact that so much of the history and fate of the Universe can be described in terms of six numbers and a couple of differential equations is also pretty amazing to me.
Is there anything else you would like for the public to know about you or astronomy in general?
I talked about myself enough, and I can't say anything new about Astronomy… so I'll close with a suggestion: if you can, take a trip to a dark location, look up, and wonder. Caveat: your kids might get a lot more passionate about science after this trip!