Friday, September 7, 2012

Astronomer of the Month: Boris Häußler

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 Boris Häußler.

Tell us a little about yourself!

My name is Boris Häußler (Haeussler) and I'm a Postdoc (research assistant) at the University of Nottingham. I was born in Karlsruhe, Germany, a long time ago and lived there until I had finished school and had studied physics at the university for 2 years. I then changed over to the University of Heidelberg to be able to take on astronomy as a side topic in my studies (Karlsruhe is only really famous for solid state physics and although that's what my dad does, I don't get it). In Germany, physics studies end with a 12 months thesis, which I carried out at MPIA with Klaus Meisenheimer and Hans-Walter Rix. I got a bit lucky there because the satellite mission that I wanted to work on was cancelled on my third day, so, looking for a new project for me to work on, Hands-Walter mentioned this new HST project that he had started and so I slipped into GEMS.  Best thing that ever happened to me, I guess. After my Diploma, I continued working on GEMS during my PhD and I managed to get involved into STAGES, a sister project of GEMS, which basically gave me my first postdoc in 2007 in Nottingham with Meghan Gray, where I continued to work on STAGES for 3 years. I also met Steven Bamford who, close to the end of my project, started a project (MegaMorph) that was basically trying to enhance exactly what I had done for years, so that gave me my second postdoc. I am now starting to look for a new position and I will see where the wind blows me.

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

Generally, I work on galaxy evolution. More specifically, I have worked on blue spheroidal galaxies (which we think are an intermediate step between galaxy mergers, which turn galaxies into ellipticals, but still recent enough to contain young, blue stars) and the dependence (basically none) of galaxy boxyness/diskiness on galaxy environment. Technically, I have worked on simulating galaxy/survey images to then test galaxy profile fitting codes. I am currently developing a new technique that allows GALFIT (the actual fitting software) to use multi-band data simultaneously, thus down-weighting image noise and returning good values for many more galaxies as previously possible.
This technique enables us to do research in many areas of galaxy evolution that were previously not possible due to lack of a good code and good fitting values. I won't tell which ones, though, I want to do that work myself. As I am 100% occupied with the development of this new code, I have not actually done much work with CANDELS. I have created some images for people to test their codes on and helped to figure out some biases seen in the fitting data. Other than that, my main contribution is that I got the CANDELS and the GALAXY ZOO teams together (as I am a member of both), so we will have CANDELS galaxies classified by the public. Together with Jennifer Donley, I am also the junior scientists representative in the CANDELS team. 

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

I was always good at physics at school, it came naturally that I did something in that direction. At university I noticed that solid state physics wasn't quite my thing. I had a subscription to a physics magazine and I noticed that I only ever read the astronomy articles and then stored it away. I had also always enjoyed star gazing and astronomy pictures, so the decision to do astronomy at least as a side topic was an easy one. After my change to the University of Heidelberg, I did this and then decided to do my diploma thesis on an astronomical topic. Once I was in research, there was no way back for me because I thoroughly enjoyed it.

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

I haven't encountered many obstacles yet. My career so far has been pretty straight forward and lucky. The job market is a bit of an annoyance, especially for longer-term jobs, which I have not gotten yet, but I stay optimistic about it. If a scientific career does not work out, I am very keen on outreach jobs as well. Ideally, I'd like to do a bit of both.

Who has been your biggest scientific role model and why? 

I don't really have a role model. I have more than a few people that I do NOT want to be like, but of course I am not going to mention anyone here. If I HAD to pick one, I could mention Carl Sagan. Although, being German, I didn't known of him when I was a kid, I found him very inspiring once I discovered him. He had a very easy but still accurate way of explaining things to non-specialists and I think this is an invaluable skill. Richard Feynman was the same way.

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

Being an astronomer is the coolest job in the world! It's fun to simply 'find out stuff' and look at things that no one has seen before. My favourite aspect would possibly be that I largely have freedom in what (and when!) I am doing. Also, traveling to nice places for conferences is fantastic. 

What motivates you in your research? 

As I said, 'finding out new things' is pretty cool. I currently run an outreach project here at Nottingham where we go to schools and the pupils reactions to astronomy and the shining eyes (at least for some kids) are a real motivation.

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

Gosh! That's tough! I haven't visited many. Of the ones I have used, I would say UKIRT, mainly because of its location on Hawaii. Gemini next door is pretty cool, LBT is a great project, and VLT simply amazes me every time. I think in the future, the E-ELT will blow us away!

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

That's a difficult question. Ideally, I would stay in a scientific research career, but with time for outreach activities on the side. If I had to choose between the two, my decision usually jumps from one to the other over a timescale of a year or so. Both are fun and I want to continue doing both. Certainly, in 5 years time, I see myself in a longer-term position, but I am open to where that would be. 

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

I would wish that telescopes of all kinds are built within their forecasted timeline and budget, because it would make the whole experience a LOT cheaper and faster. More telescopes mean more data to work with. 

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

The emptiness of space. Once you have seen how empty space is even in a crowded place like the solar system, you cannot forget that. The universe is VAST and we're only a tiny living being on a tiny speck of dust.

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

Not really, I have to get back to work, I have a paper to write!