Thursday, March 20, 2014

Astronomer of the Month: Viviana Acquaviva

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 Viviana Acquaviva.

Tell us a little about yourself!

My name is Viviana Acquaviva and I work as an assistant professor of Physics at CityTech, one of 23 CUNY (City University of New York) campuses. I am originally from Italy and I completed all my studies there. I attended the University of Pisa where I got a Bachelors degree in Physics, and I moved to the International School for Advanced Studies (SISSA) in Trieste for my PhD. After that, I jumped (well, flew) across the pond and held two three-year postdoctoral positions, one shared between the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton University, and one at Rutgers University. I've been in my current position since 2012. I enjoy cycling and word games, and I'm quite the stereotypical Italian: I like to eat, drink wine, and zip around Brooklyn on my Vespa. 

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

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? 

I have a slightly unconventional background and I never really dreamed of becoming an astronomer, or thought I would become one, but I'm very glad I did (although I think I still lack many qualities a "real" astronomer should have, such as a solid knowledge of how to operate a simple telescope…). I started off thinking I'd want to go into some obscure branch of mathematical physics, became fascinated with cosmology in my senior year of college when I took a GR course, and sought an external advisor for my "Laurea" thesis (a meatier version of a senior honors thesis in the US) since there where no cosmologists where I was studying. When the time came to pick my PhD area, I was admitted to both the Astrophysics and High-Energy physics programs, and I bumped into the person who would become my advisor, Carlo Baccigalupi. I thought the research he was doing was super cool, I really enjoyed talking to him about science, and I decided I'd go for Astro. The rest, as they say, is history, although I still haven't had any formal training 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? 

My daily job involves a mix of teaching, research, and service work. I teach two or three classes per semester; fortunately they are small classes and usually it's introductory Astronomy, so I don't need a ton of preparation time by now. I have about two full days a week for research, and I try to divide them among my own (let's say, first-author) project, and projects with collaborator and students. I serve on various committees both for my department and my college, and I participate in a number of outreach activities, from Planetarium trips to public lectures. NYC is a very special place for that; the last talk I gave was within Astronomy on Tap, a series of events set up in various bars across NYC, and in May I will give a lecture on space in a black-tie event in a club who had Mark Twain among its early members. I look forward to talking about space while sipping champagne and wearing an evening gown! My favorite aspect of academic life is the freedom to choose what you want to work on and the flexibility in organizing my day. These factors are not exclusive to Astronomy, but I think they are just an incredible luxury. I like being around students -- it's tiring but very rewarding, and I hope that being in contact with young people will keep me young at heart and prevent me from getting bored, my greatest fear of all times. What are for me the best things about our field in particular? 1. I know tons of cool factoids (especially now after a few years of teaching -- Yes, I'm serious, a paper clip of neutron star matter weighs as much as Mount Everest, and that's why you need to know scientific notation!), and 2. our job title is quite awesome (Hi, I'm an astrophysicist, and a woman! Ta-da!).

What motivates you in your research? 

Probably the fact that there are constantly new challenges. It's interesting that what keeps me motivated is also what makes me very frustrated at times: working on open-ended questions requires a good dose of self-discipline and humor. I was born with at least some of the latter but I constantly have to work on the former… Also, I've always been one to enjoy the trip more than the destination, so I'd say that my motivation comes more from the fact that I love sitting at my desk and dealing with the puzzle of the day than from the desire of solving long-standing problems in Astronomy.

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

I am going to go with the Hayden Planetarium for this one. I hold a visiting scientist appointment there, and I just find it an incredibly inspiring place where to be. I went observing at Magellan once (I was the third astronomer on the trip and my job was basically to look around and not touch anything) and that place was magical and unforgettable - but then again, I have nothing else to compare it to, so perhaps it wouldn't be right to call it my favorite telescope.

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!

Thursday, March 6, 2014

CANDELS Results Highlighted in Other Blogs

The recent CANDELS paper (Morphologies of z~0.7 AGN Host Galaxies in CANDELS: No trend of merger incidence with AGN Luminosity) by Carolin Villforth (see her blog post on it here) has been discussed in a couple of other blogs. The first is a post by Tanya Urrutia and the second is a post on Astrobites. Check them out!