Profiles of Astronomers: Chris Laws

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Who are you and where are you from?
I’m Chris Laws, Senior Lecturer in Astronomy, and I’m originally from Chicopee Falls, Massachussetts.

How did you become interested in Astronomy?
I’ve been interested in astronomy, science fiction, and thinking about outer space since childhood.

If you’re an astronomer (grad/post-doc/faculty), what do you study?
I primarily study stars that vary over time in interesting ways — because they are pulsing in size, sending out massive flares, or have planets or other stars orbiting around them. I also study the physics of time itself in some detail.

What’s the coolest thing (not literal) in the Universe?
It’s all so weird, it’s hard to pick any one thing… That any of us are getting to experience it — and that there is so much to experience — is probably the coolest and most mysterious thing to me!

What’s the coolest thing outside of your field?
Good food and good wine with family and friends — no doubt about it.

What is your favorite non-astronomy hobby?
Growing exotic chili peppers and smoking meats — and eating the super spicy BBQ those hobbies make!

Is there anything else you’d like the public to know about you?
I spend most of my professional time teaching and mentoring undergraduate students at UW — and it’s the best job I can even imagine having (except for roguishly handsome and good hearted spaceship pilot, but Han Solo has that taken).

Profiles of Astronomers: Cliff Johnson

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Who are you and where are you from?

My name is Cliff Johnson and I grew up on Hannibal, Missouri — boyhood home of Mark Twain, located on the majestic Mississippi River.

How did you become interested in Astronomy?

In middle school, I once tried to pick out constellations on a particularly clear night, but couldn’t find any I recognized.  I picked up some books from the library to help answer my questions and started learning the basics of backyard astronomy.  After receiving a telescope as a gift, my interest quickly grew as I wanted to learn more about the nebulae and stars I was seeing.  When combined with my knack for math and science, my path to becoming an astronomer was set!

If you’re an astronomer (grad/post-doc/faculty), what do you study?

I study star clusters and star formation in the local universe — my PhD work is focused on our nearby galactic neighbor, the Andromeda Galaxy.  I am part of a research team that uses the Hubble Space Telescope to take detailed images (like this one) of the stars that make up Andromeda.  Using these data, we hope to learn about how the galaxy has grown and changed over time, how clouds of gas and dust transform and collapse to form stars, as well as gain a better understanding for how stars evolve throughout their lifetimes.

What’s the coolest thing (not literal) in the Universe?

That we haven’t figured everything out yet!  It’s thrilling to work in a field where new discoveries are made every day.  For example, in the last few weeks astronomers have discovered a dozen new dwarf galaxies that are orbiting in our local neighborhood (galactically speaking).  What?!?!  How cool is that, right?  Knowing that there is always the potential to make a discovery that will change how we think about the Universe.  Yeah — that gets me out of bed in the morning.

What’s the coolest thing outside of your field?

Still space science related, but I think the idea of sending a submarine to Jupiter’s moon Europa to explore its subsurface ocean would be amazing.  I mean, landing a probe on a comet and driving a rover around on Mars is cool and all, but a submarine swimming around in a ocean on alien world?  Wow, right?

What is your favorite non-astronomy hobby?

Watching soccer!  I’m a huge Seattle Sounders fan and recently acquired an addiction to watching English Premier League matches.  Beyond spectating, I still play occasionally for our UW Astronomy intramural team, the Pulsar Kicks.

Is there anything else you’d like the public to know about you?

I’m a huge fan of citizen science — especially projects run by the Zooniverse.  I was fortunate enough to work on a project called The Andromeda Project, where 30,000 people helped me build an amazing catalog of star clusters in Andromeda that I’m using as the basis for my PhD.  If you have a free moment and want to help out scientists on their research (maybe instead of playing games on your phone), log in and help out!

Profiles of Astronomers: Oliver Fraser

Who are you and where are you from?
I’m Oliver Fraser. I grew up around Seattle, and went to grad school at the UW too!
How did you become interested in Astronomy?
I wanted to know what was above the clouds. =) Seriously though, I felt from a young age (and still do) that astronomy answers some very big questions: where do we come from? how do we fit into the wider Universe?.
If you’re an astronomer (grad/post-doc/faculty), what do you study?
In grad school I studied red giant star’s last gasps. These stars were normal stars, like the Sun, but now they are at the end of their lives and running out of fuel. Now I study how to teach astronomy to a room full of interested folks from lots of different backgrounds.
What’s the coolest thing (not literal) in the Universe?
This year it’s dwarf planets: Rosetta, Dawn, and New Horizons are visiting places we’ve never been before!
What’s the coolest thing outside of your field?
A good story. Storytelling is hard, but scary-powerful, I’m trying to figure out how to use it in my teaching. The flipside is that listening to stories is relaxing. Very weird.
What is your favorite non-astronomy hobby?
Doing awesome kid stuff with my kids! Lego is just as good as an adult, and there are so many new pieces today!