Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Astronomer of the Month: Karina Caputi

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 Karina Caputi.

Tell us a little about yourself!

My name is Karina Caputi and I'm an Assistant Professor of Astronomy at the Kapteyn Astronomical Institute, University of Groningen, in the Netherlands, since 2012. I'm originally from Argentina, and Iived there until I permanently moved to Europe in 2001. 
I studied Physics at the Instituto Balseiro,  in 
the beautiful town of Bariloche, in the Argentinian Patagonia, and then I did a PhD in Astronomy at the University of Edinburgh in the UK. After my PhD, I worked in different parts of Europe: the Institut d'Astrophysique Spatiale, in Orsay, France, the ETH Zurich in Switzerland, and I have been back in Edinburgh for some time. Finally, I have settled in the Netherlands with a faculty position.

In my spare time I like traveling (more than what I usually do for work!), reading fiction, listening to music, cooking, and shopping -- I love buying clothes and perfumes! I'm not a very sporty person, but I do enjoy jogging outdoors when the weather is not too bad.

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

I'm an extragalactic Astronomer, mainly focused on infrared galaxy surveys. I study galaxies at high redshift, which are so distant that the light we receive from them today was emitted when the Universe was less than half of its present age. Working in the infrared allows me to select galaxies whose star formation and/or black-hole activity was hidden by dust, an effect that was very common when the Universe was that young. The UV photons produced by this activity heat the galaxy dust, making it emit at infrared wavelengths. And, apart from the dust emission, the light produced by the oldest stars in high redshift galaxies also arrives to us redshifted into the infrared regime, so studying infrared astronomical images is a very powerful tool to search for all kinds of galaxies in the distant Universe!

My role within CANDELS is mainly searching for galaxies that are counterparts to those appearing in the infrared images provided by the Spitzer Space Telescope. In a previous post, in particular I referred to a special kind of galaxy that is very bright in the Spitzer images but much fainter in the CANDELS HST images. These objects are extreme cases of distant, dust-obscured galaxies, and suggest that future infrared images -- to be taken, for example, with the James Webb Space Telescope -- will reveal many new galaxies that we cannot see with the HST.

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

As a child, I was always very curious about how different things work. By the time I started secondary school, at age 13, I already knew that I wanted to be a physicist. In parallel, I developed my love for Astronomy, which is where different areas of Physics can be seen 'in action'. The book and TV series COSMOS by Carl Sagan had a tremendous influence on me as a child -- being an Astronomer just appeared as something fascinating. I definitely recognize myself as a product of the 'COSMOS generation'. In the end, I decided that getting a solid Physics basis was the best thing to do first, so I did a Bachelor's and Master's degree in Physics (with no Astronomy at all) and only turned into professional Astronomy for my PhD. It took a bit of extra effort to gain the Astronomy specific background at the PhD stage, but I'm very happy to have followed that path.

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

Coming from a developing country, making a career in top European Universities required hard work. But fortunately my education was quite strong, as Argentinian universities, and particularly the Instituto Balseiro, offer high-quality education, as virtually all scientists there have spent at least a few years working in Europe or the US.

I recognise that it also takes a bit more effort to make a name for yourself in science when you are a woman, as there is still some unconscious reluctance to believe that women, especially when they are young, can be as hard-working and ambitious as men. But that improves with time, so it's just a matter of being perseverant and self-confident.

Who has been your biggest scientific role model and why? 

I admire many scientists, but I wouldn't call them a 'role model', as I don't think that I've been looking for an example to imitate. As I said before, Carl Sagan has been very influential to me as a child, because he was a great scientific communicator, and made me realise that being an Astronomer was really cool. And of course, I owe a lot to my teachers and supervisors, as all of them have contributed to different extents to make the scientist that I am today.

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

The constant challenge: you can spend several days not understanding something, but when you do, there is a great feeling of accomplishment. And the fact that you never get bored: once you have answered a question you will have in mind several more.

What motivates you in your research? 

Never-ending curiosity.

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

The Spitzer Space Telescope has been my favorite facility so far, as it has widely opened up the possibility of studying the infrared Universe at high redshifts. And I'm definitely looking forward to the James Webb Space Telescope, because it will have the same great potential for discovery as HST and Spitzer together.

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

Discovering new galaxies and studying in detail the physics of high-redshift galaxies, all of which will hopefully be possible with future telescopes. And continuing to form new generations of astronomers - introducing them to the fascinating study of the high-redshift Universe.
If you could have any astronomy related wish, what would it be? 

I would like to have an interferometer as powerful as the full ALMA array, but in space.

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

The fact that the speed of light is finite, and thus we can reconstruct the Universe's past by looking at distant galaxies. We have a natural time machine and this to me is absolutely mind-boggling.

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

Just for them note that becoming a professional astronomer is great, but is by no means a simple path -- there are long working hours, jobs are highly competitive, and thus one cannot always choose where to work and live. Having a good degree of flexibility and family support are quite essential. Many undergraduate students of Astronomy are unaware of these facts. But for those who have enough courage and perseverance, astronomy can be a wonderful life adventure.

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