Monday, August 20, 2012

Astronomer of the Month: Duilia de Mello

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 Duilia de Mello.

Tell us a little about yourself!
My name is Duilia de Mello. I am an Associate Professor at The Catholic University of America in Washington DC. I teach Physics and Astronomy at CUA and do my research at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. I am from Brazil and I have a PhD in Astronomy from the University of Sao Paulo. I was a post-doctoral fellow at the Hubble Space Telescope Science Institute.

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

My area of research is galaxy evolution. I study how galaxies interact with each other and how they evolve to become galaxies like our own Milky Way. I am one of the leaders of the ultraviolet team of CANDELS. We will be searching for galaxies having bursts of star formation and analyzing their shapes around 7 billion years ago when the Sun was not even born yet.

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

I was one of those curious kids who always wanted to know more and more. NASA's spacecrafts Pioneer 11 and Voyager 2 were sending images of the planets for the first time and the universe was a big puzzle to me. I had to become an astronomer to know more about it. At age 16 I was ready to do that but my family wasn't. Nobody knew what an astronomer did and my mom decided to take me to the university to visit the small Observatory in downtown Rio de Janeiro where I am from. When I entered the building and met some of the students I knew that I wanted to be one of them. But at that point I promised my mom that I was going to be able to make a living as an astronomer. We lived in a poor neighborhood in Rio and had very little money. But fortunately college is free in Brazil, if you are a good student. So I went to the best university and did my best.

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

The career path is really long and it is natural to get discouraged during those long years of study. And after getting a PhD one still needs to wait several years and look for post-doctoral positions anywhere in the world. It is really hard to plan ahead. So at some point one tends to forget why they actually entered the career and start questioning if it is really worth the long hours of dedication and the little money one gets. It is also very hard to get peace of mind knowing that there are so few jobs and one tends to get pessimistic after a few years trying. But I am a dreamer and I could not think of myself doing anything different. There are so many advantages in following your dreams and during those crisis in the career I looked at friends and family who were doing other things, who had standard jobs, and saw how lucky I was.

Who has been your biggest scientific role model and why? 

When I was a graduate student I met a French female astronomer in my field of research, Francoise Combes, and decided that I wanted to be like her when I grew up My male supervisor used to call her Superwoman. She was everywhere we looked at. She was invited to give talks, she was observing in many observatories, she was chairing meetings, she was publishing dozens of articles, she had a family and she was a world traveler. Her work was phenomenal and she was extremely active. I consider her a friend and a colleague now and I still admire her energy and her accomplishments.

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

To be an astronomer is to be a scientist. We live to ask questions and to search for answers. It is intriguing and rewarding. One of my favorite aspects is the freedom we have at work. We don't have to work for a certain number of hours or to be at a desk for those hours. We can be in an airplane and be working. I like that. I also like the international aspect of astronomy. I have friends everywhere in the world and I have lived on three continents.

What motivates you in your research? 

The fact that we still do not know how our own galaxy formed and evolved keeps me going. I feel I need to contribute somehow to that puzzle. 

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

I am a Hubble hugger. There is no other telescope like Hubble.

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

As a professor I hope to inspire many students to learn more about the universe. I hope to become a role model to my own graduate students and to help them succeed.

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

I wish there was more funding for astronomy. I wish foundations would start looking into funding astronomy projects. There are so many open questions that need to be answered and so little funding to make that possible.

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

I have been staring at the deep fields taken with Hubble for decades, but I still find it amazing that when we look at deep images we are seeing the past, billions and billions of years ago.

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

In 1997 I discovered a supernova in Chile when I was observing other galaxies. I was not searching for supernovae but my curiosity drove me to the discovery. It was an amazing feeling to know that I was the first one to see a star exploding and to know that I was able to make the right choice when I was observing. This discovery made the headline news in the newspapers in Brazil and until today people still remember that I did that. There is even a fan club created by young students dedicated to the Woman of the Stars (or Mulher das Estrelas in Portuguese). I have been told that there are very few scientists with fan clubs so I am proud of being one of those

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