Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Astronomer of the Month: Brett Salmon

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 Brett Salmon.

Tell us a little about yourself!

Hi! My name is Brett Salmon and I’m a finishing graduate student at Texas A&M University. I was born and raised in New Jersey and I am primarily from Washington Township, just outside of Philadelphia. I received my Bachelors degree in Astronomy from Rutgers University in 2010. While at Rutgers I ran for the varsity cross country team, where my fastest 8 km race was 26 and a half minutes. I originally intended on taking a year after undergrad to build my research experience, but applied to Texas A&M on a whim. The program looked great so I decided to go, and I’ve been here for 5 years. 

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

I am a junior scientist member of the CANDELS team, and have been a part of the high redshift and phot-z working groups. I’ve also been involved in several CANDELS projects on the evolution of distant galaxies. Specifically, I study the physical properties of galaxies in the early universe, including their star-formation rates, stellar masses, star-formation histories, nebular emission, and dust. For the most distant galaxies these features cannot be observed directly, so a chunk of my work involves developing statistical techniques to infer galaxy properties from broadband photometric data, and the limitations of those techniques. 

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

Like most astronomers, I was hooked at a young age. I recall my mom getting a small (refracting!) telescope when I was about 6. The night sky flourished above our rural home, and our wonder instilled a passion for astronomy. I knew I wanted to learn about the cosmos. However, to be fair, I was 6 and also wanted to be a policeman, fireman, and astronaut. 

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

The Physics GRE knocked me down. I should have prepared differently and my resulting poor score nearly scared me away from an astro-track. Thankfully, support from professors Andrew Baker and Chuck Keeton at Rutgers reassured me that such standardized tests aren’t reflective of success in the field of astronomy. 
Who has been your biggest scientific role model and why? 

The mentors and advisors I’ve had in undergrad and grad school (Casey Papovich) have certainly been influential in shaping my career as a scientist. As far as role models, I’ve always admired those that can purvey complicated scientific phenomena in a way that is fun and understandable to the public, like Carl Sagan, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Michio Kaku

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

It is hard to distinguish between two changes in my life that happened during the early years of grad school: learning how to think like a scientist, and working like an astronomer. The former is an idea that has broad impact; ideas and concepts are validated (or refuted) through evidence, not artful rhetoric. I think this scientific mindset takes time and experience to fully appreciate. 

The second change involved learning what daily work in astronomy is really like.  I learned that each day is like a crash course in learning new programming, statistics, or data visualization techniques. Every day is different. 

My favorite aspect of astronomy is that it is, at heart, an observational science. Physics, math, and computer science are valuable subjects themselves, but in astronomy they become tools invoked to explain a particular phenomena. Although astronomers draw from multiple disciplines, they do so to figure out how and why a galaxy exploded 10 billion years ago. It feels grounded in context. 

What motivates you in your research? 

I’m motivated by that nagging feeling of wanting to see the answer to a puzzle you’ve been working on for 5 years. There are rarely finite results thanks to the incremental nature of science. As a result, that itch to figure out what’s going on in the data never really goes away. 

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

Any telescope on Mauna Kea, Hawaii. I had the pleasure to do some observing at the summit at Gemini Observatory, and the experience was surreal. The clouds illuminated beautiful sunsets and sunrises, which was bittersweet since it also meant poor weather for observations. 

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

In the immediate future I am applying for postdoc positions. I have a passion for astronomy as well as outreach and teaching, so we’ll see where that takes me. 

If you could have any astronomy related wish, what would it be? 

A realistic wish: more funding and public support. A supernatural hypothetical wish: I’d like to see a really bright supernovae go off in the Milky Way (aren’t we due for one?).

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

There are more stars in our Milky Way galaxy like the Sun, than there are people on Earth that have ever lived. 

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

If you want to get into astronomy professionally one day, take computer science and statistics courses. Most, if not all, undergrad curriculum for physics/astronomy does not include these courses, yet I use statistics and programming on a daily basis. Thanks for reading!

1 comment:

  1. What a great interview and a promising young scientist!